Where teachers fear to tread

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Toulouse-Lautrec and the Fin-de-Siÿcle by David Sweetman (Hodder £25)

Toulouse-Lautrec and the Fin-de-Siÿcle by David Sweetman (Hodder £25)

The first task of any Toulouse-Lautrec biographer is to make us feel sympathy for the artist as boy and adolescent. He grew up amid bizarre, intermarried, semi-grand relations in the south of France, constantly in pain, and knowing that his limbs would always be stunted. When the young Lautrec looked around him he saw a world of physical well-being from which he would be excluded for life. This was the agony of his boyhood and the first influence on his later art.

David Sweetman's new biography describes Lautrec's background rather well. He also writes confidently about the way that Lautrec became an artist, indeed made the condition of being crippled a force in the creation of his social vision. Many books about 19th-century painters have dull, dutiful early chapters describing their apprenticeships to academic masters. But Sweetman covers this ground with understanding and even a certain amount of panache, as of course did his subject.

Lautrec was not a success as a student of painting. As we know, he enlivened himself in places where teachers do not tread. In bars and cheap dance halls he learnt his true talents, partly by casting aside the worries that so often accompany education. He realised, for instance, that he wasn't going to make the grade as a painter in oils, so abandoned the pretence that he was going to try harder to learn oil techniques.

Giving up pretence, of all kinds, was an important part of his self-education. And this was during an era when so many people liked to cut a fashionable figure.

It stands to reason that no one with his looks could be a poseur or a dandy. But Lautrec went further, in a sort of embrace of his own unloveliness. For instance, he had himself photographed in the act of defecation (the result is one of a number of unexpected pictures in this book). What could be less aristocratic? Or, for that matter, less artistic? There's a lot of roughness and vulgarity in Lautrec, only partly concealed by his superior feeling for design.

On occasion his techniques (thinned-down paint combined with pastel or charcoal, on cardboard) look slovenly. But lazy or throwaway passages nonetheless provide a thrill. Lautrec, who must have been an avid reader of the many new magazines of the 1880s, knew the virtues of rapidly produced commercial art. It was an influence on his style. Like most good commercial artists, Lautrec had a gift for visual mimicry; and with excellent results, for his portraiture has the bite and irony of caricature, yet is never cruel.

When Lautrec tried "straight" portraiture he was uneasy, even lost. He needed to represent people as though their characters were vividly unusual, and furthermore amoral (though he never presents people who do harm to others). Looking at the Lautrec literature, one feels that such characteristics of his art have affected his biographers. They too need to display a large cast of two-dimensional characters before a backdrop of entertainment. But they lack Lautrec's humour - the humour of an unhappy man - and his feeling for mortality. Sweetman's book has an additional disadvantage. Much of his material is familiar and recycled, so we quickly weary of yet another description of Montmartre and the Moulin Rouge. Besides, another biography of Lautrec (by Julia Frey) was published as recently as 1994.

Sweetman looks for originality by increasing the number of people who are said to belong to Lautrec's milieu. His subtitle And the Fin-de-Siÿcle indicates the widened scope, and begs some questions. How long does a "fin" last? Lautrec's career occupied two decades before his death in 1901. That makes one-fifth of the 19th century, a conveniently long period for a writer who needs to introduce some padding.

So here comes padding, in the portly form of Oscar Wilde. Lautrec was fascinated by the disgraced playwright, as were many other sophisticated people. There is only the slightest, and rather dodgy, evidence that Lautrec and Wilde ever met. No matter: Wilde was decadent, he was famous at the end of the century, and he was in Paris. Inevitably, any book about Lautrec is also a book about the French capital. Sweetman is interested in the city's cosmopolitanism. He has some interesting pages on English visitors to Paris, especially the artists Will Rothenstein and Charles Conder.

However, the appearance and departure of such figures is random, just like people wandering in and out of cafés. They are not part of a narrative, still less of an argument. The same with all the other characters, even Felix Feneon, who deserves special attention because he was so clever and spent more time in thought than most of Lautrec's friends. Feneon was an anarchist, but primarily an intellectual. Sweetman grants him lots of space, yet we still don't gather what was going on in his mind. Nor, alas, do we learn anything of value about the boozed-up mind of Lautrec himself. He can't have been drunk all the time, or he wouldn't have been able to draw and supervise the production of his wonderful prints. I would like to know his views on the world, or at least to have a report of the flavour of his conversation.