Pin-Ups: Toulouse-Lautrec and the Art of Celebrity at the Scottish National Gallery
Posters and prints from the city of pleasure: Jim Crawley visits a show in Edinburgh dedicated to the distinctive French pop artist
Carpe diem might be the watchword for this exhibition. Seize the day, because almost everything featured in Pin-Ups: Toulouse-Lautrec and the Art of Celebrity at the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh was short-lived – the artist, the period, the stars he celebrated, even the art works themselves.
If there is one artist whose life story is inseparable from his art, it’s Henri de Toulouse Lautrec. Born in 1864 into an aristocratic family, he suffered from a rare bone disorder. While his torso developed normally, his legs were stunted and brittle, and he stood no more than 4’ 6’’ tall. Physically frail, his family encouraged his artistic talents and in 1882, aged 18, he travelled to Paris to study art. There, he infamously also discovered the sleazy delights of Montmartre. At home in the demi-monde, he became famous for posters that immortalised the celebrities and hit shows of fin de siècle Paris until his louche lifestyle took its toll. Aged just 36, Lautrec died of alcoholism and syphilis.
Lautrec’s career lasted no more than a decade, but this was a decade that coincided with two major influences on the art of the time. On the surface, belle epoque Paris was a city of optimism and material wealth. But lurking beneath was the sense that material wealth lead to decadence, ennui and pessimism, the mood that we now associate with the turn of the century. And nowhere represented the desire to escape rampant materialism more than Montmartre, home to famous night clubs like the Moulin Rouge and the Divan Japonais, and the celebrities who performed in them, like Yvette Guilbert, Jane Avril and Aristide Bruant – famous at the time but now largely forgotten.
Art followed the mood of the time, finding solace from materialism in the aesthetic, the religious and especially the erotic. What’s more, technological advances were making it easier for artists to mass produce their work. Colour lithography in particular allowed larger prints to be made in more eye-catching colours. Impresarios and celebrities alike quickly recognised the commercial potential of these new production methods and the modern advertising industry was born.
Soon Montmartre was covered with posters, advertising the latest shows and building the personal brands of the celebrities in them. So distinctive was Lautrec’s work however that he quickly became famous in his own right. Rather than being plastered over by adverts for the next big show, his posters were instead carefully peeled from the walls and coveted. Many of the posters in this show have torn edges and faded colours; the wonder is that such disposable art survived at all.
The genius of Lautrec though is in distilling this fleeting moment in time into art that still has the power to surprise and thrill us. Take for instance his first poster in the show Moulin Rouge – La Goulue (1891). The surprise here is its size, nearly seven feet high and four foot wide. With its bold black outlines, acidic colours and the repetition of the lettering, this poster created a huge impact and brought Lautrec immediate recognition.
Its composition too adds to the impact. ‘La Goulue’ (aka the Glutton on account of her penchant for guzzling customers’ drinks as she passed their tables) takes centre stage, her petticoats swirling as she dances the cancan. In the foreground in silhouette is her partner, ‘Valentin le Decosse’, nicknamed ‘the Boneless’ from his contorted style of dancing. But around them, again in outline, are the crowd, standing in a circle that bends round the poster until it includes us, making us feel like we are there, seeing the show even today.
Lautrec also recognised the power of the individual celebrity and pared down his art almost to the point of caricature so that his famous clients would be instantly recognisable. In Le Divan Japonais (1892), Jane Avril the dancer, famous for wearing extravagant hats, is unmistakable in the foreground, while in the upper left corner is Yvette Guilbert. With bright red hair, thin lips and a gaunt physique, she was to become one of the most recognisable of Lautrec’s regular clients. And while all we can see in this poster are her tall frame and signature black arm-length gloves, Lautrec still provides enough visual clues for her to be recognised.
Lautrec also manipulates perspective in these works, often placing the viewer at a low vantage point. In the two posters of Aristide Bruant, the singer looms over us. Dressed as usual in a wide brimmed hat and oversized black jacket, he cuts a dangerous figure. Renowned for his coarse songs of working-class life, he fills the poster with a menacing presence in keeping with the edgy nature of his act. An unashamed self-promoter, Bruant more than any other celebrity commissioned Lautrec to create a personal brand and to advertise his act.
And Lautrec plays with perspective again in his last poster in the show, Troupe de Mlle Églantine (1896), placing us at knee height as the diagonal line of dancers perform the cancan against a flat yellow background. ‘Look but don’t touch’ seems to be the message. But this poster is proof of the transitory nature of the fame Lautrec depicted. Commissioned for a show in London, the craze for the cancan had already passed its peak. Thought too respectable and genteel, the show received a lukewarm reception. Tastes had already moved on.