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Art Attack:

April 1, 2011


Meet Paris’ Cheeky, Turn-of-the-Century Poster Boy

French artist Toulouse-Lautrec practically invented the modern art of advertising with his graphic posters and lithographs, featuring everything from cyclists to Can-Can dancers.  This is your LAST chance to check out his saucy work and masterful way with lines at the High Museum, through May 1.

The intriguing thing about art is that authentic pieces from the past can almost transport the viewer to another era. In the case of the current Toulouse-Lautrec show at the High Museum, that era is fin-de-siecle Paris, particularly the bohemian milieu of artists, dancers, circus performers, courtesans, dwarves and dandies that populated the cafes and dance halls of Monmartre. We’ve all heard the romanticized story about the aristocratic, but stunted and dwarfed, Lautrec (he was only 5-feet tall) finding a makeshift family and subject matter in the seamy glamour of Le Chat Noir, Le Moulin Rogue and other nocturnal playgrounds. This self-clowning, creative genius was memorably portrayed in Baz Luhrmann’s musical Moulin Rogue and before that, John Huston’s film of the same name. And in truth, Lautrec’s most famous works, several featured in this exhibit, capture the sheer joie de vivre, liberation and escapism of these illicit haunts--from the dancers and glasses of absinthe to the flamboyant costumes and spectacle.  (He even splattered powdered gold on the rendering of one dancer, Miss Loie Fuller, 1893, for a scintillating effect.)

But there are other sides to this show as well:  in addition to wry humor, Lautrec approaches his mostly female subjects with tenderness and empathy. A prime example is the pensive portrait of The Seated Clowness, Miss Cha-u-Kao  captured before she enters the stage. This portrait is part of a series of lithographs from the exhibit called Elles, 1896, whichdocuments the behind-the-scenes moments at the brothels. Lautrec depicts women bathing  (clearly modeled after Degas’ bathing ladies), sleeping and waiting, perhaps for their next customer, their faces hardened by their tough circumstances, despite the  opulent, red-velvet décor that surrounds them.

And then there are the charming, often droll, commercial posters that Lautrec made of subjects such as  a scandalous romance novel, French cyclists, a professional photographer, and a program for the Theatre Libre.  These works capture fascinating little slices of the 19th-century Paris also haunted by  Flaubert, Monet, Baudelaire, et. al.  Graphic, flat and abstracted like the Japanese woodcuts that inspired him, Lautrec’s works were boldly modern for their time. They also demonstrate his unique knack for creating an entire character or passing scene out of a few defining, calligraphic lines. Though he died at age 37 from syphilis and alcoholism, Lautrec’s works stand as a testament to a vibrant life as feverish and intoxicating as a cabaret dance—and just as fleeting.

This exhibit was made possible due to a generous donation of works to The High by Atlanta patrons Irene and Howard Stein. See also their virtuoso collection of turn-of-the-century, pimarily French terracottas, bronzes and marbles on floor one of this exhibit. Our fave: the jovial terracotta Bacchus and Satyr by Peter Xavery, whose bacchanal theme is in perfect accord with many of Lautrec’s own works a few centuries later.