IF YOU LISTEN very carefully, you might start to hear a distant something while strolling through the National Gallery of Art's "Toulouse-Lautrec and Montmartre" exhibit. I'm not talking about the tinny, transistor-radio chatter of the audio guides that seem to be pressed to every other visitor's ear. I'm talking about the clink of glassware and the peal of occasional laughter, drifting in and out of these pictures of turn-of-the-20th-century Parisian nightlife by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and his lesser-known contemporaries: Theophile-Alexandre Steinlen, Jules Cheret and others, along with such museum staples as Vincent van Gogh, Edouard Manet, Edouard Vuillard, Pablo Picasso, Edgar Degas and Pierre Bonnard.
Lean in closer and you may be able to just make out the strains of music accompanying dancers of the cancan, or its cousin, the quadrille, along with the frenzied rustle of raised petticoats.
(The Samuel Courtauld Trust, Courtauld Institute Of Art Gallery)
Close your eyes. Do you hear it?
Try opening them and I'm sure you will. "Toulouse-Lautrec and Montmartre" is nothing if not a show for the senses. The synesthesia -- the pleasure in the blend of sights, sounds and sensation -- is rampant.
What's that smell? Why, the glamorous perfume of rice powder and eau de cologne, of course, mixed in with the stale odor of cigarettes and a little spilled booze. Absinthe or brandy, perhaps (or the cocktail of the times made from a combination of the two, called the Earthquake).
That sticky-sweet taste on your lips can only be lipstick -- yours or that of the woman you just kissed. The heat on the back of your neck? It's from all the flesh pressed together: dancers and their fans; prostitutes and their customers; middle-class men in top hats leering at women spilling out of their bodices. Sex is in the air and at the end of your fingertips.
Not since "Brassai: The Eye of Paris" has the National Gallery of Art gotten so down and dirty. "Montmartre" should come with a parental advisory, but for those who are old enough to take its swirling portraits of the cafes, cabarets, dance halls and brothels of the Parisian neighborhood and its denizens -- artists, performers, pimps, women of the night and slumming tourists -- it's a heady, and head-clearing, breath of spring air. A cornerstone of "Paris on the Potomac," a citywide cross-promotion of French-flavored arts taking place around town this spring and including the Phillips Collection's only slightly less lusty "Modigliani: Beyond the Myth," it's a welcome tonic to the staid, buttoned-down flavor of so much of institutional Washington.
The scion of an aristocratic family from Albi in southern France who began hanging out in Montmartre as an art student in the early 1880s, Toulouse-Lautrec threw himself wholeheartedly into the role of chronicler of the Parisian demimonde. In fact, he became a celebrity himself a mere decade later, as his posters promoting such performers as dancer Louise Weber (known as La Goulue, or the greedy one) and singer Aristide Bruant brought him as much fame as his subjects.
In a way, it could be said that Toulouse-Lautrec was the Andy Warhol of his day, searching for what one commentator, in the documentary film that accompanies the exhibition, calls the "present moment." Substitute posters, prints and paintings, with Toulouse-Lautrec's trademark sense of immediacy, for Warhol's Polaroids.
Unlike Warhol, however, whose facade of affectless detachment from the bohemian New York of the 1960s, '70s and '80s was both shtick and security blanket, Toulouse-Lautrec was both chronicler and partaker of Montmartre's seductive charms, as his death, at age 36, from the combined effects of syphilis and alcoholism (along with chronic childhood infirmities) attests.
It's a sad one, to be sure, this story of wasted youth. But despite sharing billing with Montmartre in the title, the artist and his early demise are not the exhibition's true subject.
Neither is death, disease and debauchery in general -- though each makes more than a token appearance here. Despite all the face paint masking decay, despite the sickly green cast to much of the light, despite the depictions of the hung over and the haggard, "Toulouse-Lautrec and Montmartre" is as much a show celebrating the delights of the flesh as it is a cautionary tale about decadence.
TOULOUSE-LAUTREC AND MONTMARTRE -- Through June 12 at the National Gallery of Art, East Building, Fourth Street and Constitution Avenue NW (Metro: Archives/Navy Memorial). 202-737-4215 (TDD: 202-842-6176). www.nga.gov. Open Monday-Saturday 10 to 5, Sundays from 11 to 6. Free.
Public programs associated with the exhibition include:
May 14 and 18 at 2 -- Gallery talk: "Toulouse-Lautrec: Experience and Experimentation."
Daily between noon to 3 -- A half-hour film, "Toulouse-Lautrec and Montmartre," screens in the East Building small auditorium and on Sundays, Tuesdays and Fridays from 11:30 to 12:30 in the large auditorium. A 10-minute version is shown continuously in the exhibition space.
Saturdays and Sundays from 11 to 3 -- Through June 12, the museum's Terrace Cafe, on the Terrace Level of the East Building, will offer a special brunch buffet, featuring such Parisian specialties as pain perdu and roast pork loin with verjus sauce, wine and coffee. Live jazz is played on Sundays.