“What a horrible man!”
That’s how Marcelle Lender, a Paris operetta star of the 1890s, described the dwarfish, brashly effusive artist who was so enraptured with her that he created no fewer than 25 images of the actress-singer.
No matter that Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec had offered Lender a large painting of herself, or that his print of her in costume, flame-colored hair set further ablaze by two red poppies worn like plumes, had appeared in more than 1,000 copies of a magazine. For Lender, he remained the odious little fellow who had sat down, uninvited, at her restaurant table and eaten food off her plate.
Certainly he wasn’t one for positive first impressions, this Toulouse-Lautrec: His growth stunted by a genetic disease, he walked awkwardly with a cane, spoke with a lisp and punctuated his speech with sniffles that came from agonizing sinus problems.
“I will always be a thoroughbred hitched up to a rubbish cart,” he said of himself.
Nearly a century after his 1901 death, it is the thoroughbred artist who holds our rapt attention.
That mystique will probably not be greatly altered by “Toulouse-Lautrec in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.” The show, consisting of more than 100 works — mostly prints and posters — will be on view in New York City through Sept. 29.
His images of Paris’ bohemian world — of its garish cabarets, its entertainers and clowns, its insinuating streetwalkers and leering, slumming boulevardiers — are so well-known by now, thanks to myriad reproductions, that they practically rank with the “Mona Lisa” as icons of their time.
So we can consider it a plus to have this lavishly mounted — if in some ways limited — show.
His famed 1891 poster for the Moulin Rouge cabaret, the work that launched him as a printmaker, is a startling juxtaposition of shapes and colors.
In the foreground is the craggy, top-hatted silhouette of Valentin, an acrobat and sidekick of La Goulue, the cancan dancer who stands behind him, viewed rather scandalously from the rear. He’s all angles, she’s all curves. Behind her, like some cockeyed Grecian frieze, is a line of men and women shown in a black silhouette that sets off La Goulue’s pale blond figure.
Even more daring — and still fresh, after a century — is his 1893 poster of performer Jane Avril, created for her appearance at the Jardin de Paris. Here the foreground is dominated by the dark, diagonal slash of a bass-viol handle, wielded almost like a club by a musician’s hairy-knuckled hand.
Why this endless fascination with Paris’ performers and prostitutes? The key lies in Lautrec’s infirmities, according to Metropolitan Museum curator Colta Ives, who organized the show.
Born in 1864 near Toulouse to aristocratic parents who were first cousins, Henri inherited a disease that dwarfed his limbs (he grew to an ill-proportioned 4-foot-11) and caused attendant joint, headache and sinus pain. Deformed in appearance, a kind of social outcast, he gravitated to the semi-outcasts who populated the bohemian Paris district of Montmartre, or lighted the stages of theaters along the boulevards.
Here, at night, he could sit at a table or in the darkened seats, drawing the entertainers and what he called the “side dishes” — the well-to-do audiences who patronized both the low-class music halls and the tonier operettas. In Montmartre, too, he could indulge his alcoholism, the self-medication he used to dull his physical pain.
Lautrec found inspiration for the linear simplicity and flat colors of his posters and prints in the exotic art of Japanese woodblocks. (Lautrec himself collected these “ukiyo-e” prints and other Japanese objects.) The exhibition includes Japanese prints effectively placed to show their relationship to Lautrec’s work.
If Lautrec’s work sometimes verges on caricature, the print series “Elles” (“Those Women”), set in the brothels of Montmartre, shows a poignancy and delicacy no less moving for the unblushing frankness of the images.
Whether waking up amid a pile of pillows and blankets, filling a washtub, looking in a mirror or fastening a corset as a top-hatted man sits nearby, these women are entirely without pretense. One of the series, “Collapsed on a Bed,” in which a half-dressed prostitute lies staring at the ceiling, captures a feeling of gut-wrenching hopelessness.
Perhaps Lautrec understood the young prostitute because of his own underlying hopelessness. Suffering from both alcoholism and the effects of syphilis, he was confined by his family to a sanitarium for a time, but released in 1899. He apparently convinced doctors of his health and sanity by producing more than 50 color chalk drawings on circus themes. But the respite was short-lived.