Books: Where Teachers Fear to Tread ; Toulouse-Lautrec and the Fin-De-Siecle by David Sweetman Hodder Pounds 25

By Hilton, Tim | The Independent (London, England), October 31, 1999 | Go to article overview
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Books: Where Teachers Fear to Tread ; Toulouse-Lautrec and the Fin-De-Siecle by David Sweetman Hodder Pounds 25


Hilton, Tim, The Independent (London, England)


The first task of any Toulouse-Lautrec biographer is to make us feel sympathy for the artist as boy and adolescent. He grew up amid bizarre, intermarried, semi-grand relations in the south of France, constantly in pain, and knowing that his limbs would always be stunted. When the young Lautrec looked around him he saw a world of physical well-being from which he would be excluded for life. This was the agony of his boyhood and the first influence on his later art.

David Sweetman's new biography describes Lautrec's background rather well. He also writes confidently about the way that Lautrec became an artist, indeed made the condition of being crippled a force in the creation of his social vision. Many books about 19th- century painters have dull, dutiful early chapters describing their apprenticeships to academic masters. But Sweetman covers this ground with understanding and even a certain amount of panache, as of course did his subject.

Lautrec was not a success as a student of painting. As we know, he enlivened himself in places where teachers do not tread. In bars and cheap dance halls he learnt his true talents, partly by casting aside the worries that so often accompany education. He realised, for instance, that he wasn't going to make the grade as a painter in oils, so abandoned the pretence that he was going to try harder to learn oil techniques.

Giving up pretence, of all kinds, was an important part of his self-education. And this was during an era when so many people liked to cut a fashionable figure.

It stands to reason that no one with his looks could be a poseur or a dandy. But Lautrec went further, in a sort of embrace of his own unloveliness. For instance, he had himself photographed in the act of defecation (the result is one of a number of unexpected pictures in this book). What could be less aristocratic? Or, for that matter, less artistic? There's a lot of roughness and vulgarity in Lautrec, only partly concealed by his superior feeling for design.

On occasion his techniques (thinned-down paint combined with pastel or charcoal, on cardboard) look slovenly. But lazy or throwaway passages nonetheless provide a thrill. Lautrec, who must have been an avid reader of the many new magazines of the 1880s, knew the virtues of rapidly produced commercial art. It was an influence on his style. Like most good commercial artists, Lautrec had a gift for visual mimicry; and with excellent results, for his portraiture has the bite and irony of caricature, yet is never cruel.

When Lautrec tried "straight" portraiture he was uneasy, even lost.

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