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Matters of Size

Lifting skirts with Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec at the North Carolina Museum of Art


It sounds like a pitch from a deranged screenwriter to an astonished producer: A French bohemian dwarf, who rubs elbows with late 19th-century Parisian entertainers and upper crust illuminati, becomes the talk of the town for his portraits of prostitutes and can-can dancers. He falls in love with one of his subjects and the two become good friends, whereupon his big success results in a little excess, and he is hospitalized for his lifestyle dependencies. Once rested and on his feet, he returns to the pleasure district of Paris, only to die of alcoholism at 36. In a romantic final scene, his work lives on to become known the world over--especially the portraits of his love interest. The movie's ad poster catch-phrase: Big Things Come In Little Packages.

But this isn't a film script, it's art history, so it pays to quote the artist himself: "I may be a little teapot, but I've got a big spout." After viewing the exhibition of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec's works currently on view at the North Carolina Museum of Art, the double entendre seems wholly intended.

The NCMA's series title, Master of the Moulin Rouge, cleverly plays on the success of this summer's pop extravaganza musical, Moulin Rouge. In this film version of Toulouse-Lautrec's underworld, writer/director Baz Luhrmann deconstructs and reconstructs the demimonde of 1890's Parisian night life by presenting mythologized versions of its stories in modern contexts, via music-video stylization and editing. Luhrmann's portrayal of art-historical figures pitching a theater story to a wealthy patron, examined through contemporary film techniques employed to help Luhrmann pitch his story to an audience, results in the intersection of two relationships: one between the artists and patrons in Toulouse-Lautrec's day, and a second between filmmakers and production studios today. Triangulate the equation, as you're encouraged to do by NCMA's current exhibition, by considering the relationship of a contemporary museum to its patrons. All three pairings were (and are) essential to the love life of art. All three also once again prove the time-tested adage: Sex sells. And why shouldn't it? Is there really anything as vital to our existence?

The bohemians of the Moulin Rouge and its surrounding theaters and artists' dwellings knew this and celebrated it nightly--seducing the highest-placed and wealthiest Parisians down from their perches and into a glamorous world of sensual entertainment. Similarly, this summer, in every city, where film distributors eagerly slapped up posters featuring Nicole Kidman's milky neckline and parted red lips, the film pulled in box office bank, from an audience who had largely never heard of Toulouse-Lautrec. What a perfect time for a museum that is currently building its contemporary collection and expanding its vision to revisit this steamy period in history for a little peek and a financial leg up. If museumgoers are expecting to be shocked, they might be disappointed; if they want to be entertained, however, they're in for a party.

In the last decade, the North Carolina Museum of Art has continuously upped the ante in its collection and exhibition of contemporary art, including the work of many world-renowned artists, many of whom have produced, or are producing, controversial and sexually charged works. For example, those familiar with Barbara Krueger's recently commissioned permanent exterior installation comprising the outdoor theater and adjoining areas of the museum may be surprised to learn that her work as a whole tackles issues of identity, consumerism, civil liberties and sexuality. With the exception of civil liberties, these themes have been toned down considerably in her installation for a larger, somewhat suburban Southeast audience, though the installation as a whole is a coup. Krueger is becoming quite the belle of the ball with several international art schools offering classes examining her body of work: She's big, and getting bigger.

With contemporary art, a large part of the politics of acquisition is an educated guess at who will get big, and financing those guesses in hopes that they will become investments. With the ticketed exhibition of historical art, the whole thing works backward, but to the same end. The bigger they are, the harder they are to get; the more they cost, the better the chances of a return on investment. Pulling in a "blockbuster" can be a budget-balancing nightmare (consider the insurance alone on transporting original sculptures of Rodin in last year's beautifully orchestrated NCMA show) but can pay off nicely for the museum, allowing for the funding of future projects. One of those future projects, Speed of Light: New Video, was previously planned for the Master of the Moulin Rouge time slot, but was postponed due to its high equipment costs. The museum sought a replacement and found one through the Baltimore Museum of Art's belle époque circulating collection--much to the benefit of both NCMA and the museumgoers who will be lining up to view their find.

Master of the Moulin Rouge is introduced by a tastefully simple but evocative receiving area, lit with hanging French lamps and wallpapered with a rich red period pattern. Greeting his audience with a direct stare and an intelligent half-smile is the artist himself in a famous photographic portrait, looking smart in his miniature tailored suit and derby. Step around the corner, and the room explodes with color in the form of large poster prints, modestly framed and documented by small placards enlarging on the relationship of the artist to the depicted models. Many of these familiar images, more impressive than ever at their correct lithographic scale, are delicately rendered with an economical use of lines, and refined with large doses of modernist color and composition. And many are also deliciously naughty, showing off an outcast's ability to thumb his nose at what was considered profane at the time--and doing so with panache.

