The High Museum of Art’s exhibition, Toulouse-Lautrec & Friends: The Irene and Howard Stein Collection (currently on view through this Sunday, May 1, 2011), shows that Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and his contemporaries exploded the safety valve on the light-drenched paintings of Claude Monet and the previous generation. There is something for everyone in this rousing show of life lived on the streets, in cafes, and at nightclubs throughout Lautrec’s beloved Paris. Actors, writers, clowns, dancing girls, horses, dogs, and mad cows parade across Lautrec’s stage. Even Pierre Bonnard shows up with a dark version of street life with his lithograph The Little Laundry Girl.
Lautrec could be thought of as the bad boy — the in-your-face artist of the dark side, the Jeff Koons of the Parisian demimonde — but, then again, that would be like associating Vincent van Gogh only with cutting off his ear, making him notorious instead of brilliant. It is Lautrec’s brilliance that far outstrips any of Monet’s overheated paintings or Edgar Degas’s static snapshots of horse races. In this exhibition, you can feast your eyes on Lautrec’s splendid rule-breaking display of visual thinking.
Touted as a pre-eminent design strategist, capturing the frenzy of fin-de-siècle Parisian life, Lautrec is much more than a draftsman of excellence. In a lithograph entitled (Jimmy) Michael the Cyclist, he uses distortion to just the right degree, allowing us to be both the spectator and rider at a bicycle race. You can feel the physical effort of the rider through a fluid economy of line. Lautrec’s use of black also tells its own story. The darkest tones draw the eye not to the rider’s facial expression but to unusual points — the bands on the rider’s jersey on the shoulder and thigh, the points of the greatest transference of energy. The black circular bands echo the bicycle’s tires and the chain that grinds its way around the sprockets in a subtle blending of man and machine.
It would be easy to read all kinds of social messages in a narration that includes a uniformed official with a stopwatch, wide of girth and overcoated as he impassively times the rider. Lautrec was an astute observer of social class, and his compositions might show his awareness of Karl Marx’s ideas.
At first, especially in the context of the High Museum’s penchant for catering to the crowd with the sappy Impressionist shows we have been dosed with in the past, I approached this exhibition with my usual attitude. I have a tendency to feel a bit haughty about Lautrec’s production, lauded primarily for its draftsmanship and design qualities. But, seeing the show, I couldn’t help but forget about curatorial intention as I reveled in the smart visual thinking of this master artist.
So take this opportunity to see the show before it closes, lift a glass of absinthe to a chapter that slams the door shut on Impressionism, and march across the museum’s sky bridge to see Lautrec’s legacy in the exhibit Special Editions: Recent Acquisitions of Contemporary Prints. You can see the master’s influence in the fluid lines of a Christopher Wool etching, or in the foreboding blacks of a Martin Puryear print. The journey ends with the astonishing Julie Mehretu etching, Auguries, in an explosion of mark making.
Sunday, May 1, 2011, is the last day to see Toulouse-Lautrec & Friends: The Irene and Howard Stein Collection at the High Museum of Art.
The exhibition, Special Editions: Recent Acquisitions of Contemporary Prints, remains on view at the High Museum of Art through August 21, 2011.
Maggie Davis is a painter and a PhD student in the philosophy of art at the Institute for Doctoral Studies in Visual Arts. She currently teaches art and art history at The Westminster Schools in Atlanta.