Monday, November 26, 2007

An Inconvenient Truth

Short People got nobody
Short People got nobody
Short People got nobody
To love

They got little baby legs
And they stand so low
You got to pick 'em up
Just to say hello
They got little cars
That got beep, beep, beep
They got little voices
Goin' peep, peep, peep
They got grubby little fingers
And dirty little minds
They're gonna get you every time

From “Short People” by Randy Newman

If you know one thing about Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec you know that he was very, very short—less than five feet tall, in fact. Born November 24, 1864, Toulouse-Lautrec may have suffered from pycnodysostosis, a genetic disease of the bones caused by swimming in the shallow end of the gene pool (his parents were first cousins). Although his torso was of normal length, his legs were abnormally short. A bushy beard hid his underdeveloped chin, as his ubiquitous bowler hat hid the fact that the fontanelles at the rear of his skull remained open. Understandably, Toulouse-Lautrec found himself attracted to healthy bodies in motion, living vicariously through the dancers he painted in scenes such as At the Moulin Rouge, the Dance (above, from 1890). Two different films titled Moulin Rouge try to recreate the atmosphere of those colorful days in Montmartre. Toulouse-Lautrec’s painting does the job just as well, placing you within the crowd of onlookers, as if you were physically touching elbows with your friends at a table near the dance floor.

Toulouse-Lautrec revolutionized the field of poster advertisements in France at that time. His Le Divan Japonais (above, from the 1890s) shows his friend, the dancer Jane Avril in the stylish hat. At the same time, this image reveals Toulouse-Lautrec’s fascination with Japonisme, especially in the broad areas of flat color such as that of Avril’s dark silhouette and the interesting perspective used. Henri followed the lead of Degas in finding an almost inexhaustible subject in the theatre. But, while Degas relegated himself to voyeurism, studying his subject from a distance, Toulouse-Lautrec jumped in feet first, injecting himself into the theater world itself in becoming it’s prime visual spokesman.

I remember seeing many of Toulouse-Lautrec’s pastels at the Musee D’Orsay in Paris. Many of these were intimate scenes in the bedroom or the bath, again similar in subject matter to Degas yet different in a greater engagement with the individuals portrayed. Degas never found it in himself to paint a work such as Henri’s The Kiss (above, from 1892). There’s a warmth and joie de vivre in Toulouse-Lautrec’s work that belies the pain and struggle of his life. Despite his infirmities and illnesses (including alcoholism) that took his life before age 37, you never find any bitterness in Henri’s work. His party animal persona may have been just a mask to hide his pain, but it’s difficult to imagine that Toulouse-Lautrec didn’t find some joy in his eventful, yet short life.


Tree said...

I really like the last photo, of The Kiss.

Degas was voyeuristic. I feel like I need a shower after looking at some of his works.

Bob said...

Hi, Tree,

Degas can indeed be a bit sleezy. As much as I love his work, there's a really damaged psyche working there. I always find it humorous when studies of Degas play up all the pretty ballet dancers and gloss over all the voyeurism.


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