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Paris's Party Animal

All the artist needed to summon Yvette Guilbert -- her poignancy, her fragility, her unforgettable stage presence -- was her trademark long black gloves.

Slender, red-haired Jane Avril appears often in his lithographs. So does Loie Fuller, who danced with swirling cloths under changing colored lights. (The Fuller room that Mark Leithauser has designed for the exhibit brilliantly evokes her. Its colors shift continually. There's a movie of her, too.)

Toulouse-Lautrec placed himself (center, second from back) at the heart of Paris nightlife in "At the Moulin Rouge," part of the National Gallery show opening today. (Art Institute Of Chicago)


"Toulouse-Lautrec and Montmartre" will remain on view in the mezzanine and upper level of the National Gallery of Art's East Building, on the Mall at Fourth Street and Constitution Avenue NW, through June 12. The exhibit will then travel to the Art Institute of Chicago. It has a corporate sponsor, Time Warner, as well as a foundation sponsor, the Catherine B. Reynolds Foundation, and is supported by a grant from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities. Prof. Richard Thomson of the University of Edinburgh served as guest curator. The gallery is open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Sunday. For information call 202-737-4215 or visit www.nga.gov. Admission is free.

Montmartre's performers welcomed Lautrec. He made them famous. Mary Weaver Chapin, writing in the catalogue, notes that he "developed what he called furias, intense obsessions, with certain performers who would enthrall him for a single season or several years." Lautrec, in his way, was a sort of proto-groupie. To truly make it on the club scene, to get close to the stars, you have to penetrate the circle and become part of the entourage. He understood that, too.

No respect or seriousness is granted to the square world, much less to officialdom in the gallery's display. The politics of France had been hopeless for a century. Bourgeois respectability, overstuffed and stifling, wasn't more attractive. No wonder that so many people of all sorts were attracted to the club scene. It was the other side of the coin.

As museum shows and motel art testify together, late 19th-century French painting is what Americans like best. Too often what we're shown is anodyne in spirit -- shimmerings of color, shiverings of space, sunlight on fresh flowers, sunlight on fresh fruit, glintings on the Seine. This show is a corrective.

The Chat Noir opened in Montmartre in 1882. Bruant's club, the Mirliton, closed in 1897. The intervening years are the period of the show. The world was getting modern. The Eiffel Tower (built in 1889) now ruled the Paris skyline. Electric lights were shining where once there had been gas lamps. Shoppers were exploring the extravagant department stores. The broad and stately avenues that Baron Haussmann had shoved through the old city made urban life in Paris increasingly anonymous.

They also made it easier for people of all classes to reach the windmills and the crooked streets and nightclubs of Montmartre.

The girls wore floor-length skirts then, and complicated hats. Men affected toppers. But there is something at the core of "Toulouse-Lautrec and Montmartre" -- an attitude, a pulsing -- that feels as new as now.

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