The Toulouse-Lautrec Museum in Albi, France, honors a native son. The medieval Bishop's Palace: a singular showcase for the wry artist

THEY were bubbling with enthusiasm, the two Englishwomen in the Toulouse-Lautrec Museum. ``Isn't this absolutely wonderful,'' they said. It wouldn't have been too hard to imagine them a week or so later, like characters in an E. M. Forster novel handing round cakes to a tea party of friends at home in Guildford or Woking and recounting every last enjoyable detail of their summer holidays: this year in southwest France.

``. . . And then, after looking at the enormous brick cathedral at Albi -- it's very elaborate inside, but like a great, bare, fortress outside, built by a rather nasty bishop -- we went to the Toulouse-Lautrec Museum, housed in the Bishop's Palace -- do have a slice of lemon sponge, Mrs. Cullender -- and it was absolutely marvelous. Wonderful.''

The guidebooks don't all quite agree with them. In ``The Mitchell Beazley Traveller's Guide to Art,'' which looks at art treasures throughout France, the authors remark: ``To see virtually the complete life's output of Toulouse-Lautrec in a single place is not an unmixed blessing.'' They evidently found their minds wandering now and then. But then they obviously dislike Lautrec. They say he ``was really no more than an outstanding illustrator.''

Michelin even places the museum in its category of ``worth a detour.''

Freda White, in her classic travel book ``Three of France,'' written in 1952 and reissued last year, wrote that the ``Palais de la Berbie, the Bishop's castle, . . . is much the most interesting [museum] of the river region.''

The three rivers of her book are the Dordogne, the Lot, and the Tarn. It is on the Tarn that the attractive, long-established town of Albi stands, more than dominated by its giant, fortified ecclesiastical buildings in mellowed brick, the Cathedral of Ste. C'ecile and the nearby Berbie. Both buildings date back to the 13th century, and the Berbie claims to be one of the oldest palaces in France. The picturesque 11th-century Pont Neuf -- the Old Bridge -- just upriver is arguably the most ancient bridge in France.

One of the unexpected pleasures of visiting the Berbie has nothing at all to do with Toulouse-Lautrec.

It is a high balcony open to visitors which commands a remarkable view up and down the Tarn. In the foreground below lies an immaculate, elaborately patterned formal garden, crisply trimmed and bright in the sunshine. It was laid out by a 17th-century bishop who was also responsible for extensive alterations to the Berbie.

The defensive aspects of both cathedral and palace are as striking as the fact that they are built from top to bottom of fine brickwork. They are a combination of sheer, unscalable wall faces and tall, attached columnar towers. There seems little doubt that Bernard de Castanet, who was both secular and church governor of Albi from 1277 to 1308, needed such fortifications to protect him from the people. He was a cruel authoritarian, second in command of the Inquisition. He was determined to stamp out by foul means whatever ``heresies'' might have been lingering from the years when anti-Roman ``Catharism'' was the predominant religious belief in southern France.

Believers in these ``heretical' doctrines, since labeled ``Albigensian'' (even though Toulouse, 48 miles from Albi, was their center) were officially vanquished with the Treaty of Paris in 1229. But at the end of the century de Castanet still felt it necessary to come down on unorthodoxy with shocking brutality -- and to build himself impregnable buildings in which to live and worship.

What he would have thought of the more than 600 works by Toulouse-Lautrec now so popular with tourists in his old palace is anyone's guess. He probably would have been impressed by the artist's aristocratic birth: Lautrec was born in Albi in 1864 and his father was the eccentric Count Alphonse (a portrait of him dressed like an Arab on horseback is among the many spirited juvenilia by Lautrec in the museum), a direct descendant of the medieval counts of Toulouse.

It was Lautrec's mother, described as intelligent and pious (and two fine portraits in Albi by her son bear this out, as well as displaying his affection for her), who, in 1922, 21 years after Lautrec's premature death, gave the town most of the works in the Berbie.

The result is a very unusual opportunity to follow the lines of an artist's development from start to finish in one permanent museum, although it's an exaggeration to describe this collection as ``virtually the complete life's output'' of the artist. Most major public collections contain fine examples of Lautrec's work.

Whether or not travelers enjoy this museum must, of course, depend on taste for some, perhaps, Lautrec's art is too colored by the ``permissive society'' of Paris, and in particular of Montmartre in the 1890s.

The unfortunate women degraded by an existence in brothels -- and he painted them mostly as disenchanted, bored victims of a male-dominated society's seamy luxuriance -- may not appeal as the stuff of which great art is made. To others, however, such pictures as ``The Salon in the Rue des Moulins,'' of which both the full-scale pastel study and the final painting are in the Albi Museum, are the finest achievements of his short career as an artist. They do have the virtue of being dispassionate and even mundane. They are observant, not voyeuristic. They are shocking for the right reason: because no being should be condemned to such abuses or such a form of existence.

The assertion, by one recent critic, that Lautrec's work is ``devoid of social indignation'' is denied by the style of his works in this vein. A vigorous strand of satire, or sardonic wit, runs in them, which needs to be correctly read; it is expressed in sour colors, dry brushwork, and an often mischievous tendency to caricature. Certainly the artist was no moralizer, but his pictures often have an ironic tenor and even a harsh laughter.

What the Albi Museum does give is a much fuller image of Lautrec's art than the popularly famous (or infamous) one, and in the process it actually demythologizes him to a degree. You follow his development from rather uncontrolled, but delightfully alive, paintings of the elegant world of equestrianism his birth would have offered him had he not been dwarfed and handicapped; through disciplines self-imposed by his admiration for the work of contemporaries, particularly Degas; through a cunning facility for caricature. What struck me more than anything else was that Lautrec on the one hand could be simply sincere, and on the other have that rare ability among outstanding artists to make drawing or painting elicit outright laughter. There is sheer hilarity, for instance, in a work like ``The Enraged Cow.'' His caricatures of himself and his friends, though they can be grotesque, are also marked by an odd kind of lively affection. Perhaps the singer with the long black gloves and the upturned nose, Yvette Guilbert, of whom Lautrec left definitive images, came eventually to appreciate this -- though at first she thought he just made her ``dreadfully ugly.''

The artist's liking for Japanese art continually surfaces, most memorably and amusingly perhaps in ``The Ballet `Papa Chrystanthem.' '' This is an oil sketch of a spectacular Japanese ballet staged in a circus. A dancer poises mothlike on one leg on an unlikely lotus leaf floating on an artificial lake.

Tourists are no doubt attracted to the Albi Museum at least in part by Lautrec's legend. But like all legends it is a half-truth. The collection itself is evidence of the fact that, as Edward Lucie-Smith has written, Lautrec ``never severed his links either with his family or with the world of well-bred, cultivated people.'' If he chose also the company of outcasts -- and chose to paint them unforgettably -- he did so with, and because of, an easily explained fellow-feeling for them. In this he was also breathing out the artistic atmosphere of the period. But it is interesting to note that his friend Van Gogh characterized his work as ``rice powder and elegance.'' He was essentially sophisticated, and always an aristocrat.

The Albi Museum collection of his work above all allows one to see a more real and rounded Toulouse-Lautrec than the somewhat cardboard figure of popular biographies and even of art criticism. It is only fair that we should form a more genuine picture of the character of a man who, in many of his portraits of others seen in Albi, could display a sensitivity to character that was not at all shallow. Perhaps this was one of the things the two Englishwomen were enjoying so ebulliently.

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