SINCE Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901) was a gregarious man, it is fitting that we can now see him among his closest companions at the Moulin Rouge in his group portrait of 1892-93, lent by the Art Institute of Chicago to the Courlauld's new exhibition, Toulouse-Lautrec and Jane Avril: Beyond the Moulin Rouge.
That is not all: the Courtauld Gallery has added a number of related pictures from its permanent collection; among them Lautrec's sketch of Jane Avril, the famous dancer, entering the Moulin Rouge (c.1892), which is matched with a study of her leaving the Moulin Rouge from the Wadsworth Atheneum in Connecticut. One is struck by the difference that costume and greasepaint made to her. Outside a music-hall she looked like a petite-bourgeoise dressed for church, with a taste for spectacular hats yet otherwise dowdily respectable: decent working-class, with some plebeian dignity. Inside the music-hall she presented her hopscotch semi-can-can, revealing her knees (lithograph by Lautrec of Jane Avril at the Jardin de Paris. 1893), and on one occasion in about 1892 was photographed "doing the splits'. She dances with a serpent around her, herself serpentine, in Lautrec's lithograph of 1899, but that was probably an exaggeration. She may have reminded Lautrec of the race-horses owned by his father Alphonse-Charles, Comte de Toulouse-Lautrcc-Montfa. Those too were bony, light, swiftly moving and with long faces puckered into crimson muzzles. She was one of Lautrec's most faithful copines, who outlived him by over forty years; dying in 1943, a year before her rival and friend Yvette Guilbert. Jane Avril's sometimes frenzied dancing had been attributed to St Vitus's Dance (as Sydenham's chorea, which is an after-effect of rheumatic fever, was then called) and she spent a long time in hospital because of that diagnosis; but Sydenham's chorea lasts only a few months. Her childhood had been devastatingly harsh. It is likely that her movements, if involuntary at all, were psychosomatic. If indeed her talent was promoted by a nervous disorder, one is, with pity, reminded of the song in Purcelfs Indian Queen: T am my Self my own Fever and Pain'.
Opposite Jane Avril at one of the marble tables of the Moulin Rouge sits Yvette Guilbert, her long nose uplifted as if scenting the vermilion smear of her floribunda lips. When heavily painted for her presence on the stage as disease and singer, her face, with its tilted nose and eyebrows, resembled that of Marcel Marceau. Lautrec's sketch of Yvette Guilbert's long black gloves, cast aside on some steps, are shaped like herself in their skinny sprawl (Albi, Musee Toulouse-Lautrec). Her songs are also personal adjuncts, specially written for her by such versifiers as Maurice Donnay. Such wit as they contained she made the most of. She was herself an accomplished writer, as may be seen from her memoirs, in particular La Chanson de ma vie (Paris 1927).
Yvette Guilbert may be seen in the surroundings of her choice, her sitting-room, in a photograph of about 1895 from a fashion magazine (reproduced in J. Frey, Toulouse-Lautrec: a Life, London 1994, p. 309). She has thrown herself back in fatigued abandon on the many cushions of a small Directoire-style sofa. Tall potted palms brush the stucco ceiling. To one side a Hellenistic statuette is supported on a spindle-legsed Louis XV table. Between the two windows, their curtains neatly tied back, and the two massive jardinieres a white cabinet rises, intricate but severely tidy. This is not the sitting-room of a lax person. In the taste of the time, it is elegant. When Lautrec first called on her, the door was answered by a footman, a surprising addition to a nightclub singer's menage. She lived with her mother. The 'footman' may have been a general manservant and gardener who safeguarded the house and did odd jobs there; or Yvette Guilbert may have been the genuinely talented but stage-struck mistress of a household. The affluent style of her boudoir suggests Balzacian Plassy or even the Bois de Boulogne rather than the Faubourg Montmartre. Altogether, she reminds one of the impoverished aristocrat, with a broken marriage, who is the heroine of Colette's novel Julie de Carneilhan (1941).
Yvette Guilbert's milieu may be surmised from her escort at the table in the Moulin Rouge, who is Baron Edouard Dujardin, friend of Verlaine, religious historian and Editor of the widely respected Revue Wagnerienne. The Baron vainly tried to mask his unprepossessing appearance with dandified dress and manners. In Lautrec's picture his face is overgrown with fuzzy ginger hair through which his eye-glass is scarcely discernible. Although his weaknesses included gambling and the pursuit of pretty young women (which once led him to fight a duel) they certainly excluded snobbery. Gallantly he accompanied Jane Avril to hear Yvette Guilbert sing at Le Divan Japonais. In Lautrec's poster for the performance (1892) Yvette Guilbert is almost crowded out by the orchestra, and headless because of her long neck, which stretches to the edge of the frame.
