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The fin de sià¨cle artist who captured Paris' cabarets and dance halls is drawing huge crowds to a new exhibition at Washington, D.C.'s National Gallery of Art

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By 1888, Lautrec’s works had begun to sell, and when the dazzling new Moulin Rouge dance hall opened in Montmartre the following year, one of his circus paintings graced the entrance hall. Because only the more adventurous of bourgeois Parisians would risk a night out in the sordid precincts of Montmartre, the Moulin Rouge was set on the affluent edge of the district to attract a broader public. In 1891 the owner again turned to Lautrec, commissioning him to create a poster promoting the cabaret.

The big attraction at the Moulin Rouge was a strawberryblonde dancer named Louise Weber, better known as “La Goulue” (the Glutton). Aformer laundress and part-time prostitute, she had first won note at the Moulin de la Galette dancing the chahut (slang for chaos), an erotic cancan. She claimed to have modeled for Renoir, and was otherwise noted for kicking the top hats off men’s heads as she danced. One patron described her as “a strange girl, with a vampire’s face, the profile of a bird of prey, a tortured mouth, and metallic eyes.” Lautrec had painted her before, and he made her the focus of his poster’s design. More than six feet high and half as wide, the poster (right) showed La Goulue onstage with a leg in the air; a male dancer in the foreground gawks at her revealing petticoats. Everything about it was visually radical—its scandalous image, strong flat forms borrowed from Japanese prints, black silhouettes drawn from the shadow plays in vogue at Le Chat Noir, bold lettering, and graphic inventions of Lautrec’s own devising. He used the yellow globes of electric stage lights— new in Paris—for instance, to make vivid patterns across the poster, a touch of abstract art no one had seen before.

The poster was made by color lithography—a process in which the image is drawn on a limestone plate that is then inked and printed. Lautrec had to learn the method from the printer as he worked. Because of its size, the poster had to be divided and printed from three stones, then assembled from the separate strips of paper. In late 1891, some 3,000 copies of it appeared on walls around Paris. Parisians were used to the rococo designs of posters by artist Jules Chéret, but Lautrec’s image was something altogether new. “I still remember the shock I had when I first saw the Moulin Rouge poster . . . carried along the avenue de l’Opéra on a kind of small cart,” one Parisian remembered. “And I was so enchanted that I walked alongside it on the pavement.”

Other Lautrec posters and prints followed, helping to define Paris in the 1890s, a decade known as the Belle Epoque. The swagger of the singer-songwriter Aristide Bruant, with his black cape, broad hat and red scarf; the black-stockinged dancer Jane Avril, with her swirl of orange skirt and pale face punctuated by open red lips; the trademark long black gloves and puckered mouth of cabaret performer Yvette Guilbert— Lautrec captured the essence of these stars, and his images fixed them in the firmament of the Paris night.

His posters became so popular, in fact, that some Parisians were known to follow the workmen hanging them, so they could peel them off walls before the glue dried. “Who will deliver us from the likeness of Aristide Bruant?” the newspaper La Vie parisienne lamented. “You can’t go anywhere without finding yourself face to face with him.”

By the late 1890s, Lautrec had exhibited his work on the European continent, in England and in the United States, designed theater sets, and added new techniques to the art of lithography. But the “Beautiful Epoch” was not all about the beautiful, and Lautrec was also a part of its darker side. His liaisons in the brothel world, for instance, were not all artistic. It was his boast that he preferred unadorned sex to love. “Ah, love! Love!” he proclaimed to Yvette Guilbert. “You can sing about it in any key you want . . . but hold your nose, my dear, hold your nose! Now if you sang about desire, we would understand each other . . . but love! . . . There is no such thing.” Guilbert called him “My little monster.”

An artists’ model named Suzanne Valadon, a talented painter herself and the woman Lautrec described to his mother as “nothing but a tart,” came as close as anyone to capturing his heart, according to Lautrec biographer Julia Frey. By some accounts, they were lovers for several stormy years. But if there was little romance in Lautrec’s life, there were many friends, prominent among them Jane Avril, who was nicknamed La Mélinite after a type of explosive. ABritish art student, William Rothenstein, who hung out with the crowd at the Moulin Rouge, described her as “a wild, Botticelli-like creature, perverse but intelligent, whose madness for dancing induced her to join this strange company.” Just as Avril inspired some of Lautrec’s most striking posters—the last one he produced depicts her with a snake coiled around her skirts—she is also rendered in some of his most tender portraits. Avril saw Lautrec in his best light, condoning even his relationships with prostitutes. “They were his friends as well as his models,” she later wrote. “In his presence they were just women, and he treated them as equals.”

In both his way of life and choice of friends, Lautrec profoundly offended his aristocratic family. His father partly disinherited him, and an uncle burned several of his paintings. Only his mother stayed close to him as long as she could bear to—near the end of his life, she fled Paris to be away from him—and continued to support him from a distance.

In Lautrec’s generation, French anarchism could turn violent. Abomb was tossed into the legislature in 1893, and French president Sadi Carnot was assassinated the next year. But in Montmartre, anarchy was being translated from acts of terror into radical art. Lautrec contributed illustrations to several literary journals of an anarchist bent, and was friends with members of a group called the Incoherents, whose ideas foreshadowed the art of Dada and Surrealism. Their first show, held in a private apartment, included a portrait of a postman with his worn-out shoe protruding from the canvas; later shows featured an all red canvas titled Tomato Harvest by Apoplectic Cardinals on the Shore of the Red Sea and a doctored Mona Lisa smoking a pipe—30 years before Marcel Duchamp’s famous Mona Lisa with a goatee.

While Lautrec didn’t produce political or absurdist art, his unconventional realism, embrace of commercial art, eye for celebrity and increasingly abstract graphic designs positioned him among the most modern of artists. He was making a place for himself that is much closer to Picasso than to Degas. Indeed, when Picasso arrived in Paris, in 1900, he sketched a Lautrec poster into one of his own paintings. Even now Lautrec remains modern: in his prints of celebrities he can be seen as the Andy Warhol of his era, his La Goulue and Jane Avril prefiguring Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe.


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