The breadth and uncluttered display of the show are its principle strengths. On a rainy afternoon last month, the crowds were manageable (not the case at the El Greco show) and there was room to move among the works, some grandly scaled, many no larger than a sheet of notebook paper. Lautrec produced hundreds of paintings, watercolors, lithographs and posters, and thousands of often miraculous and confounding drawings. In the exhibit, however, it was a film gallery that commanded the crowd’s attention.
Excerpts were screened from two films, John Huston’s 1952 “Moulin Rouge” and Jean Renoir’s 1955 “French Cancan,” both of them part of a periodic reinvention of the myth of Paris. Like much of the western world in the 1950s, Lautrec’s Paris of the 1890s enjoyedrelative prosperity, a rising middle class, emerging new media and the rapid spread of popular arts and entertainment — all unfolding under the specter of international discord and conflict.
Exuberant cancan melodies from the film soundtracks filtered through the galleries, seeming to animate Lautrec’s imagery. For a moment, the Venn diagram of Lautrec’s oeuvre and a visitor’s tourist fantasies of Paris exactly overlapped. But this was at cross purposes with the larger intent of the exhibition, which is to extricate Lautrec from his reputation as the quintessential mythmaker of Montmartre and the racy side of Belle Époque Paris. Exhibition curators want to focus on all the rest of Lautrec, on his understanding of art history, his studies with established teachers, his engagement with new technologies including photography, and the nonjudgmental outsider’s eye he cast on the artists, entertainers and minor celebrities of the demimonde.
To comprehend this larger vision of Lautrec, one has to stop up the ears. With music in the background, his art becomes artless and beguiling, and it’s tempting to overlook his skill, especially his ability to make his strangely unnatural figures seem to be naturally in motion. Sometimes it is the contorted attitude of the body, hips thrust forward, shoulders turned sharply or a man’s paunchy belly preceding him into a room. Often motion is implied by the truncation of the image — analogous to the haphazard ways the photograph crops the world — such that legs aren’t seen, though their activity is felt. And occasionally motion is suggested through repurposing some other element of the image — a shadow, patches of color or patterns in the background — to function as a symbol of movement, creating a sense of subliminal energy or urgency that animates the figure in the foreground.
Of all the aspects of the artist covered by the exhibition, the focus on motion is most familiar from standard discourse about the artist, yet remains the most compelling. Critics have analyzed Lautrec’s dynamism for decades, teasing out how it differed from other artists, including Degas (who was committed to creating the illusion of three-dimensional bodies moving in space, while Lautrec would flatten or compress or distort as needed to suggest a more visceral sense of movement).
But Lautrec, the exhibition argues, wasn’t just interested in depicting dancers in motion, he anatomized a whole society in motion, creating new ways to circulate ideas and imagery, throwing open doors to new spaces where new types of bodies could be seen and allowed to indulge new postures, new fashions and new intimacies.
When he depicts a female clown in tight black leggings, sitting on a red banquette, it is not a figure at rest, but a figure with all the world spinning around her. Behind her, a man in a top hat seems to be groping his partner, and echoing the yellow fringe of her elaborate costume is a patch of wall or shadow that suggests a nervous energy in the uneven, rapid strokes of the artist’s shading lines. The angle of the woman’s legs, wide open, with her hands framing a dark triangle at the spot most likely to attract a man’s attention, extends movement into the viewer’s space, exerting gravitational pull on the lascivious gaze.
The camera, a machine that uses motion — the snap of a shutter — to arrest motion, is essential to capturing this larger sense of societal motion. But the camera also entices those aware of its presence to strike poses, to intensify the character they play in social life. And in his nightlife portraits, which often feel photographic, Lautrec captured a new kind of public persona, not composed and curated by aristocratic or bourgeois reticence, but straining forward and amplified to the point of self-caricature.
It was the celebrity nightlife pieces that circulated most widely, and remain the most influential on our sense of Lautrec’s life and artistry. Unlike Degas, who represented the world of dance and opera without entirely dismantling the theatrical illusion, Lautrec puts the viewer in the middle of the fray. And rather like photographs of contemporary theater seen in newspapers today, which almost always render actors as ridiculous figures, Lautrec’s celebrity imagery often touches on the grotesque.
There is an unfortunate tendency to transfer that sense of the grotesque onto the artist himself. Dispelling that, or at least diluting it a little, is another accomplishment of this exhibition. Early in the show, we see the artist’s “The Sacred Grove, Parody of a Painting by Puvis de Chavannes Exhibited at the Salon of 1884,” which is indeed a parody of a serenely classical image by an admired but backward-looking artist. Lautrec introduces a clock into the original Arcadian idyll, and a parade of Parisian men in contemporary fashion. He, too, is present, a small figure (a genetic condition prevented Lautrec’s legs from growing to full length) with his back turned, apparently urinating on the grass.
The irony is both sly and raucous, and as perfectly composed as the sincerity and sensitivity in an 1885 portrait of his fellow painter Émile Bernard. A late painting, made in 1901, when he was supposedly too diminished by alcohol to do substantial work, is one of the most intense in the exhibition. “Examination at the Faculty of Medicine” depicts the artist’s cousin during a professional examination, facing his interlocutors in a dark room. Perhaps the artist’s ill health inspired thoughts about the posthumous judgment of his own work, but the painting is no less impressive simply as a vignette, borrowed not from the freewheeling Paris of cafes and dance halls, but from the regime of professional respectability and upper-class hegemony.
Made around the same time, when he was in grave physical decline, are two scenes from an opera performance in Bordeaux. They show the title character of a now mostly forgotten opera, the Roman empress Messaline, who was supposedly ruthless and sexually insatiable. Lautrec captures her descending a staircase and sitting on her throne. Some critics detect parody in these late paintings, assuming Lautrec, the chronicler of popular entertainment, must have been contemptuous of the opera. But the exhibition’s argument — that the artist saw without judgment — must be carried over to these paintings, too.
And so they become an extension of his psychological insight into the world of so-called high culture. The artist proves himself no less adept at the characteristic motion of a very different kind of theater, the stately, self-possessed, classicizing motion of the opera house. And the diva is seen not as pretentious, pompous or ridiculous, but simply as another kind of actress, wearing a different kind of mask.
One subtitle of a gallery in the show is, “Tout l’enchant,” or “delighted by everything.” Perhaps “aware of everything” or “interested in everything” would be more accurate. But the success of this show is that it is big enough to get that sense of “everything” in Lautrec’s world, which extended far beyond the cabaret or the liquor bottle.
Toulouse-Lautrec: Resolutely Modern is on view at the Grand Palais in Paris through Jan. 27. For more information, visit grandpalais.fr.