Opposite Dujardin and alongside Yvette Guilbert at the corner of the table at the Moulin Rouge is a scholarly-looking man who is examining a black-covered book, apparently passed to him by Guilbert. In view of her association with Dujardin and her literary interests, it is possible that the man is Dujardin's friend, Jean More as. a prolific Francophone Greek poet who settled in Paris in 1880 and published five volumes of French verse there. Next to him sits Paul Sescau. a photographer who played the piano and the banjo, and sometimes provided the music for the dances at the Moulin Rouge. Toulouse Lautrec himself passes at the bottom of the table with his cousin and frequent companion. Dr Gabriel Tapie de Celeyran, to whom Lautrec was scarcely shoulder-high. Louise Weber (known as La Goulue because of her greed for food, wine and applause) ignores these two frequenters of the Moulin Rouge as, her back turned to them, she arranges her hair in one of the looking-glasses so plentiful in French cafes. As she does so. she is admired by the notoriously sapphic May Bel fort, an Irish singer famous for her child-like rendering of the song, 'Daddy wouldn't buy me a bow-wow'. La Goulue's speciality was a shameless performance of a quadrille in which she was accompanied by Valentin le Desosse (nicknamed 'boneless' because of the flexibility of his careful-footed dancing); imposingly top-hatted and jutting-chinned as he put the young dancers through their "dressage', as Lautrec called it. La Goulue wretchedly ended her career selling peanuts outside the Moulin Rouge. During her decline she opened a booth at the Gingerbread Fair, near the Place de la Bastille, which she importuned Lautrec to decorate with canvases (now in the Musee d'Orsay) of her past successes in the music-halls of Paris. Good-naturedly he did so.
Probably Edgar Degas, whom Lautrec emulated, was responsible for the decapitation of Yvette Guilbert. Whereas previous artists had taken pains to fit discrete whole figures into their canvases, Degas and Lautrec were content to lop the figures. We are used to Degas's half-ballerinas at the peripheries of his pictures. The rump of a racehorse gallops out of his Gentlemen's Race (Louvre). The male drinker in Degas's Absinthe (Louvre) loses half the bowl of his pipe. In Lautrec's portrait of Louise Weber (La Goulue) she is escorted into the Moulin Rouge by one-and-a-half friends (New York Museum of Modern Art). The audiences at Lautrec's cabarets are generally seen from the waist upwards. His May Milton foregoes a third of her face to appear at the front of Am Moulin Rouge. Like Degas, he was seemingly indifferent to tidy composition, so that figures exit at one side, cut off by the edge of the picture or at the other side enter with clipped-off back or leg.
Not only does Lautrec curtail his figures in the manner of Degas, but he also adapts Degas's subjects: circuses and theatres viewed across the pit; dancing of different kinds; maisons de tolerance; shop-girl bathers; dejected drinkers; above all, redheads. Two paintings by Lautrec derive so closely from Degas that they may almost be called imitations: line Rousse a la Toilette (Musee d'Orsay) and A la Mie (Musee d'Albi). The first adds to Degas's series of grisettes bathing or drying themselves beside a tub. Lautrec's slender gingernob sprawls on the floor with outspread skirts like the tutus of the seated ballerinas in Degas's paintings set backstage at the ballet, her bony shoulders and spine so expertly drawn that they are almost worthy of Degas's hero, Ingres. She is surrounded with bamboo and wicker furniture seen not only in 1890 but sometimes still at the present time; which illustrates how modern his scenes must have seemed to his contemporaries. The second painting, A la Mie (Down to the Crumbs) is a parody of Degas's Absinthe. In Degas's picture a young woman in homely but crumpled attire droops over her glass of absinthe as she recalls sad memories. Her male companion, a healthy bock at his elbow, stares at the possibly malign future with defiant resolution. Neither of the pair in A la Mie is drinking perilous absinthe. Instead, they are sharing a litre bottle of red wine. Far from being down to the crumbs, they are content, have finished their meal and have pushed their plates away to watch the world go by. Certainly, they look cruder types than those in Degas's picture. The model for the woman was perhaps Suzanne Valadon (who posed for both Degas and Lautrec), unmarried mother of Maurice Utrillo and herself a draughtswoman of some merit. She may have been, for some time, Lautrec's mistress until he broke with her because of her brutal sarcasm and assertiveness. He painted her, confused and visionary, drinking red wine at breakfast in Le Demain (Musee d'Albi).
Lautrec venerated Degas, but Degas did not much like Lautrec. Degas and his friend Edmond de Goncourt, the supreme connoisseur of the age, had little time for him. Both Degas and Goncourt were conservative in their politics and their tastes, and deplored Lautrec's deviation from his caste in his choice of associates and subjects. Although in Goncourt's novels and Degas's prints, they both depicted the 'low life' of their time, their attitude was not fraternal, as Lautrec's was, but disdainful; yet one cannot blame them for preferring the poetic universality of Watteau, Fragonard and Ingres to the mere topicality of such 'painters of modern life' as Constantin Guys and Honore Daumier, or Toulouse-Lautrec himself. Both seem to have forgotten, for all their deference to a feudal hierarchy, that Lautrec stood far higher than they in those ranks.
