Friday, December 28, 2012

Paris through the eyes of Toulouse-Lautrec

A couple of weeks ago I wrote an article that this is Christmas, not the Apocalypse. But I have to admit that Canberra between Christmas and the end of January can be so quiet it that it does look a little post-apocalyptic and desolate.

But never fear, those who haven’t absconded to Bateman’s Bay can, in the space of a single afternoon, take a trip to Paris and the Moulin Rouge of the Belle Époque period in all its vibrant glory, courtesy of the National Gallery of Australia and its excellent Toulouse-Lautrec exhibition.

Running from 14 December to 2 April, Toulouse-Lautrec: Paris & the Moulin Rouge traces the artist’s career from his earliest works to his extraordinary depictions of the Paris social scene of the late 1800s; the famous dance halls, the café-concerts, cabarets, theatres and bordellos.

For an artist who died at 36 Henri Toulouse-Lautrec had a career that spanned almost two decades. The NGA have brought together works from the Musée D’Orsay, Paris the Musée Toulouse-Lautrec, Albi, Tate and the British Museum, London and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York that show the breadth of his prodigious talent.

I was mainly familiar with his work from the series of Moulin Rouge posters and his works backstage at theatres and in cafes, colourful and raucous, but often showing a hint of sadness.  

Seeing his earlier Impressionist work was a revelation though as it is far removed from the more abstract work he is best known for. His portraits were so realistic that he could easily have had a lucrative career as a society painter, but he refused to flatter a sitter, and many wealthy Parisian socialites were unsettled by the ugliness of character he explored in his subjects.

Toulouse-Lautrec was drawn instead to the brothels, theatres and cafes of the working classes, finding beauty in subjects others ignored or overlooked. He would live for periods of time in the brothels and bordellos, and the intimacy and compassion he felt for the women within their walls is evident. Many of these work show the women in very private settings, asleep in the early morning, washing their faces and arranging their hair, pulling on stockings, or in states of undress getting ready for their clients.

Others are full of life, dancers kicking up their heels on stage, friends gathering in bars for a drink and a joke. One of my favorites is of a woman called Lucy Jourdan, laughing, a drink on the table in front of her, lipstick smeared over her mouth. Anyone who saw me at the HerCanberra Christmas party would be struck by the similarity in our appearances towards the end of the night!

That’s one of the things I loved about this exhibition, the feeling that these are people you could get to know. Trying to imagine what is going on in their heads is part of the fun. A friend and I stood in front of a portrait of a woman serving drinks, paused at her task, the corner of one side of her mouth upturned slightly. Most of the people around us thought it was a wistful, sad picture, of a woman beaten down by life. To my friend and I though that half smile was that of a woman looking at her friend Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, thinking, “Where’s that absinthe cocktail he promised me?”

And thanks to Toulouse-Lautrec’s great skill as an artist, I felt such a connection to her that I would have been happy to share this drink with her…

1 oz water
juice of 1

2 tsp egg white

Shake thoroughly with ice and strain into a cocktail glass.

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