The National Gallery of Art’s “Toulouse-Lautrec and Montmartre” is about much more than a single artist and his imagination and works. The exhibition — about 150 paintings, drawings, watercolors, prints and posters by one of the giants of the postimpressionist movement that dominated the Parisian art scene at the end of the 19th century — is emphatically about a man, a place and a time.
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec celebrated the spectacular entertainment industry of Montmartre, which reached the heights of its manic folly in the 1880s and 1890s. Although he painted anonymous women who had fallen into alcoholism, prostitution and poverty, Toulouse-Lautrec presented his stars at the very moment when they shone most brightly in the carnival world of the stage.
Like an early version of Andy Warhol, the artist became, in turn, a celebrity himself — only to be consumed by the same machinery of pleasure that drove the world he did so much to mythologize. In this sense, the exhibition is an extended portrait of an artist-celebrity whose life mirrored those of his characteristic subjects.
Toulouse-Lautrec lived, studied and worked on the butte of Montmartre for nearly two decades. Then still an insular village elevated above the northernmost precincts of Paris, the district of Montmartre became famous for its grand pleasure palaces such as the Moulin Rouge, the older and more modest dance halls such as the Moulin de la Galette, the artistic cabarets such as the Chat Noir, and the seedy working-class bars such as the Lapin Agile.
The first room of the show is devoted to the advertising of Montmartre. This is entirely appropriate, for the 10 rooms of the exhibition are largely about business: the entertainment business, the bar business, the sex business, the art business.
Although vibrantly colored lithographic posters advertising the dance and variety halls dominate this room with their brilliant red tones, Toulouse-Lautrec’s first major lithograph, the poster for the Moulin Rouge of 1891, shows a more nuanced vision.
La Goulue (“the greedy one,” as Louise Weber was called) appears in the poster’s midground with one leg upraised and her copper-yellow hair tied up in a chignon. She dances the “chahut” — as this racier version of the can-can was known — with her partner, the shadowy-gray Valentin Le Desosse (“the boneless,” apparently so called for his ability to assume impossibly contorted positions). He appears in the foreground cropped from the waist down while a frieze of black-silhouetted, and therefore anonymous, spectators observe from the background.
The focal center of the poster makes it clear what the Moulin Rouge is selling: the space of erotic tension between La Goulue’s legs and Valentin’s upraised right hand, where the word “ROUGE” appears capitalized in bold red. During the course of a single night, 3,000 of these posters were plastered on the gray walls of Paris, and Toulouse-Lautrec became nearly as celebrated a lithographer as the Moulin Rouge was a variety theater.
The middle rooms provide a wider look at Montmartre. We see Toulouse-Lautrec’s friends visiting his studio, the working class drinking in their meager neighborhood bars and the wealthy in their luxurious variety halls. We see images of the female stars Toulouse-Lautrec venerated with manic devotion. (He called these serial obsessions his “furias.”)
The various women would come and go. Just two, Yvette Guilbert and the only truly sophisticated star of them all, Jane Avril, continued as recurring subjects through the years.
We see the men as well, whether prowling spectators rendered as darkened silhouettes or famous performers such as the bawdy ballad singer Aristide Bruant. The latter’s image became iconic when Toulouse-Lautrec produced multiple posters of him wrapped in his signature long red scarf, wearing a large-brimmed black hat and a blackish-blue cloaklike overcoat.
The exhibition closes with two rather depressing but extremely moving rooms. The first features the ladies of the zoolike brothels Toulouse-Lautrec liked to frequent. No more animate than the furniture upon which they rest, these sad and degraded women evoke sorrow and pity as they tediously await customers or undergo the humiliation of their required examinations for sexual diseases.
The final room, showing circus animals of various sorts and performers such as ringmasters, horseback riders, acrobats and clowns, is oddly related in tone to the images of the prostitutes. In the end, the performers for and the spectators of the entertainments offered in Montmartre are revealed to be less sophisticates than seekers after pleasures no more exalted than those instinctually sought by animals.
The circus might be understood as a metaphor for the world that Toulouse-Lautrec created. In its ring, the beasts strive through their exaggerated tricks to mimic humans, while the human, linked to his beast by the leash or the crop he holds, becomes just another animal.
By 1899, Toulouse-Lautrec’s alcoholism and syphilis and the congenital physical infirmity that stunted his brittle legs left him spent in spirit. He was confined, against his will, to an asylum. There, he strove to convince his wardens that he was still sane by producing a final series of works that have the circus for their subject.
In the end, the works did help Toulouse-Lautrec persuade his guardians to set him free, but the curtains of the carnival world, in which every day is a holiday, closed forever on Toulouse-Lautrec at the age of 36 in 1901.
What makes “Toulouse-Lautrec and Montmartre” ultimately so compelling is its contemporary resonance. More than a century separates us from Toulouse-Lautrec’s era, yet we are struck by a moral proximity that holds a mirror to our own time. After all, we live in the modern phase of the very celebrity culture that was born on the slopes of Montmartre.
The media have changed, of course. Montmartre’s colossal entertainment complexes and the color lithographs that publicized them have given way to the television and motion-picture screens and the entertainment magazines that crown or dethrone the star of the moment.
Still, the message remains the same: For most, celebrity is fleeting, and the same machinery of the spectacular that awards fame to youth withdraws it as a new generation, by the very novelty of its appearance, pushes the older one aside, mindless of whether its talents were genuine or only beguiling tricks of the mirrors and lights of the stage.
Thomas Singer, a visiting researcher at Georgetown University, is writing a book on Marcel Duchamp.