Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was born into an aristocratic French family, and was to be the last of the line. His father, the Comte de Toulouse-Lautrec, was a dedicated sportsman and had no time for the arts. Henri was not cut out for that kind of sport; he was an artist to his finger-tips, one of the great draughtsmen of the age, and revelled in drawing the louche denizens of night-clubs and brothels. If his body was sadly stunted, his drawing hand was miraculously supple and versatile, his mind vigorous, adventurous and humorous. Much of his work took the form of poster designs for the entertainment offered at the Parisian cabarets and theatres around Montparnasse which he loved to frequent.
These posters were published in the form of lithographs – a print medium that gave Lautrec the liberty to draw directly onto the stone from which the image was to be printed. They are therefore immediate and vivid records of his spontaneous inventions, which seem to flow out of him in all their elegance and freshness without need for alteration or correction.
He understood the requirements of the poster perfectly: it is an advertising medium, and clarity and immediacy are central to the language with which it can communicate with a wide public. Toulouse was a master of this kind of what we would now perhaps call “messaging”. Most impressively, he incorporated into his bold statements a penetrating humanity that means his subjects are never mere images: they are incidents in the lives of real people whom we too can get to know.
Here, for instance, is the famous Can-can dancer Jane Avril (he made another poster famously showing her kicking her leg high in the air, part of her decidedly saucy routine). She is watching a performance on stage that features another well-known artiste, Yvette Guilbert. Guilbert’s long black gloves were her trade-mark, and it’s typical of Lautrec to introduce her in this sly, allusive way – we can’t see her face, but we’re all in the know, happy in the shared knowledge of a glamorous but decidedly sleazy world.
Next to Jane in this poster is a recognisable portrait of the musicologist and critic Édouard Dujardin, who was an admirer of hers, and also editor of a magazine he had founded, the Revue wagnérienne. Life in Paris at the end of the nineteenth century included music of all sorts in a vigorous continuum from the most elevated to the lowest: none of the sad segregation of “pop” and classical that so stunts our culture today. We can almost hear the orchestra: the noise it’s making is part of our experience of this theatrical scene: the conductor’s expressive arms and the scrolled stems of double basses and cellos fill the space between audience and stage.
We’re very conscious of the outline of Jane’s slim, beautifully poised figure and the striking silhouette of her stark black dress and feathered hat, the central focus of the design of the poster. Her red hair is noteworthy, but otherwise, colour is minimal: Lautrec has clearly been absorbing the extreme restraint of the Japanese woodcuts which were at this moment exerting a huge influence on the development of European design. The name of the cabaret depicted here reminds us of that (though “divan” is a Turkish word signifying a place to meet and debate or simply chat, as well as a piece of furniture in which to relax while doing so). It was his ability to use that innovation in combination with his flexible, fluid line made him the pioneering master of poster design that he was.
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