Monday, May 7, 2012

Toulouse Lautrec: Harem’s Eunuch Who Went Wild


Toulouse Lautrec was philandering, absinthe drenched midget (his legs never grew to full length). He was also the most daring artist of his times- a period known as Belle Epoque - the beautiful period. To understand him fully we need to accept that he was a marketing genius fully in tune with the canons of rebranding. He took a seedy suburb and an experimental pleasure spot with questionable repute and transformed it into a upper middle class  haunt for revelry complete with elusive combination of cultural sophistication and high sex appeal.  He lent the high kicking women dancing Cancan, brothels and general atmosphere of licentiousness of Montmartre in general and Moulin Rouge in particular with a degree of elegance. His genius lies in the fact that he kept the tart quotient intact while dangerously flirting with the menace of respectability. 
No doubt Toulouse Lautrec is the foremost chronicler of the epoch in question- 1890s and thereabout. Paris, for good or worse, was imagined as the Mecca of hedonism and intellectual vibrancy. However this was not a simple reading of the ‘movable feast’ that Paris was. Anti establishment feeling was strong but establishment was no slouch either.      High brow was revered but with a twist- a bit like offering of a bottle of scotch on the church altar. The ‘high culture’ was willing and itching to “be dragged through the gutter.” The hordes of young talented artists were leaving studio to capture life on street.  Little wonder, allure of Moulin Rouge and other guilty pleasures of Montmartre proved to be a big draw.  The scene was not straight forward and Toulouse Lautrec wielded a crooked brush.
It is fashionable to discount his unusual physical appearance. However, things like these are hard to discount. One can only wonder that an aristocrat who was not    four and half feet tall would have got the same kind of access that afforded Lautrec the ‘immediacy of perspective.’ He could adopt the role of the fly on the wall without disturbing the most intimate moments of his subjects. This backstage access owed a lot to his freakish appearance. He was the Harem’s eunuch who went wild.
A fall out of this equation was his depiction of women as independent and individual entities. This was not very common even in Paris of those days.  “He does not turn women into stereotypical sex objects, as does, say, Renoir. But neither is he clinically detached like Degas, who was a hugely important influence on Lautrec. Nor does he exoticize women à la Gauguin, or worship them as preternaturally beautiful goddesses, as the academic Bouguereau does.”  He is known for pictures of women like Jane Avril and Yvette Guilbert “who, on the stage anyway, are in charge of their own destinies. But he is good with ordinary women, too, and though they may be frumpy, gawky and otherwise less than beautiful, he always seems to like them.”
He was born in 1864 into an aristocratic family that could trace its ancestry to the Crusades.  Inbreeding which was common to such exalted lineage probably caused the congenital disease that turned him into a dwarfish, misshapen figure. The alcoholism and other illnesses that hastened his death at the age of 36 were byproducts of a career spent largely among the prostitutes, nightclub performers and hangers-on in the seamier quarters of Belle Epoque Paris.
Critic Robert Hughes has written “If the stream of life is subdivided into an infinity of fleeting moments, as it is by a culture based on photography, each looks like an actor's gesture, a pose—or a snapshot. This disarticulation was what Lautrec attempted, and one still marvels at the speed and accuracy of his notation, whether it was real (in his sketch pads) or feigned (in the finished theatrical lithographs).” Hughes here is catching the masterly quality of an artist who had imposed a studied distance between him and his subjects. He further elaborates “There was nothing expressionistic about Lautrec. He did not revel in the miseries of the soul, and even his most pathetic images come to us across a measured distance and through a focused sense of human absurdity.” The learned critic is very precise in his assessment of the master “one's admiration for Lautrec's craft, for the eggshell delicacy of spattered lithographic ink or the exact placement of a complementary color, …. it lasts just long enough to give a sense of wholly different organization—that the painting or the drawing is based on a precarious, swift sense of the real, exact but friable.”
As an artist he works due to his flourish. He is a player who is good at handling high speed and volatile concepts. He thrives on turbulence and contains it with flair without losing on panache. Safety of is not for him and he does not fail in his wild experiments. 

-Dhiraj Singh

No comments:

Post a Comment