This post comes to us from Sarah Churchill , Curatorial Intern.
One of the perks of interning here at the New Britain Museum of American Art is access to the museum’s excellent programming, including last month’s symposium “Toulouse-Lautrec & His World Under the Microscope.” Art historian Nancy Noble presented thought-provoking insights into the inhabitants of Lautrec’s world, while Rhea Higgins focused her attentions upon the many parallels between Lautrec and his contemporary Edgar Degas. Degas, aware of the so-called “parallels” famously said of Lautrec, “He wears my clothes but cuts them down to his size.” Ouch.
I was struck also by the comparison drawn by Noble between Lautrec and Andy Warhol. Both were printmakers and savvy, self-conscious marketers who worked tirelessly to elevate the genre of commercial art. Both suffered crippling disabilities and terrible isolation. This connection is probably the most poignant, for it was the experience of isolation that formed, not only the love of art in each of them, but also the sadness and longing that underscores their work. More fascinating still is their shared interest in the popular culture of their day. It would not at all seem strange to picture the two, side-by-side, holding court at Studio 54. Both Lautrec and Warhol blurred the line between life and art to the point that it can be tough to tell which is the reflection…
Lautrec’s lithographs, highly symbolic of the Belle Époque itself, are impossible to separate from the man that was Lautrec. Imagine, if you will, bohemian Montmartre: the working class swilling spirits alongside the bourgeoisie, Loie Fuller performing Fire Dance at the Folies Bergère and 32,000 brothels crowding the streets of Paris. Legendarily famous for his carousing and outrageous persona, Lautrec was more at home here than in the aristocracy of his birth. He surrounded himself with prostitutes and can-can dancers – beautiful and unattainable tragedies.
Both Noble and Higgins shared fascinating insights into the people and relationships immortalized in Lautrec’s prints. Jane Avril, for example, was both a good friend and a muse to the artist, whom he depicted both onstage and off in her more quiet moments of solitude. Aristide Bruant, French singer, cabaret owner and insult comic, shared a kinship with Lautrec and was among the first friends he made in Montmartre.
Others who captured Lautrec’s imagination include Louise Weber, inventor of the can-can, and Loie Fuller, an American pioneer of modern dance. Weber, who kicked up her skirts (with and without her knickers) at the Moulin Rouge, was famous for quickly downing the drinks of patrons as she passed, earning her the nickname “La Goulue.” Fuller never had a personal relationship with Lautrec, surprising given the more than 60 prints he made of her. But as Noble pointed out, Fuller’s performance was slightly more “up-culture” than Lautrec’s usual fare. Perhaps Lautrec felt comfortable admiring only from the safe distance of his print shop.
It is clear from the many paintings, drawings and prints of Lautrec that he shared the lives of these performers and was permitted an uncommon intimacy. Unlike Degas, who seemed to keep his subjects at arms-length, Lautrec was there, in the trenches, getting dirty. Though he respected his friends, he did not idealize them, or in many cases, even flatter them with his rendition. The genius of Lautrec, however, is in his ability to reduce an image, and, it would seem, a persona to its essence. By distilling the visage of Aristide Bruant down to a flaming red scarf and dark cape, Lautrec was manufacturing celebrity.
In an age where Warhol’s “15 minutes of fame” have turned in a painfully long hour and even Snooki of Jersey Shore fame employs a publicist, it would be easy to overlook the brilliance of what Lautrec did for the many performers of the cabarets of Montmartre. From the gutters of Paris to the walls of NBMAA, I’d say Lautrec’s done a fine job indeed.
A present day Lautrec would find no shortage of tragic beauties to idolize and it’s been fun for me to picture whom he might be drawn to today were he patrolling The Viper Room instead of the Moulin Rouge. Sure, Paris Hilton is an obvious choice, but I think he’d more likely chase Lindsay Lohan out to her BMW. After all, she’s got that head of amazing red hair…
Which celebrities do you think would have captured Lautrec’s attention were he alive today? What parallels can be drawn between the Belle Époque of Lautrec’s world and our own celebrity obsessed society? Do you think Lautrec would approve of our modern day publicity machine approach to stardom?