Lautrec was descended from the first Count of Toulouse, recognised by Charlemagne as an independent vassal ruling over the whole of Languedoc. Roughly from the ninth century to the fourteenth, the subsequent Counts of Toulouse owned half France: Languedoc, Aquitainc, Roussillon and Provence. The Crusader Count Raymond IV, who helped to liberate Jerusalem in 1096. added to these a Libyan estate in Tripoli. Count Raymond VI took as his fourth wife Jeanne, the daughter of King Henry II of England and his troublesome wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, who had already been divorced by King Louis VII of France and would later be imprisoned and divorced by King Henry himself. Eleanor's tribunaux d'amour (courts of love), playfully established the canons of courtly love, or aristocratic adultery, listed by Andreas Capellanus in his early thirteenth-century rulebook, De Arte Honeste Amandi (The Art of Courtly Love"), and exemplified in the romances of Chretien de Troyes, her daughter Marie's court poet.
Raymond VI was excommunicated by Pope Innocent III in 1207 for, among other transgressions, being too tolerant of heretics. The whole family was excommunicated ten times during the thirteenth century. Heretics are rebels and the Counts of Toulouse were all in favour of rebellion, so long as it was not against themselves. In spite of that, they married into the French royal family in 1271, and so most of their original estates were gradually absorbed by the House of Valois. The Counts of Toulouse continued to enlarge their domain, but only by adding land from the humbler members of their family. By acquiring the territory of Montfa (a parish and chateau to the east of the town of Lautrec), the artist's grandfather was able to pass on to his unimpressed descendant, Henri-Marie Raymond, the title of Vicomte de Toulouse-Lautrec-Montfa.
Ancestry is no more than an historical curiosity, negligible in comparison with ability and achievement. After a millennium of in-breeding, maltreating their serfs and hunting down animals and their own kinsmen, the Counts of Toulouse produced, to their dismay, an artist: an artist who was, although crippled, alcoholic and perverse, a genius. As part of his sustained contradiction of his family, Lautrec sought out companions his parents could hardly approve of, such as Maurice Guibert, who posed as the male drinker in A la Mie. Maurice Guibert was a profound connoisseur of the low life that thronged around Les Halles and St Lazare Station. On the other hand, he was a loyal ally to both Lautrec and van Gogh who persuaded them to submit works to the justly successful Les XX exhibition in Brussels, where van Gogh sold a picture (77b Red Vineyard) for the first time in his life. A stern critic would say that, like E.M. Foster (wise in his critical precepts, foolish in his personal conduct), Lautrec was drawn towards the underdogs of his society because they facilitated behaviour which was not expected of such a person as himself. Such benevolence as he could muster was devoted, although in large measure (as in the arduous work he carried out freely for La Goulue in her indigence), mostly to his fellow-bohemians. He was no Kathe Kollwitz, no campaigner for human rights, no promoter of social justice. His prolific paintings, prints and posters, and his wrecked body, left him no time for any aspect of politics. Stunted by two accidents in early life, and possibly by a venereal disease which may have been hereditary or the result of his own cheerful promiscuity, no doubt his fortitude in bearing pain and disability enforced an habitual suppression of emotion (what his critic Gustave Geffroy called his 'calm bitterness') which was extended to a detached objectivity in his observation of other people.
Stage-performers were his favourite subjects, especially dancers and singers. As he wrote to his friend and champion, Arsene Alexandre, 'At the theatre, it does not matter if [the plot] is bad. The plays mean nothing to me'. When one of Dujardin's unactable Symbolist plays was howled off the stage, despite an invited audience, Lautrec stayed to the last, saying 'I did not understand a word of it but I do not care. I am not listening. I watch the actors making faces and posturing. I always love to see them hamming it up'. He took Romain Coolus. a colleague from La Revue Blanche, to see Herve's worthless operetta. Chilperic on ten successive evenings, in order to view Marcelle Lender's beautiful shoulders as she danced the bolero. In his seat in the front row, Lautrec spent his time sketching in preparation for his lithograph of Lender from the rear. Another colleague. Paul Leciercq, recorded that on his visits to the theatre Lautrec invariably carried a tiny notebook. From time to time he would hold his hand like a visor to his forehead, blink once or twice, stare at a corner of the scene, then dash off a pencilled outline in the notebook before pushing it back in his pocket. 'To see and record', as he often professed, was his unambitious aim, but with what impact! He saw through and through as the result of many assiduous viewings, followed by hurtling sketches: testimonies to instants of revelation.
This small but dynamic exhibition has been an aperitif rather than a dinner, and I have sometimes been obliged, in discussing it, to allude to pictures not on its menu. Possibly the Courtauld Gallery should consider pushing more tax inspectors out of Somerset House and staging exhibitions much larger, if less frequent, with more borrowed works. In this country only the Tate Modern' Gallery has a greater number of modern foreign masters, but these are rarely displayed in its chance vistas, which have not opened up the horizon. Many lovers of art long to see the works by Delvaux and Margitte and Chagall, Modigliani and Chirico, by Dufy and Bonnard (artists who are modern but have passed the test of time), bought from the public purse but now languishing in hidden store-rooms.
The exhibition, Toulouse-Lautrec and Jane Avril: Beyond the Moulin Rouge, is at the Courtauld Gallery at Somerset House in the Strand. London, until 18 September 2011 (Telephone 020 7848 2526). Degas and the Ballet is at the Royal Academy, Piccadilly. London, from 17 September to II December 2011.…