Ode to Lautrec

Inside the museum: Evidence of an advanced advertiser’s mind.

Inside the museum: Evidence of an advanced advertiser’s mind.   | Photo Credit: Supriya Kantak

Hidden away in the tiny town of Albi in France is a treasure house of unimaginable value.

A stone fortress — once a bishop’s palace built in the 13th century and chipped at by time and wars — now has a new role. Within its stout walls, guarded by electronic and human guards, hangs a unique collection of paintings, sketches, posters and a rare watercolour; almost 1,000 in number, all the work of a single painter, a son of the region. Better known to us as Henri Toulouse Lautrec.

To visit Albi, the most scenic way is to take the TGV from Paris to Lyon, and change to the ainter region trains that take you to the pretty town of Toulouse. From here Albi is a short drive on the motorway that is surrounded by low rolling hills.

Today, Albi prides itself on its ownership of the work of an artist who, as recently as 2005, commanded a price of $22.4 million for an early painting of a laundress. But if the fathers of Albi had had their way, the museum’s amazing contents would not have been available to art lovers today. Ahead of his time as he was, Lautrec’s work outraged the city fathers. When, after his early death at the age of 36, his mother offered the numerous unsold paintings to the town authorities they agreed to take the lot on condition that they be allowed to burn it. Luckily, four years after his death, Lautrec’s art dealer friend, Maurice Joyant was able to convince those restoring the ruins of the bishop’s palace into a museum to house the paintings left with him in the town of Lautrec’s birth. And the ones in the mother’s care added the rest.

Walking through the museum is not just a tour through the evolution of the post-modernist artist’s work, as he went from sketches, landscapes and portraits in the classical mode to finding his own style and subject matter, but a telling biography of the artist himself.

And just as a biography of any great talent that thirsted for praise denied while it flowered leaves one with a lingering feeling of sadness, one cannot but sense the regret that lies like an invisible veil over the rooms of the museum.

Here, one comes face to face with the artist first as a young man who — due to a combination of circumstances that included a congenital weakness of bone brought upon by inbreeding leading to the fracture of first one thigh bone and then the other and as a consequence was misshapen and stunted — found ways of busying himself with pencil and colour. Who, fascinated and repulsed by an aristocrat father who thought nothing of going around town in a pink tutu or dressed in Turkish robes, found himself seeking out unconventional subjects. Making him among the first from genteel society to portray a sooty old kitchen maid from his own home on canvas.

Walk through the rooms and you see the painter moving from paintings to posters, as much to earn money and keep himself alive in Paris as to fuel his need for new avenues of expression. Here is evidence of an advanced advertiser’s mind. The Moulin Rouge posters are sparsely worded eloquence on the ‘Who, Why, What, Where and When’ that an event ad needs to communicate. His sharp sense of dimension and colour create a focal point as sharp as a spotlight.

And you see the cause of his gradual physical degradation, as he strikes friendship with the women of easy virtue. Though, by observing them at close quarters, he creates a splendid collection of line and colour paintings that are suffused with empathy and feeling. Alcoholism brings its own brand of recklessness. Alcohol had always been a crutch for a man whose physical frame mocked him in the mirror. Caricature came into it own in Lautrec’s work as he created ‘portraits’ of famous singers like Yvette Guilbert, culminating in the ultimate poster for her show in a painting that displays her famous long, black gloves on a red settee.

Lautrec died a young man in 1893. Wasted as he was by syphilis and liquor, his stunted frame racked by a self-mockery that was caused by the scorn it evoked, he died without realising he had created work that would blaze into the consciousness of the art world, long after his death.

The museum is one that needs many visits. The paintings need both contemplation and reflection, to fully understand both the exhibition and its creator. Suffice to say that more than any other museum, Albi’s collection offers a view of a life and work of a single artist as none other!

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Printable version | Mar 31, 2020 10:58:41 PM |

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