Don’t get the wrong idea. I don’t frequent adult entertainment establishments. Not anymore. But whenever I drive from the airport to Balboa Park, while going up Laurel I sometimes give a friendly nod to Pure Platinum, which promises attractions and delights for concerned males, though it looks more like a pleasure fortress than palace. And nod I did, with special relevance, while on my way to the Toulouse-Lautrec exhibition at the San Diego Museum of Art. The relevance? Lautrec frequented Paris’s theaters, dives, dancehalls, and the café-concerts that featured variety acts and flouncy can-can dancing — nobody was stripping but the high kicking and bared shoulders were a rush for men and women both. He found much of his subject matter in these joints and in the bordellos he patronized and sometimes lived. His haunt for several years was Montmartre, a semi-rural spot on a butte overlooking Paris, famous for its windmills and a night scene that drew characters from every level of French society. Even if he wasn’t addicted to the more dissipated delights life offers, he was in the middle of it all, so he was making his art from the inside out. But he was as much a spectator as insider so was also making art from the outside in.
First a caveat for viewers. This is a show almost entirely of works on paper, drawn from the Baldwin M. Baldwin collection given to the museum in 1987, so don’t expect world-class Lautrec oils. But the works on paper are the essential Lautrec, not just as an artist but as a social documentarian of the Paris of his time. The new color lithographic process of running prints off a stone plate, which allowed for large print runs of a single image, enabled Lautrec to become — while producing serious and good paintings — one of the most sought-after illustrators of his time whose advertisements for performers, theaters, and café-concerts literally plastered the walls of the city. (Today, he’d be designing movie placards for buses.) He also designed book jackets, menus, and theater programs. He was a gifted artist, of course, but he also had a pitchman’s instinct for playing to a crowd. He made mass-consumption poster art for the most notorious entertainers of the day, especially café entertainers such as May Milton, the pouty angelic Jane Avril, and Yvette Guilbert. His most famous poster images are of the dashing curmudgeon Aristide Bruant, club owner, impresario, songwriter, and singer who loved nasty, rough-edged street patois. With his pale visage, defining long red scarf, and wide-brimmed black hat, Bruant cultivated a surly stage persona that his audiences ate up, even — or especially — while he was abusing and mocking them. Lautrec’s representations of such personalities were public documents, and his public art is so familiar now from reproductions on neckties, scarves, mugs, coasters, and other tchotchkes, that unless we see an exhibition of this sort, we’re liable to forget how intimate an artist he could be.
The generous samplings this exhibition offers also remind us at every turn of Lautrec’s indebtedness to Degas, whom he revered. His illustrations for Elles, a portfolio of “the girls” intended for the erotica market, register solitary feminine moments like bathing, brushing their hair, and dropping from fatigue after a long night’s work, with an up-close-and-personal immediacy; both the motifs and Lautrec’s steeply canted, hovering, over-the-shoulder views owe a lot to Degas. When we see these women, whether prostitutes or performers (in some cases both), in their public life as theatrical objects of desire, often in the presence of predatory, astonished, or puzzled males, they don’t possess the same luscious candor. And gifted as he was at depicting the down-and-dirty good life lived in full view of others (John Huston caught some of Montmartre’s rowdy, elegantly sad ambiance in his 1952 movie Moulin Rouge), where self-awareness and the constructed self are paramount, his most intimate drawings are of prostitutes asleep or waking. They show how he could achieve ripe, fleshy effects with sketchy, spectral means. He makes sleep look like bliss, or transport. Lautrec himself was uncomely. A congenital bone-softening malady caused him to break his legs as a child, and they never grew properly. He probably spent more time among women than among men and developed crushes on entertainers, so his view of the feminine — even when he’s practicing caricature: caricature can be loving distortion — is usually worshipful. Art was one way of wooing. The most erotic picture I’ve seen in a long time is his very simple sketch titled Your Mouth.
Don’t be fooled by the slight appearance of the work on view. Drawings and litho prints (even when the posters trumpet five or six colors) don’t blast from walls the way paintings do. They require attentive lingering, but the rewards are substantial because Lautrec’s line is so brash, or when the occasion required, tenderly fragile. His touch could be assertive but also so evanescent that the image seems to be returning from material expression to thought. It was the darting quickness of mere appearances that brought out the best in him. The closest to a painterly blast is the 1897 Red-Headed Nude Crouching, which, seen from across the room, looks like an explicit homage to Degas. The boldness of the posters comes largely from color fields that look rolled onto the surface. Lautrec was working at a time when the “new” effects of Japonisme were flooding artistic practice in Europe, after the Edo period ended in 1868. Van Gogh, Vuillard, Bonnard, Gauguin, and many others took over the depthless patches of color, decorative screen-like effects, “stand-up” landscapes, and fresh stillness of Ukiyo-e (or “pictures of the floating world”) woodblock prints and paintings — “floating world” because the art presented reality as sheeted illusion, something fleetingly gestured into existence.
Theatrical fame and public entertainments are nothing if not fleeting. No surprise that many of Lautrec’s lithographs look printed from woodblock or that he was so drawn to the theater, the circus, and clubs where the action was fast and the realities all seemed phantasms of the hour. See his pictures of the can-can dancer Jane Avril and her hummingbird delicacy. (The Symbolist poet Arthur Symons said she had “an air of depraved virginity.”) Or of the actress Yvette Guilbert and the mysterious Englishwoman May Milton (a protégée of Avril), who performed for only one season in Paris then left for America, never to be heard from again. Lautrec’s now-you-see-us-now-you-don’t renderings of theater performers sometimes look cadaverous because his subjects are lit from below by gas lamp footlights, and he loved that kind of ghastliness. For all the apparent gaiety and brio on display, there’s a melancholy that hangs over scathing caricatures and doting portraits alike. So much of his work on paper possesses a sense of the come-and-go-ness of things and of how we fuss over appearances during our short breath of life. ■
Toulouse-Lautrec’s Paris: Selections from the Baldwin M. Baldwin Collection
San Diego Museum of Art, 1450 El Prado, Balboa Park
Through Sunday, December 12. For additional information, call 619-232-7931.