Ask Morgana 129: Toulouse-Lautrec

Henri Marie Raymond de Toulouse-Lautrec-Monfa (1864-1901), long of name an short of stature, was a remarkable post-impressionist painter. He was probably the most prolific artist of his era, having produced hundreds of known paintings, posters, and prints, thousands of drawings, many ceramics and works in glass, and an unknown number of works of all kinds now lost. All of this in a relatively short life bedevilled by disability, illness, and alcoholism. He moved through the demi-monde of fin-de-siècle Paris, recording scenes that could still shock the respectable bourgeoisie. He chose to take as his subjects anyone whom he saw, no matter whether they were beautiful or ugly. “Why should I care?” he seemed to be saying, “I’m no great beauty myself!” Prostitutes and dancers during their time off, sprawled on hastily pulled-together beds – young women being, in their own way, more intimate with each other than they could be with the men under whose gaze or patronage they performed – were his models. To see them in their underclothes, or stripping to change, was far more of an affront to gentility than would be a classical model in total nudity.

in (1) two women are stretched out on a bed or a chaise. They are not touching or kissing, they are not naked, there is a lull in their causerie. One is looking down at the other; the other is looking back at her companion, rather awkwardly. The possibility of a kiss seems to hang in the air. But not yet, not yet!

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In (2) a dancer has lifted her skirt and is holding it under her chin while she adjusts her tights. It is difficult for us to realise how vulgar this pose must have seemed at the time. “Why – surely she must be some sort of tart! Oh the morals of these dancers – quelle horreur!”

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I’m certain that the young women in (3) and (4) are the same subjects. Two showgirls in bed, at ease, talking over their secrets and the mundanities of their day. And then they kiss. This is one of the tenderest kisses in the history of art. It is unaffected, spontaneous, intimate, and for all its unaffectedness it is highly erotic.

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In (5) a young woman kneels on rugs and blankets, caught in a moment before she decides how to stretch out, whether and how to cover herself. It’s an almost submissive pose.

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5

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Images reproduced under ‘fair use’ provisions.

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