Yes he can-can
"Toulouse-Lautrec and Montmartre" at the Art Institute kicks derriere
We owe our ideas of bohemian Parisian nightlife of the late 19th century in large part to the art of Henri-Marie-Raymond de Toulouse-Lautrec-Monfa (1864–1901)—an aristocrat, as his full name reveals, with a partying streak.
The Art Institute of Chicago's summer to-do, "Toulouse-Lautrec and Montmartre," is an exhibition of mostly paintings, drawings, posters and ephemera of that famously racy district of cabarets and circuses as depicted by Toulouse-Lautrec and fellow artists of the period, including Pablo Picasso and Theophile-Alexandre Steinlen. Toulouse-Lautrec chronicled the scene with such gusto and talent that his output has become the commercialized goods of this mythologized culture. (How many Toulouse-Lautrec reproduction posters of the Moulin Rouge have restaurant and cafe owners slapped on their walls to Frenchify their spaces?)
For Toulouse-Lautrec, Montmartre was his world and his subject matter. He was completely immersed in the place, painting and drawing in brothels and dance halls. He was a short man with giant talent; a highly social horndog; an epicurean with a fondness for absinthe (there is even a brand named after him).
Context is everything in museum shows, and for this exquisite exhibition, spread out over 14 galleries, there are photo murals of vintage shots of the streets of Montmartre, rare film footage of dancer Loie Fuller and photographs of the performers who captivated Toulouse-Lautrec. In providing photographs of performers of the day such as La Goulue, Jane Avril and Yvette Guilbert, the museum invites us not just to compare their likeness with works by Toulouse-Lautrec and others, but also to consider the idea of fame and the entertainment industry. It might make you wonder if the pasteurization process of our celebrity culture would have encouraged the talents of Jane Avril, for example, with her uncommon looks.
In the gallery focusing on the Chat Noir (Black Cat)—the open-mike cabaret and shadow puppet theater where poets, singers, artists and others hung out, performed and created art for the walls—there are original zinc cutout puppets on display along with paintings by Adolphe Leon Willette and Steinlen made originally for the club. This whimsical environment, probably not that different in tone from the blaring large-screen, video-infested clubs of today, played host to the irreverent singer Aristide Bruant, whom Toulouse-Lautrec immortalized in several large and famous lithograph posters. (Recently, this reviewer spotted a reproduction of one such Bruant poster printed on a garbage pail. As a self-promoting, trash-talking performer, he would probably be amused.)
One of the last galleries is devoted to paintings and drawings of the circus by Toulouse-Lautrec and fellow artists. In 1899, Toulouse-Lautrec, who had by then become an alcoholic, was institutionalized against his will. He managed to persuade doctors to release him by creating, completely from memory, a series of crayon drawings of the circus. Those detailed drawings, full of life and as nearly accomplished as his more considered work, are on display here.
This exhibition of more than 250 works, which was organized in collaboration with the National Gallery of Art and originated there, is focused on just one decade in Toulouse-Lautrec's life—the 1890s. That he died at 36 makes it all the more poignant. In a sense, everything that needs to be known about the artist's life is here along with his best work, and yet one might walk away wanting to know more—to see how his skill and talent developed from early work. It's not meant as a criticism—this exhibition did its job of presenting the decade beautifully on gallery walls painted a dusty brown. (Given that Toulouse-Lautrec invented mousse as we know it, calling it "mayonnaise de chocolat," it's a perfect choice.) With "Toulouse-Lautrec and Montmartre," the Art Institute also celebrates its own history; Toulouse-Lautrec's At the Moulin Rouge and At the Cirque Fernando: The Ring Master were acquired by the museum in the 1920s and are among the gems of its core collection. Now they get another chance to carouse with old friends. And we are invited to join them.