Toulouse-Lautrec & His World
Through May 12 at the New Britain Museum of American Art, 56 Lexington St., New Britain, nbmaa.org
Toulouse-Lautrec & His World is an unexpected pleasure for New Britain — or anywhere else for that matter. Yes, the exhibition's presence is unexpected inside a museum with "American art" in its name. While the purists and America-Firsters may be alarmed by the appearance of this wonderfully, wickedly decadent Frenchman in so star-spangled a setting, the rest of us can consider ourselves lucky that these 150 works on paper, including lithographs, original sketches and 12 iconic posters, are making a stop at the New Britain Museum of American Art. The show comes courtesy of the Herakleidon Museum in Athens, Greece, the source for the popular M.C. Escher show installed in the same gallery two years ago. The Herakleidon was established by a Fairfield County couple, Paul and Belinda Firos, to house their collection. The Firoses are also patrons of the New Britain museum.
Lautrec's influence on 20th-century American advertising and commercial art seems obvious; it has even served as the underpinning (along with "foreign elements" like the Arts and Crafts Movement and the pre-Raphaelites) for practically every American rock poster ever made. Still, there will be doubters.
"Occasional exceptions are made for special shows like this," said Anna Rogulina, assistant curator at museum. "We can't allow geography to separate the influence Lautrec had on American artists. This show also allows us to make connections with our core illustration collections. People would fight over Lautrec's posters at the time. He was one of the first artists to blur the line between commercial and fine art. These ephemeral posters suddenly took on value when done by Lautrec."
In his time, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901) was the equivalent of Johnny Rotten. His posters for the seedy dance hall scene of Paris, with their garish reds and blacks and warts-and-all depictions of spectators and performers, broke all rules of bourgeois decorum. Not coincidentally, they also become a sensation. His submersion in Parisian nightlife was something more than touristic slumming. He actually seemed to celebrate decadence! By 1893, even the anarchist weekly Le Pere Peinard was accusing the artist of "willfulness, insolence and spite."
Part of this may have been due to Lautrec's aristocratic upbringing — his family's noble lineage dates back to Charlemagne's time — and perhaps to the fact that the artist never risked going hungry or having to crank out the sort of hack work many Montmartre artists had to do to survive. Nonetheless, Lautrec found his style, his subject matter and never looked back until the drinking and drugging that came with the scene contributed to his own early death. Since his work is so familiar to us today through generations of poster reprints, it might seem surprising he would be called by Maria-Christina Boerner, author of the handsome catalog that accompanies this show, "one of the most important avant-garde artists of the late 19th century."
And yet, from the evidence on view in New Britain, augmented by ephemera from the era during which Lautrec worked (including an excellent documentary film on view), the truth is that Lautrec, like Johnny Rotten, was decidedly avant-garde — ahead of his time — and neither imagined that they'd one day be considered "fashionable."
Lautrec is always much more substantive than his playful images at first suggest. He dived headlong into the maelstrom, didn't stand off to the side and gawk but really became obsessed with it. Specifically, he became obsessed with various dance hall performers like Yvette Guilbert, Jane Avril and Paula Brebion — whom he called his "furias" — and would draw them incessantly. While the Moulin Rouge was his best-known venue, Lautrec didn't play favorites, hitting all the spots with equal zeal and mining them for poster images. During the day, he turned to magazine illustrations, mostly satiric caricatures of the scene makers in the vein of the great Daumier.
The breadth of Lautrec's talent can be seen in an entirely different sort of work on view here. The images he created for the book Au Pied du Sinai ("At the Foot of Sinai"), depicting scenes in the life of the Jewish ghettos in Europe during the time of the Dreyfus Affair, are worthy of Goya.
Toulouse-Lautrec & His World is an inviting exhibition, quite literally. The opening to the gallery has been made to resemble a dance hall entranceway, replete with velvet curtain and faux 15-by-12-foot awning designed by John Urgo and professionally installed by Matthew Sciarappa, an intern from Central Connecticut State University.
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec's "Eldorado: Aristide Bruant," 1892. (Images courtesy NBMAA)
"Divan Japonais," color lithograph, 1893.