Montmartre on Dumskaya

Montmartre on Dumskaya

A new exhibition pays homage to the troubled French artist, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.

Published: October 31, 2012 (Issue # 1733)


A lithograph of the dancer May Milton on show at the ‘Paris, Paris’ show.

The stars of the Moulin Rouge are on show on Dumskaya Ulitsa, in an exhibition of Parisian bohemian decadence par excellence.

Housed in the Perinniye Ryadi gallery, the troupe of the legendary dance hall performs in all its color and glory in an exhibit of lithographs by the French post-impressionist, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901), that opened Thursday under the title “Paris, Paris.”

Known equally for his vibrant and original artwork as for his bohemian lifestyle, the “iconographer of Montmartre” captured the Belle Epoque of late 19th-century Paris as both actor and observer. Plagued by physical infirmities caused by an unknown genetic disorder sometimes referred to as the Toulouse-Lautrec Syndrome, likely caused by inbreeding (his parents were first cousins) that led to his standing just over five feet as an adult, he reveled in the beauty of the physical as well as the wretched. The decadence of cafes, cabarets and brothels in Paris’ seedy Montmartre district figure prominently in his art alongside the physical prowess of the circus and horse racing.

Comprised of 52 lithographs from private collections in Paris, the exhibition attempts to showcase a full range of Toulouse-Lautrec’s work, including his early sketches, burlesque cabaret posters and later darker pieces, including his last completed work “The Gypsy,” a sinister theater poster that contrasts strongly with his earlier and more vibrant work, completed before his premature death from alcoholism and syphilis at the age of 36.

“We wanted to show something from his early years, the humorous works, the development of his art and technique, and of course his heyday during which he perfected his linear style and use of color, to show how he discovered himself as an artist,” said Polina Slepnekova, curator of “Paris, Paris.”

The exhibition is divided thematically into periods from the artist’s life, including his youth, the beginning of his work in Paris, his famous Moulin Rouge cabaret series of posters and later years.

The works are full of color, caricature and most of all, a grotesque fascination with beauty through ugliness, portraying the captivating and unusual world of the artist.

His idolization of famous cabaret performers is well represented, with both posters and sketches revealing a preoccupation with finding the true character of the stars, rather than a realistic portrayal. The sketch of Yvette Guilbert, a famous Moulin Rouge singer, is especially notable, for though it is fantastically distorted to the point of ugliness through caricature, the resemblance to the real singer is unquestionable, as shown by a nearby photograph. Guilbert reputedly proclaimed Toulouse-Lautrec “the genius of the hideous” after seeing the work.

Other posters of gaudy cabaret stars and can-can dancers La Goulue (The Glutton) — known as the Queen of Montmartre — and Jane Avril, as well as of singer Aristide Bruant reveal similar attempts to reveal the truth through gross exaggeration, portrayed through a strong linear style, bold colors and the influence of Oriental prints.

The impact of Toulouse-Lautrec’s style on the development of art and especially poster art is unequivocal, with Picasso in particular showing the influence of the short-statured French artist.

Although the exhibition’s organizers call the works on show “the cream of the crop” of Toulouse-Lautrec’s art, many of the artist’s more recognizable portraits and paintings are missing, such as the iconic “At the Moulin Rouge.” However, the best of his posters, including “La Troupe de Mlle. Eglantine” as well as a number of his sketches do justice to the influential artist and his impact on the art world.

Yet despite the merry scenes and flamboyance of the works, a sense of the artist’s personal suffering lurks beneath the surface.

“Tragedy hides in all of Lautrec’s work, sometimes masked by humor, ephemeral elements, bright color and vivacious lines, but it is still there,” Slepnekova told The St. Petersburg Times.

Slepnekova described Toulouse-Lautrec’s work and life as “a stellar example of how something absolutely new and original can come out of a time period of decadence and downfall, which contradicts all traditions and stereotypes.

“I believe that this can serve as an important reminder for young artists today,” she said.

“Paris, Paris” runs through Dec. 9 at the Perinniye Ryady art center, 4 Dumskaya Ulitsa, M. Gostiny Dvor. Tel. +7 904 601 0000.

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