THE POPULAR image of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, now as in his own lifetime, is of a crippled dwarf fascinated by the fin-de-siecle low life which he transmuted into high art. Dancers, circus clowns, pimps and prostitutes were his enduring obsession as he threw himself with gusto into the life of declasse artist-aristocrat.
Because he was innovative in technique as well as in subject-matter, recognising the possibilities inherent in apparently ephemeral forms like posters, his images were disseminated all over Paris in a way which hugely magnified his fame. Yet the combination of Toulouse-Lautrec's spectacular physical peculiarities, and the frequency with which his images have been reproduced, makes it almost impossible to view his art with a fresh eye.
The mythic oppositions of beauty and the beast, of outsider and aristocrat, of inherited wealth and grinding poverty, place an almost suffocating biographical weight on work which is already over-familiar. Jane Avril, La Goulue, Aristide Bruant, the Divan Japonais, are still standard items of decoration in cafes, bars and a thousand student bedsits whose occupants have only the vaguest idea of who or what they represent.
Julia Frey, an American academic specialising in 19th-century French literature, does not shy away from these difficulties in her magisterial new biography. She devotes nearly 500 pages to the painter's short life; like Lord Byron, a less deformed but equally self-lacerating and mother-obsessed genius, Toulouse-Lautrec died at 36. Writing at this length allows Frey to create a vivid impression of the painter's eccentric habits and to locate his work in its proper context, acknowledging his debt to older artists like Degas while celebrating his own, almost unbearably dark vision.
That vision has in some degree been obscured by Toulouse-Lautrec's decision to work in a medium - advertising, in effect - which demanded bold images and instant impact. His flat use of colour and stark outlines were hugely successful in drawing crowds to establishments like the Moulin Rouge, but it is not immediately obvious that his elongated figures are more grotesque than decorative. One of the most useful functions of Frey's book is to draw attention away from the posters and book illustrations to his oil paintings, where his harsh insights and effects are more easily perceived.
That Toulouse-Lautrec's work should be so sombre is not surprising, given the almost unalloyed tragedy which became his life. Frey's biography opens at one of his lowest points, 3 January 1899, when he was in the grip certainly of alcoholism and very probably of tertiary syphilis. On that day Toulouse-Lautrec, who was emotionally dependent on his mother Adele to an extraordinary degree, discovered that she had suddenly left her Paris apartment, without a word, and gone to her estate in the South, unable to witness her son's hideous decline a moment longer.
What happened next is documented in a series of letters written to the Comtesse de Toulouse-Lautrec by her servant, Berthe Sarrazin, who sent daily reports on the artist's rapidly worsening condition. A month after Adele's departure, Berthe wrote that he was 'like a madman. I had never seen him so violent. He wanted to hit the little concierge'. Two more weeks of erratic behaviour - alcoholic stupors, an obsession with fire which left him with a badly burned hand, and an almost total inability to work - led to his incarceration in a genteel lunatic asylum at Neuilly, near the Bois du Boulogne, where enforced abstinence wrought an almost miraculous change in his health.
By now Toulouse-Lautrec had become so successful at living his private life in public that his detention became something of a cause celebre, with supporters and detractors taking violently opposed lines on whether he should be released and his future prospects. After 11 weeks he was allowed to leave, but a return to his old ways soon brought back all his health problems.
Two years later, having moved temporarily to Bordeaux with an ineffectual minder appointed by his family, Toulouse-Lautrec suffered a stroke. He made a partial recovery but his weakened frame could not survive a second attack in August. Transported to his mother's chateau at Malrome, he lingered miserably in the stifling summer heat and died in the early hours of 9 September 1901. His final words, a sardonic comment on the presence at his deathbed of his father Alphonse, were 'the old fool'.
Julia Frey's technique in telling this sad, sometimes ghoulish story of self- destruction and squandered talent is to confront the worst. Her frankness extends not just to discussing in a matter-of-fact way Toulouse-Lautrec's syphilis and his frenetic encounters with prostitutes, but to the inclusion among the book's illustrations of two pictures of her subject defecating on a beach. They belong to a series of photographs taken in the Baie de Somme in 1900 which show the artist, probably drunk and gleefully aware of the presence of the camera, dropping his trousers and depositing a turd.
What Frey hopes, I suspect, is that her own sympathy and admiration for Toulouse-Lautrec - she affectionately designates him Henry throughout, following the custom of his Anglophile parents - will counter-balance the multitudinous anecdotes in her book about his wilful, infantile behaviour. For much of the biography he emerges as a man of singular courage, deploying self-mocking humour to disguise his almost terminal despair about his physical condition.
