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Monday, October 23 Living

Bruce Museum show puts Toulouse-Lautrec in the limelight

The new Toulouse-Lautrec exhibit at the Bruce Museum in Greenwich is a star-studded show that invites the audience backstage.

The potentially eye-opening effect is owed partly to a clever gallery layout and partly to the surprising source of the more than 100 pieces that give the exhibit its title: “In the Limelight: Toulouse-Lautrec Portraits from the Herakleidon Museum.”

Located in Athens, not Paris, the Herakleidon is a young museum that happens to be home to a major collection of Toulouse-Lautrec’s works on paper accumulated by its founder, Paul Firos. Soon after it opened, the Herakleidon used the Firos collection to show how cultural changes in Toulouse-Lautrec’s City of Light were mirrored in Athens.

In the Bruce galleries, the most iconic and therefore most familiar of his Parisian cabaret posters are encountered first, making the dozens of less-seen drawings and prints that come after seem more intimate and fresh. One of the most personally revealing is also one most easily missed.

It is a post-card-sized pencil sketch of his father’s head done in 1881 about the time the 17-year-old son arrived in Paris as an art student. It shows him with a spreading beard so large it could be the ruffed collar of the type once worn by noblemen or by a clown. In fact, his father was both. A count who had been a calvary officer, he dressed in costumes and lived for months at a time in a hunting lodge.

Waiting to greet visitors at the Bruce is the artist himself, instantly recognizable in the form of a blown-up photograph that shows him bearded, standing in topcoat, checked pants and bowler hat, holding a cane. His choice of outfit was not just affectation, but an attempt to create a persona to rival those of the singers, dancers and impresarios he helped make famous.

In Toulouse-Lautrec’s case, the long coat was a kind of camouflage and the cane a necessity. Along with the surprising realization the photograph is life-sized, both are reminders of physical abnormalities that marked him as an outsider and pushed him toward art. Standing, he was just under 5 feet tall, with stunted legs. Sitting, he could look like a fully grown, even powerful, man.

Here he seems positioned to introduce his biggest stars. Look! There’s yellow-haired Jane Avril, high-kicking in her black stockings. The artist probably first saw her on stage at the Moulin Rouge dance hall, where her odd combination of wild dance and emotional detachment led one critic to observe she performed with an “air of depraved virginity.”

Nearby, wearing his trademark floppy black hat and red scarf is Aristede Bruant, the singing proprietor of the notorious Le Mirliton on notorious Montmartre. Bruant advertised his club as “the rendezvous for those seeking to be abused.” Toulouse-Lautrec was such a regular Bruant would interrupt his string of vulgar songs and insults to call out, “Silence, here’s the great painter.”

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Yvette Guilbert makes an appearance, too. Not a chanteuse, but a “diseuse” who half-sang and half-spoke sexually suggestive songs, Guilbert was painted by many artists. But Toulouse-Lautrec depicted her over and over, exaggerating her unfashionably thin body and making her recognizable by just the long black gloves she wore on stage.

At the Bruce, the power of his transformation can be seen in the poster, “Divan, Japonais,” in which Guilbert remains identifiable, even though she’s shown only in the background and only from the neck down. The transformation is even more evident in 16 lithographs Toulouse-Lautrec did for a Guilbert collector’s book displayed under glass.

A glossy catalog with an excellent text by curator Mia Laufer illuminates the exhibit. But it necessarily focuses on his importance as an artist, especially in his portrayal of celebrity and the crossover of commercial art to serious art. One of the many later artists said to be indebted to him was Andy Warhol, the subject of the Bruce’s last big exhibit.

Uncannily, both were sickly children who remained very close to their mothers as adults. Both also crafted public personas and both worked obsessively. According to his biographer, Julia Frey, who Laufer often cites, Toulouse-Lautrec “sketched everywhere and if he didn’t have paper, drew on napkins, tablecloths and sometimes marble countertops.”

In other ways, Warhol and he were polar opposites. The fastidious and gay Warhol came from the immigrant American working class and lived to be almost 60. Toulouse-Lautrec was an aristocrat who frequented and even lived in brothels (the subject of some of his most famous paintings), an alcoholic who made a show of mixing drinks and almost boasted he would be dead by 40.

He didn’t make it that far. In early 1899, at age 34, he had a mental breakdown and was confined for weeks in an asylum. The breakdown may have been precipitated by alcoholism and syphilis (an infection then common and untreatable). He won his release from the asylum by painting circus scenes to prove he was sane.

Once released, he resumed drinking and in 1901 suffered a series of strokes. He was 36 when he died, supposedly in his mother’s arms in a sweltering upstairs bedroom at one of his family’s estates. His father was present, too, shooting elastics at buzzing flies, according to Frey’s biography. At the funeral, the father grew impatient and took the reins of the horse-drawn hearse, racing away from the procession of mourners.

The idea that artists are shaped by trauma, physical or familial, seems to have been doubly true for Toulouse-Lautrec. He suffered from the expectations that came from being the eldest son of the eldest son in one branch of one of France’s oldest families.

His full name was Henri Marie Raymond de Toulouse-Lautrec-Monfa. The last three were place names of lands the family controlled. Henri was taken from an ancestor who had been an heir to the French throne. His parents were first cousins. Such marriages kept property intact, but also risked defective children. From his birth in 1864, their undersized son was a constant worry and later a disappointment. His fame as a painter may have embarrassed the family more than his drinking.

Two other small pieces to look for at the Bruce exhibit are pencil sketches of horseback riders done around the time he began to draw seriously, as an adolescent confined in casts. He was relying on a cane when at 13 he fell, breaking a major bone in his left leg. A year later, he broke the other leg.

The early horseback sketches bracket “The Jockey,” a more complete lithograph done in 1899, the year of his breakdown.

In the Limelight” runs until Jan. 7.

Joel Lang is an award-winning Connecticut journalist and frequent contributor to Sunday Arts & Style.

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