Art Thoughts, Week 37 -- Toulouse-Lautrec & Place

Figure (“A Montrouge”—Rosa La Rouge), Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, French (1864—1901) 1886—1887, oil on canvas, BF263.

Every painting has its place. It’s impossible for an artwork not to be a product of its time; no matter how futuristic, unprecedented or astounding it may seem close to its inception. Revisit it in a year; a decade; even a century later, and with hindsight, definite links can be made with undercurrents – sometimes latent, yes – in the larger culture. This is why I think the common modernist distinction of avant-garde – literally, “edge of the knife”, predecessor of the anglicized version “cutting edge” – can be so misleading: it pushes an artwork out ahead powerfully, before other elements of culture, without acknowledging its being part of the era’s larger web. On the other hand, the avant-garde is a reality. Culture is like an icebreaking ship: there are some components that are as hard and uncompromising as a steel bow and others that are in more supportive roles, like a rudder or hull: what good, after all, is a knife without a handle? Regardless, however, of a painting’s level of connectedness to a particular culture, there are always associations which jump timeframes, eras and cultures.

This painting, Figure, by Toulouse-Lautrec, first struck me as being something which could have been painted by a member of Pennsylvania’s first family of art, the Wyeths. The emotionally melancholy pallet; the reliance on draftsmanship in painting method; the sudden psychological twist of the head and hidden facial features; the figure stuck in an interior from a different century: all these things seemed to cry out Brandywine Valley to me, having a familiarity with Wyeth works since childhood. (Funnily enough: another association that hadn’t occurred to me until a colleague mentioned it is that this pose is characteristic of Michael Jackson, circa 1990 – sans only the white glove.)

And even though this painting is somewhat uncharacteristic of Toulouse-Lautrec’s other paintings – and even of portraits in general up to this time – there are elements of it that relay some things we know about Toulouse-Lautrec. He was essentially a cripple from childhood, victim to aristocratic inbreeding and alcoholism; the latter to which he succumbed at the age of thirty-six. So many of his paintings exude an escapist wish; they depict the dancing, faux glamour and alcohol-fueled vivacity of the Parisian nightclub scene. “Rosa La Rouge” was one of his favorite models, and seems to have been the object of his desires, unrequited as they may have been. Here in this painting is the true emotion behind the nightclub glitz: a melancholic depiction of a woman laborer in her workaday world, depicted by a depressed man desperately grappling for a place in his world, through the medium of incessant artistic production. Thus an irony of this painting: in the very place where the glossy finish is chafed off of the artist’s life, the object of his affection’s face is obscured, perhaps by her own inhibitions, limitations; the necessity of hard labor. And while so much of Toulouse-Lautrec’s production is happy and colorful on the surface, knowing something of his history seems to suggest that this is the truer to his underlying, core emotions.

Perhaps a final suggestion that could be made is that Andrew Wyeth throughout his life in art was truer to his own interior tendencies, and thus his oeuvre feels comparatively consistent in emotion and revelation to Toulouse-Lautrec’s…but that wouldn’t be entirely fair to the very different places which the hobbled Frenchman and the melancholy Pennsylvanian found themselves within. Freedom to find their place made an enormous difference.

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