Though tame by today's standards, Toulouse-Lautrec's work can still elicit titters from viewers who may become suddenly aware of the angle of perspective, shooting straight up the skirts of the high-kicking hookers dancing in front of carefully placed and familiarly shaped stage lights. A couple of these forced-perspective posters reminded me of the aged photo of Toulouse-Lautrec at the beginning of the exhibition, because I had to consider that a dwarf's stature would give him a certain advantage in viewpoint. Many of Toulouse-Lautrec's stylized shapes were rather revealing as well: During the press tour on the Friday before the show opened, a guide cautiously referenced a silhouetted "cello handle" emerging from the orchestra pit in one of the Jane Avril prints, pointing out its "abstracted shape," which its player was fingering happily. It looked every bit like a classic case of masturbatory symbolism, but OK, sure--"abstracted." But for those readers who might be alarmed at this and are considering calling the museum in outrage over the public display of pornography, put the phone down: The kids won't get it, even if they see it every morning in miniature on a souvenir coffee cup. This is adult work, but only in the conceptual sense; sexuality is suggested, not depicted, as are many other themes including voyeurism, identity, class structure and political satire.

The artist's voyeuristic obsession with performers and prostitutes is a trademark, undoubtedly, but what's even more interesting in this show is their ironic and provocative placement alongside the bourgeois of the day--both within the works and in the curator's groupings. In one portrait print, which was commissioned and then rejected, a well-known and married politician whispers lasciviously into the ear of a female "escort." In another, a popular deathbed-style of portraiture, often commissioned by the wealthy during their last days, is tragicomically reinvented with a "doctor" paying a visit to a bed-ridden exotic dancer. The origin of her illness is alluded to in the form of a small dog in heat, crouching suggestively in her lap.

Many of the lithographs are portraits of Jane Avril, the artist's dear friend who apparently shared Toulouse-Lautrec's mischievous attitude toward the social elite who frequented the Moulin Rouge: She once kicked the top hat off of the Prince of Wales during a particularly sultry dance number. The bohemians then, much as bohemians now, didn't much care for the hierarchal social structure and sought ways to escape being thought of as "the little people," often employing the only resources they had to mine: theater, art, and risqué entertainment. Toulouse-Lautrec became their spokesman in a sense, boldly displaying the erotic and eye-catching imagery of his lithographs at a time when advertising was a fairly new process.

This had to be exciting for him, getting to see those whom he had observed from afar moving in closer to catch his views of them. Some of them weren't too happy with what they saw, either. Yvette Guilbert, a notoriously beautiful performer, commissioned an entire album of sketches, continuously rejecting them as not pretty enough. In an especially effective pairing at the NCMA, one of Toulouse-Lautrec's drawings of Guilbert is placed alongside another artist's rendering of her. The first is stark, strange and haunting; the latter somewhat idealized and less interesting.

There were others, though, who saw Toulouse-Lautrec's brilliance and let him go with what he saw rather than how they wished to be seen. In the most fascinating print of the exhibition, Jane Avril is depicted away from the stage lights and leering patrons (she's the only dancer who was so depicted). Here, she's dressed in formal attire standing in a print shop, where she peers down at a poster in her hands, presumably of herself, with the title, "The First Print." It's a loving and oddly moving image: A can-can dancer accustomed to being stared at is now doing the staring, at herself, while a customer, friend and respected artist captures her doing so.

In another layered irony, it's the documented relationships between Toulouse-Lautrec and his patrons and models, each ripe with class tensions, that should help Master of the Moulin Rouge do well for the museum. The exhibition is an informative and revealing look at a man (and many of his contemporaries) who was one of the key players in the turning away from Impressionism and the backlash against art belonging only to the rich. Because of his technical prowess and aesthetic intuition, a few of his lithographs are considered some of the most famous and important posters in printing history, and their themes are still relevant today. Much as he pulled back the curtains, lifted the skirts, and unveiled the personalities of his subjects, the NCMA exhibition concentrates on the man behind the images, allowing for a voyeuristic peep through the keyhole at a rebellious little master in his heyday. And something tells me he would welcome the leers, especially if he could have seen a century into his future where, at long last, he's huge. EndBlock

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