Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901) had an artistic love affair with the high-kicking can-can dancers, come-hither prostitutes and daring circus entertainers who peopled Montmartre, the racy turn-of-the-20th-century entertainment center and working-class Paris suburb. He recorded the variegated characters — bohemian and working-class alike — who flocked to the notorious dance halls, brothels and cafe concerts of the district in paintings, posters and prints.
The National Gallery of Art’s “Toulouse-Lautrec and Montmartre” comprises more than 240 works by Toulouse-Lautrec and some of his contemporaries — artists such as Vincent van Gogh, Edgar Degas, Jules Cheret and Pierre Bonnard, among others.
Initially, the exhibit seems to saturate visitors with a happy-looking cast of characters. But while there is a surface happiness to the life depicted here, the underlying ambience is ominous. Evil-looking men leer at victimized women. Sex is purchased with alcohol and money, and the slide downward leads to dissolution and death. (Alcohol and syphilis both contributed to Toulouse-Lautrec’s own death at age 36.) The powerful, intertwined themes of sex and death are threaded throughout the exhibit.
Toulouse-Lautrec’s passion for Montmartre set him apart from other artists — many of them friends — who also frequented the quarter. Other artists merely passed through, never forging Toulouse-Lautrec’s enduring identification with the place.
Vincent van Gogh’s “Corner of Montmartre: The Moulin a Poivre” (1887), for example, is a distanced, weakly painted, early venture into impressionism. The scintillating exuberance of Edgar Degas’ “Cafe Concert” seems superficial contrasted with Toulouse-Lautrec’s ominous “At the Moulin Rouge,” in which one of Montmartre’s best-known pimps is seen doing business.
Edouard Manet and Toulouse-Lautrec both painted the artists’ model and artist Suzanne Valadon. While the more famous Manet focused on her feminine glamour, Toulouse-Lautrec exposed the pained soul of an older, less soignee Valadon.
Philip Conisbee, senior National Gallery curator of European paintings, has divided the show into sections such as “Montmartre,” “Dance Halls,” “Cafe-Concerts,” “Maisons Closes” and “The Circus.” He convincingly reinforces Toulouse-Lautrec’s dark moods and psychological ambiences with gallery walls painted in nighttime blues, grays and greens.
Toulouse-Lautrec used startling geometries such as circles, diagonals, verticals and horizontals to create unsettling effects, as in “At the Moulin Rouge,” in which a table set at a sharp diagonal and the tilted, absinthe-green face of a performer contribute to a pervading sense of grotesque dislocation.
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was born into an aristocratic family in the city of Albi in southern France. Because of family inbreeding, Lautrec’s abnormally weak bones stunted his growth. Thanks to imaginative sympathy and abundant talent, the artist managed to transform an ugly world of pimps and prostitutes into something beautiful and to invest even scenes of abject despair and destitution with dignity.
The National Gallery is to be congratulated for pulling together unusual and rare works to evoke the colorful surface details and dark psychological undercurrents of Toulouse-Lautrec’s milieu in this extraordinary show.
WHAT: “Toulouse-Lautrec and Montmartre”
WHERE: National Gallery of Art, Fourth Street and Constitution Avenue NW
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Through June 12
PHONE: 202/ 737-4215