Many a grungy student traveller visited the Moulin Rouge in Paris because it’s listed in their travel guide. Besides the voyeuristic appeal of the Montmartre sex shops and brothels, what’s the big deal?
That’s where Henri Toulouse-Lautrec comes into the picture. The bohemian painter and lithographer, whose works currently show at the Glenbow, gives us a fascinating look into the café and dance hall culture of 19th century Paris. Paris was a hotbed of activity right before the turn of the century. The middle class had loads of money and lots of free time, and amused themselves by slumming at rowdy bars and dance halls. Cafés were a place where artists, writers and other free thinkers met. People such as Vincent Van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, and Lautrec met to drink, share ideas, and enjoy the darker side of Paris night life.
Lautrec became renowned for the posters he produced for the popular theatres and dance halls like the Moulin Rouge. Built at the time of the great Paris Exposition, the same year the Eiffel Tower was completed, it was the newest and the biggest hall. Famous dancers such as La Goulue and Jane Avril, both subjects of Lautrec, would dance the cancan.
Spectators flocked to see the titillating dances where women dared to lift their dresses above their ankles. The dancers often lifted them a lot higher, and Lautrec’s realistic images of the dancers caused a sensation.
Lautrec stands apart because of his incredible use of line. Despite the commercial medium he used, the artist didn’t lose sight of his art form. With a few strokes, Lautrec could give a vibrant glimpse into the personality of his subject. Works such as "Aristide Bruant dans son cabaret" and "Caudieux," communicate the force of personality of the performers of the time.
Whereas many artists of the time focused on the anonymity of humans in growing cities, Lautrec was obsessed with the individual, especially the celebrity.
His view of individuals, from the pathetic to the powerful, was unflinching. His portrayals show the raw reality of life at the time. "The Inspection," shows prostitutes lined up waiting for a monthly genital inspection for crabs. This contrast between the glamour of performers and the harsh existence of most people in Montmartre is what makes Lautrec’s view of his world so satisfying.
The Baldwin M. Baldwin collection, touring from the San Diego Museum of Art, contains 95 works focusing on his lithographs, plus 14 other pieces from the museum’s collection.
The collection, plus "Gauguin to Toulouse-Lautrec: French prints of the 1890s" and "Canadian Artists in Paris and the French Influence" will show until Jan. 2, 2000. Student admission is $6 with id, and Sunday mornings from 9 a.m. to noon are only $2.