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A R T S    &    C U L T U R E
Eating Air, Promise-Crammed
Emmy Chang • Putting on a show at the Moulin Rouge
October 2000

 The Pleasures of Paris: Prints by Toulouse-Lautrec
 Yale Art Gallery, September 1- December 13, 1998

Toulouse-Lautrec’s subjects rarely look you in the eye.

Of the dancers, revelers, and miscellaneous lesbians in The Pleasures of Paris, the greater part could care less about you. Their work is to perform, as much in tawdry dramas of sexual trade and struggle as onstage in a can-can for Aristide Bruant. Lautrec held it his project not merely to showcase the glowing surfaces of fin-de-siecle, but to memorialize its discontented (often the same people) as well. He wanted above all to surpass the defenses people put up, which doubtless explains why his art, though succinct, is never crude.

The YUAG exhibit begins with a series of black-and-white photographs of contemporary entertainers. One, a still of Loie Fuller, clips an instant out of time in which she seems to have evaporated: The costume is there, curling in two wide splashes of brightness against the dark—but where is the dancer? This is what Lautrec is about: the ways we stick ourselves into reality. It is an effect repeated in an uncanny and at first elusive way in Lautrec’s art, until you realize the colors he chooses for his backgrounds are nearly always the same shade as his subjects’ faces. The resulting effect is a broad flatness, heightened by the artist’s distinctive use of contouring lines to define and separate forms. In Reine de Joie (1893), the arm, face, neck, and ear of the ingratiating prostitute are defined in orange, those of the patron’s hair and shirt front in green. The code is repeated in the objects on the table before them as an importuning cruet mimics her come-hither look in its sly overlap with a green-contoured plate.

Lautrec’s art is of a remarkable speed: One has the impression that everything can be seen in one instant. The 1893 Jane Avril is characteristic, complete with in-the-plane face and barely discernible features, with color and mass used to bring out effects of what were more essential to Avril’s persona on the stage—the highly stylized shapes of leg and skirt, the flash of hair and glimpse of stocking. Lautrec conveys atmosphere, but in a very different way than his hero Degas, who flourished on intimacy and mood. With Lautrec the things that are not said are invariably as important as the things that are. In the 1896 cover for L’Aube the figures are rendered deliberately vaguely and really have only the suggestions of eyes. And in Couverture de l’Estampe originale (1893), a self-referential lithograph about lithography, Avril’s face is especially unevenly suggested and seems even to prefigure cubism in the sharpness and symmetry of its features.

Lautrec seems to portray not an image but a frozen motion, a sliver of time. The tongue-in-cheek Divan Japonais (take another look at the suggestiveness of its shapes) would be disruptive of quiet even if quiet had been what he was after. Assuredly, Lautrec’s was an extroverted art.

But the real jewel of this exhibition is the series Elles, which has inspired a century of controversy and confusion and remains Lautrec’s last and best riddle. The series lacks stylistic and topical unity: Who are “Elles”? Many of them, such as the reclining woman in Lassitude, seem barely to exist, suggested only by the lightest of shadings. Then again the hands modeling the hair in the Frontispiece have a colorless, delicate, and apparently quite effortless perfection.
Elles may be kept women, prostitutes, or lesbians—all fascinating to Lautrec, who shared their marginalization in French society. The series comprises some of the most idiosyncratic work of Lautrec’s career. Femme Couchee-Reveil, for instance, manages to convey a genuine sense of just waking—the woman is dimly suggested and has the appearance of being still in the process of being pulled into existence. Yet simultaneously she interacts with us more than nearly any of Lautrec’s works: The hair and eyes are quite real, and the glance is anything but innocent.

Elles seems a darker, inner Lautrec, forming a fascinating counterpoint to his better-known lithographs selling the belle-epoque. Lautrec’s trademark works focus on public lives, or on private moments in public contexts: They are about how a room wraps around us. Elles seems more concerned with the space we take up in a room, in either completely private moments or (as in the Conquete de Passage—the One-Night Stand) public moments in private contexts.

What may finally be most striking about Lautrec is that it is never completely clear whether his art reflects a sense of real joy. There is jubilation, yes, but that is not the same thing. If he does nothing else Lautrec invites us to consider how other people look to us (and we to them), and to remember how little we finally know each other. He gives us fewer clues than works such as Manet’s Bar at the Folies-Bergere, but his people are people—in fact, more than nearly any other artist, he successfully conveys how it is strangers look to us, how they remain strangers and imperfectly real in spite of our theoretical awareness that they have personalities, and a life, of their own.

An era looked to Lautrec for visual confirmation that they were having a good time. But ambivalence about his world seems finally to return the question to his audience, leaving it to them to discern whether these Pleasures of Paris really represent enjoyment, or if they might not after all be better characterized as an emulation of happiness.

—Emmy Chang ’97 is an alumna of Silliman College
 

   
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