If you loved Nicole Kidman as Satine in Baz Lurhmann's Moulin Rouge -- and who didn't? -- you won't want to miss Jane Avril, May Milton, Miss Loïe Fuller, Erik Satie and even Vincent van Gogh playing themselves in "Toulouse-Lautrec and Montmartre," an exhibition soon to open at the Art Institute of Chicago, July 16-October 10, 2005. At the staid National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., where this survey of turn-of-the-century Paris just closed, standing room only crowds were treated to a spectacle that was rowdy, high spirited, rambunctious and a bit bawdy. While there aren't any red lights in the galleries, patches of green surface from time to time to suggest absinthe-induced moods. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Theophile-Alexandre Steinlen and Jules Cheret, among others, depict people who knew how to party.
This exhibition reveals Toulouse-Lautrec with a twist. He's never looked fresher, more versatile, more intoxicating. He's the artist you loved as a child, found a bit cliché as you got older and will rediscover now as an equal to his contemporaries. The only difference between them is that At the Moulin Rouge, Lautrec's version of Renoir's The Luncheon of the Boating Party, takes place indoors in a smoky, boisterous cabaret.
In this round-up, the pressure has been taken off the artist. The show lets HT-L's subjects take center stage as many of them did every night at venues such as Moulin Rouge, the Ambassadeurs, and Divan Japonais. Take Jane Avril. The huge banner of her by the entrance to the Gallery's east building sets the tone for the 220-plus paintings, drawings, prints, posters, sculptures and ephemera inside. But, while this enticing image is based on a poster by Lautrec, it's definitely Jane Avril who's larger than life. This entertainer's most enduring image has certainly had a longer afterlife than, say, Farrah Fawcett's Charlie's Angels poster: the dress Avril wears was turned into a couturier frock by Elsa Schiaparelli for Zsa Zsa Gabor's role as the high-stepping entertainer in John Houston's 1952 flick, Moulin Rouge.
Then there are the three works -- oil on cardboard, oil and pastel on millboard and essence on board -- in which Lautrec masterfully conveyed the private side of Avril. One probing view features her behatted head surrounded by acidic yellow dots, short violet arcs and other marks that recall Vincent van Gogh (who also sat for a striking pastel portrait in 1887, on display as well). As Mary Weaver Chapin, who co-curated this show with Richard Thomson, puts it, "Unlike Lautrec's publicity work for the dancer the paintings present her as an anonymous woman on the streets of Paris, the person behind the celebrity."
History has short-changed HT-L. Sure, he died shortly before his 37th birthday, curtailing his career. Yes, it's easier to put on display thirty astonishing posters that don't present the sort of nightmare conservation problems that arise when an artist also works on fragile cardboard and constantly mixes media. But there just aren't enough large paintings to go around. Even "Toulouse-Lautrec and Montmartre" doles them out sparingly. That's what sets this show apart from others: by the time you come upon A la Mie (c.1891) from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts or the Art Institute of Chicago's At the Moulin Rouge (1892/95) or their Moulin de la Galette, you practically feel as if you had never really seen them before.
The exhibition is grouped into a series of sections, each performing a different function: recreating the ambiance of 1890s Montmartre; introducing a host of personalities; and providing glimpses of café-concerts, The Chat Noir, dance halls, brothels (here euphemistically tagged in French, "maisons closes") and the circus. Before you face HT-L's masterpieces, you've met the men and women in them and soaked up their milieu. This aristocrat-painter who was born in 1864 in southwest France did far more than depict louche personalities with pouty lips, crooked noses and pointed chins that verge on caricature. He transformed these female entertainers -- and the men who surrounded them -- into vibrant, indelible images. When you compare how the other fine graphic artists in this survey show limned -- to pick four -- Avril, La Goulue, May Belfort and Miss Loïe Fuller, you'll realize that Lautrec was more than just a crowd pleaser. In every instance, he is the better artist. He didn't, for example, represent Fuller doing her butterfly dance; he executed a color lithograph in which she resembles a cocoon and then he changed the colors in each print that was drawn.
In a short space of time, HT-L developed a multi-faceted style that art historians often ignore when they get caught up in his iconography. As a painter, he treated oil on cardboard as if it were pastel. With both color and line, he established mood. The "quiet" works astonish. Whether it's Woman Smoking a Cigarette or Helene Vary, you'll be amazed by Lautrec's command of his brushes as they glide and saunter and decorate his cardboard surfaces. In the full-length views of Gaston Bonnefoy, Paul Sescau, and Henri Nocq, you'll meet a side of the artist you never realized existed as he uses dark coats, pale faces and posture to convey each gentleman's personality. Of particular interest is Paul Leclercq who sits as if waiting to be photographed, but is instead skillfully put in focus in the foreground by HT-L in his 1897 oil from the Musée d'Orsay.
As the exhibition draws to a close, other facets of Lautrec's style become apparent. For Lautrec, drawing and printmaking entailed different properties, not just processes. Works on paper such as Woman in a Corset and Woman with Mirror take on new emphases when transformed into color lithographs. Institutionalized because of health problems and excessive drinking in 1899, HT-L produced a series of circus scenes from memory with pencils, chalk and crayon that are filled with energetic lines, sculptural horses and astonishing plays between light and shadow.
"Toulouse-Lautrec and Montmartre" also does a fine job calling attention to several Spanish painters who worked in Paris. Now household names in Barcelona, Ramn Casas and Santiago Rusiol once felt at home in France. In the exhibition, Lautrec's print of May Milton is displayed next to Pablo Picasso's 1901 The Blue Room, a small painting in which a nude a la Degas stands near a bed above which the very same image of Milton hangs. Here, you sense a baton -- or more appropriately, a paint brush -- being passed. Indeed, next time you see the brothel scenes Picasso painted based on Degas' monotypes, like the four included in this show, don't forget that there's an echo of Toulouse-Lautrec in them, too.
But you'll probably be seeing Toulouse-Lautrec in lots of things for quite a while.
PHYLLIS TUCHMAN publishes regularly in the Smithsonian, Town & Country and other journals.