When Henri Marie Raymond de Toulouse-Lautrec-Monfa swapped his hometown-commune in south-west France for the glare and dazzle of the City of Light he broke free from the stiff constraints of his aristocratic upbringing and embraced a liberated lifestyle filled with, and indeed fuelled by, art and entertainment. Montmartre, where he lived, worked and played, catered to his every need. In its bohemian streets and cafés, its cabarets and music halls, this four-and-a-half-foot figure with his walking stick was able to blend in as an eccentric and not stand out as a social freak. Every night Lautrec frequented its pleasure palaces, drinking and sketching in the likes of the Moulin Rouge and Chat Noir, and after forging close friendships there with various stars of the stage he received commissions to design posters that advertised venues and promoted performers.
Long after their final curtain, it is not the performers who live on but the man who painted them and enhanced their careers. Lautrec died young in 1901, aged only thirty-six, but he left behind a wealth of stunning work – the most significant of which was his posters. A magnificent exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh gathers together a selection of Lautrec’s most iconic but also less well-known posters, portfolio prints and illustrations. “Pin-Ups: Toulouse-Lautrec and the Art of Celebrity” showcases the artist’s formidable talent and demonstrates that his posters are so much more than just splashy advertising pictures or commercial ephemera. Taken in isolation, each poster is a technically and artistically brilliant image; taken collectively, they provide a vital and strikingly visual record of fin-de-siècle Montmartre.
In a bizarre and somewhat disorientating move, the first work on display turns out to be not by Lautrec but by Jules Chéret, the so-called “father of the poster”. All becomes clear when we view the second picture hanging to the side of Bal du Moulin Rouge (1889), Lautrec’s Moulin Rouge – La Goulue (1891). Immediately we find ourselves invited to compare and contrast. Chéret’s poster was produced to mark the opening of the cabaret. By then the artist was at the height of his career. His poster is colourful but lacks originality: his doll-like dancers are blandly generic and safely idealised. Lautrec, on the other hand, was a relatively unknown artist, and this was his first publicity poster. His bold, unconventional and consequently more eye-catching design conveyed the Moulin Rouge as it really was – a place that hovered between the decent and the decadent. His richly contoured figures were real-life characters: we see the club’s most famous dancer, Louise Weber aka La Goulue (“the Glutton”) doing the chahut, or can-can, both her hair and her leg in the air; her dance partner is “Valentine the Boneless”, in the throes of a twisty, double-jointed manoeuvre. The audience, a row of shadowy figures, looks blankly on. This poster proved such a phenomenal success that it kick-started Lautrec’s career and turned him into one of Paris’ most sought-after designers.
La Goulue was only one of many of Lautrec’s celebrity subjects, and the exhibition goes on to present his depictions of other performers. Le Divan Japonais, produced one year after the Moulin Rouge composition, introduces us to one of Lautrec’s favourite models, the dancer Jane Avril. Here she is seated sedately off-stage, her long black dress and hat transforming her into what could have been a near-perfect silhouette were it not for her pale face and shock of orange hair. Jane Avril au Jardin de Paris (1893) shows her at work, can-canning away and partly framed by the neck of a cello from the orchestra pit. Offsetting these two posters from the early days of her career is a work from the closing stages of Lautrec’s career. Jane Avril (1899), Lautrec’s penultimate poster, which he made just before he was institutionalised following a breakdown, constitutes a dramatic vision that can be interpreted in two ways: Avril, wearing a dress with a snake motif, is performing a wild, ecstatic dance with her hands in the air; or she is shrieking in terror as the serpent coiled around her body has slithered up to her neck and is ready to strike.
There is a section on the singer Yvette Guilbert, who appeared in Lautrec’s work more than any other performer. Elsewhere we meet fellow singer and nightclub owner Aristide Bruant, who commissioned Lautrec to portray him in the role of impresario. Here and elsewhere we see Lautrec homing in on his subjects’ distinctive traits or features and amplifying them in order to capture their “essence”. Guilbert is present and correct in her trademark long black evening gloves; Bruant stares out imperiously, resplendent in his thick red scarf.
Again and again in this exhibition we are reminded that Lautrec would always depict what he saw without resorting to soft focus or a rose-tinted lens. Avril high-kicks on the stage and her face strains from her exertions. Two of the dancers that form the flamboyant cancan quadrille in Troupe de Mademoiselle Églantine (1896) look exhausted while one appears despondent. Unlike La Goulue, Guilbert was thin, almost emaciated, which Lautrec candidly brings across in the ten black-and-white lithographs which make up his “English Series” album.
There is undeniable glamour in many of Lautrec’s scenes of Parisian nightlife but also hints of a more gaudy splendour. In the case of his infamous poster Reine de Joie (1892), produced to promote an erotic novel of the same name, and depicting a courtesan lavishing affection on her fat, elderly sugar daddy at a dining table, there are no hints, tinges or traces, just an in-your-face portrait illustrating the antics of the demimonde and the perennial power of wealth.
In other sections in the exhibition there are less familiar pictures: small-scale lithographic designs for song sheets, Degas-esque paintings of women in private, and a beautiful, smile-inducing advertisement for confetti featuring a jubilantly happy young woman being showered with the stuff. We also come across a range of letters, manuscripts and other paraphernalia connected to Guilbert and Bruant, and a selection of artworks from Lautrec’s contemporaries in Paris, all of whom contributed to the development of popular advertising.
However, it is Lautrec who is the star of the show. By the end of it, we find ourselves in agreement with the exhibition’s curator Hannah Brocklehurst, who argues that Lautrec is “perhaps the greatest-ever exponent of the poster”. This collection includes works from throughout his brief yet prolific career, and they vividly chronicle how Lautrec found his niche, made his name and left his mark.