Bohemian burlesque comes to life in new Toulouse-Lautrec exhibit

Scientists have struggled with time travel for centuries, wondering if man could somehow voyage to days gone by in order to catch a glimpse of what life was like in the past. Little do they know, it is all possible without going through the trouble of inventing a time machine, especially here in the land of academia. Time travel is achievable by simply reading the books from the past, listening to the music of various time periods or even looking at the art throughout history.

Corny, I know. Still, opportunities abound for us to immerse ourselves in the daily lives of people in the past by engaging in the art of their era – opportunities that aren’t afforded by political documents, census surveys or even old newspapers. Yet such opportunities are offered year-round in our Purple Bubble at our two museums, countless musical concerts, theatrical performances and even in the library. And the Toulouse-Lautrec in Paris exhibit at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute wholly exemplifies this notion of going back in time through art.

The exhibit contains more than 50 of Toulouse-Lautrec’s lithographs, paintings, photographs and sketches collected by Sterling and Francine Clark, as well as numerous works of his contemporaries.
Through his art, Toulouse-Lautrec documented Paris in the late nineteenth century. Think Moulin Rouge – a world where bohemia thrived, where sexuality was showcased in theaters and cabarets and where prostitution, disease and alcoholism were rampant. Toulouse-Lautrec’s art acts as a sort of time capsule for this period, offering today’s museum-goers the opportunity to view this world through the convenience of the picture frame.

The first two rooms of the gallery emphasize Toulouse-Lautrec’s fascination with both theatrical performers and the people who attended their performances. Part of the social circle of bohemian artists, poets and performers, Toulouse-Lautrec was intrigued by his own world, depicting it in his art. Toulouse-Lautrec’s works are displayed alongside works of his contemporaries, such as Maurin, Degas and Chéret, who address a similar subject matter, effectively suggesting that Toulouse-Lautrec was not alone as a chronicler of his time, but rather that he was part of a movement to address modern life.

Many of Toulouse-Lautrec’s lithographs of performers appear cartoonish, with bold lines and simplified features. One such lithograph features Jane Avril, a popular dancer, writhing and twisting as she performs with a snake. Toulouse-Lautrec frequently depicted his subjects in the midst of performance, but occasionally painted them off the stage. A second portrait of Avril in the exhibit, created with oil paints on cardboard, is highly intimate and personal, showing a skeptical, proud and perhaps even pained facial expression. The presence of both these paintings in the exhibit shows Toulouse-Lautrec’s skill and sensitivity – my only criticism is that these key paintings were not close together in the gallery, making it difficult to compare them directly.

Toulouse-Lautrec’s capacity for highly sensitive and psychological works of art is evident in the last section of the exhibit, titled “Privileged Views.” This final room contains lithographs from the album, Elles, which depicts the lives of prostitutes inside “les maisons closes,” or brothels. One lithograph, “The Pickup,” contains a woman in a state of dressing or undressing, her back to the viewer, while a gentleman, fully dressed in a suit and top hat, sits awkwardly close to her in a chair, his eyebrows raised in a look of fear, concern or discomfort. Similarly, in “Woman with a Tray: Breakfast – Madame Baron and Mademoiselle Popo,” a young girl lies dreamily in bed while an elderly servant walks away, her brow furrowed in anguish, sadness or perhaps wisdom. These two lithographs provide sympathetic yet harsh views of the lives of prostitutes, who were, like the romanticized performers at the Moulin Rouge, a fact of Parisian life and society.

One of my favorite parts of the exhibit was a small photograph that I came very close to overlooking. The photograph, taken by Toulouse-Lautrec, is a self-portrait photomontage, containing both the artist at his easel and also on a stool as the subject. Here, Toulouse-Lautrec turned his lens on himself, exhibiting his curiosity and fascination with his own society. Tragically, Toulouse-Lautrec died a product of his own world, consumed by syphilis and alcoholism.

Toulouse-Lautrec in Paris provides a striking glimpse into the bohemian Paris that the artist loved and which ultimately pushed him to the end of his life. As the small photograph suggests, Toulouse-Lautrec’s works were not only a chronicle of the world he inhabited, but also a record of his own life.
Toulouse-Lautrec in Paris will be at the Clark Art Institute through April 26.