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Toulouse-Lautrec portrays cabaret performers

By Christopher Andreae / October 25, 1988



THE women Henri Toulouse-Lautrec liked to paint - who ranged from serious actresses via Montmartre nightclub dancers and singers to the abused, sad creatures of the Parisian brothels - were by no means always beautiful. One who was, however, was the young wife of a friend of the artist called Misia Natanson. He painted a poster of this ``radiant and sibylline'' woman.

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But she didn't like his portrait of her. And she wasn't the first of his subjects to complain that this antiromantic, caustic painter had distorted her features.

``Lautrec,'' she said, ``why do your always make women so ugly?''

``Because they are,'' was his answer.

But Lautrec's quick, witty rejoinders were clearly often a guise hiding his actual feelings. His deeper sensibility is more than apparent in the subtleties of his paintings and drawings.

For all their frequently emphasized ``objectivity,'' their ``cruel and implacable observation,'' in the words of one contemporary critic, they continually betray a fellow-feeling with his subjects, particularly his female ones, that amounts to a kind of sympathy.

Enormously self-conscious about his extraordinarily little stature and obsessed (as is shown in a host of brilliantly self-teasing caricatures of his face) with a sense of his own physical ugliness, he was sometimes accused of tarring the world around him with his own brush.

It was as if he could only feel at home with the degraded and grotesque - or at least with those who had, for reasons of hardship or showmanship, become outsiders from conventional society.

There is, however, another way of looking at it. He himself criticized those who were incapable of appreciating the ``beauty in ugliness.''

Equally, he must have felt the need, when faced with exquisite feminine charm and felicity, to balance what his eyes saw with a perception of the ugliness in beauty. His fight, either way, was against the deceptive injustice of physical appearances that misrepresent actual character and sensibility.

The Irish singer, who performed in the 1890s at the Decadents in the Rue Fontaine, May Belfort, was a case in point. Henri Perruchot, in his biography of Lautrec, describes her as ``this rather delicate looking girl'' with a ``chaste appearance'' and ``celestial air.'' Her act consisted of dressing up like a little girl in a Kate Greenaway dress, with child's bonnet on her head, and singing with a lisp as she cuddled a cat.

But Perruchot adds that she ``had strange tastes. ... She was intrigued by the repugnant and doted on toads, crabs, snakes and scorpions.'' She did not, however, dote on Lautrec (who, in his turn, was certainly attracted to her), though she did let him paint five portraits of her.

The image he left of this music hall favorite - also simplified into one of his most effective Japanese-influenced posters - has raised her into a lasting form of art that her own fragile performances could scarcely have achieved.

May Belfort was just one of the ``stars'' of the day for whom Lautrec, habitu'e of the Moulin Rouge, the Mirliton, the Petit Casino, conceived a great enthusiasm. He was smitten with their brimming vitality no less than the decadent atmosphere of their professional habitat.

Today his posters of them seem to us charming, vigorous evocations of a period that strangely mingled the ingenuous and innocent with the vulgar and seedy.

At the time, some of these advertisements must have seemed like cruel insults. They are certainly caricatures. They were not always acceptable as publicity to the stars and their friends.

One of the male cabaret stars encapsulated in Lautrec posters was Aristide Bruant. Bruant's popularity rested on the fact that he flung outrageous verbal insults and personal barbs at his audiences. He meant them; but his public took them all as a joke. Perhaps Lautrec made his name as a poster artist on a similar premise. His portrayals of ``La Goulue,'' May Belfort, and May Milton do little to prettify them.

It was Jane Avril, however, who most appreciated Lautrec's art. She said she owed her fame to his posters of her. The poet Arthur Symons called this fragile, pale dancer ``a fallen angel.''

She was, in fact, something of an exception among the Montmartre stars of the time. She was intellectual, despite her poor background and parental mistreatment as a child. Perruchot says she was ``strangely aristocratic. ... She danced with a languid, ambiguous smile on her lips, `dreaming of happy things.'''

Among Lautrec's many portraits of her is a lithograph in which she is inspecting a proof of an original print in a printer's workshop: She actually appreciated art.

In his mixing of enchantment and disenchantment, Lautrec brought to his pictures of Avril extraordinary perceptions, never more so than in his paintings of her outside the cabarets. He showed her before and after her performances, in the cold light of the street, in ordinary dress, withdrawn into her thoughts. She drifts over the Pointillist cobbles like a lanky shadow.

Or he depicts her, as here, in cape and flamboyant hat, pursed red lips, chalky complexion: a striking and theatrical personality, but private and hardly, now offstage, ``dreaming of happy things.''

Lautrec disliked painting posed models. He was a quick sketcher, and though he had enormous relish for the excitements of performance and expressed them in his art, he was equally fascinated by the ordinary reality of his stars, never entirely unselfconscious, but with the mask dropped.