Toulouse-Lautrec was 4 ft 11 in tall, the son of first cousins whose marriage was one of a series of such liaisons in a family which was notoriously in-bred. His generation of Toulouse-Lautrecs included several dwarfs, yet he could hardly have been born into a family more unsuited to coping with such disabilities. Sport of every type was supremely important to the male Toulouse-Lautrecs, and Henry's father was hunting-mad, constantly devising new ways of slaughtering fish, fowl and mammals.
His only surviving son, by contrast, had lifelong trouble even in walking. As a teenager he suffered excruciating pain in his limbs as the growing ends of his bones atrophied and in successive years each of his femurs snapped, forcing him to spend weeks in bed. He was also unusually ugly, lumbered with large nostrils, a thickened tongue, bulbous lips, a speech impediment, a permanent sniffle and a tendency to drool - all congenital effects of in-breeding. In a determinedly anti-intellectual family, he was denied even the stimulus he might otherwise have got from books and ideas. They were surprisingly casual about his education, which was overseen chiefly by his mother; her marriage had broken down after an unspecified incident a year after Henry's birth, adding another burden to his already considerable run of bad luck.
'The incident,' writes Frey, 'was apparently so humiliating that neither Adele nor anyone else ever said in writing what it was, even though everyone in the family probably knew.' It is quite likely that the slight was related to Alphonse's inveterate womanising, although his eccentricities were so extreme that Frey suggests he may have been manic-depressive.
The family was ambivalent about Henry's artistic ambitions, disliking the idea of a Toulouse-Lautrec earning his living - they were related to the former kings of France and had an aristocratic scorn for anything that smacked of trade - but accepting that something had to be found to occupy him, since the traditional Toulouse-Lautrec pursuits, sport and breeding, were out. (His parents took it for granted that he would never be able to marry a woman of his own class.) Hopeless with money, Henry remained financially dependent on his parents to the very end, even when his work had begun to command quite high prices.
Frey argues that Adele and Alphonse used money as a way of controlling their feckless son, and the infantile nature of his relationship with both parents is emphasised by the frequent pleas for cash in his letters to them. But another layer of meaning can be discerned in Henry's continuing financial dependence on Adele, for it represented a reversal of his usual transactions with women. His adult relationships with them were almost always those of artist-model or client- prostitute, sometimes both with the same woman, but either way he was required to pay for their services.
Henry did not have to buy affection or attention from Adele, but it is evident from the proprietorial tone of his letters that he resented her uniqueness in this respect - it must have been a constant reminder of what he could not get from other women - and felt towards her a kind of jealousy more appropriate to a lover than a son.
Frey diligently records Toulouse-Lautrec's daily routine, his restless moves from one studio to another and his obsessive need to remodel any apartment he lived in. She gives a lucid account of his artistic development from his apprenticeship with the society painter Bonnat, his transfer to the more flexible Cormon, and the friendly distance he maintained from the Impressionists, Symbolists, and other movements of the day. If there is a gap in her meticulous and humane account, it is not entirely her fault. She does her best to document his inner life, yet the defensive jokes and scatalogical puns in his letters and in surviving accounts of him by friends are an effective screen for his feelings. His attempts at non-commercial relations with women can only be guessed at, although Frey speculates that his relationship with Suzanne Valadon, one of his favourite models and herself an artist, may have gone beyond the close friendship which was all she ever admitted.
Whatever the truth of this episode, Toulouse-Lautrec's short stature made him an object of ridicule for women. 'I am not a dwarf,' he once protested, referring to the fact that he was one inch taller than the height at which French men were automatically excused military service. Yet the shame he felt may be inferred from one of the most characteristic features of his art, which is a tendency to coarsen his subjects, particularly female ones. It is as though he was compelled, in order to compensate for his own ugliness, to find it in other people.
His preference for tough, unsentimental subjects like pimps and prostitutes, especially towards the end of his artistic career, has in some degree concealed this impulse. The English artist Will Rothenstein, Toulouse-Lautrec's friend and contemporary, remarked on his 'unpitying eyes' in relation to his famous series of paintings of sad, worn-out women who worked in brothels.
Yet the same tendency, perhaps even an element of sadism towards his subjects, is visible in work outside the series. Julia Frey describes a sea voyage in 1895 when Toulouse-Lautrec became fascinated by a 'lovely young woman' and used her as the probably unknowing model for a poster called La Passagere du 54, Promenade en Yacht ('The Passenger in Cabin 54, Sailing'). Yet his portrait, angled from behind so that the viewer is placed involuntarily in the position of voyeur, shows her as heavy-featured and no longer in the first flush of youth.
Toulouse-Lautrec seems to have been resigned to an early death, possibly even courting it through self-neglect. He could not have found a more persuasive champion than Julia Frey, yet her book contains few revelations or surprises. For once the legend and the life are consonant, and perhaps Frey's most substantial contribution to our knowledge of the artist is her reminder that the frantic gaiety of his images were a result of and a shield against intolerable pain.
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