Rediscovering Toulouse-Lautrec

Rediscovering Toulouse-Lautrec

The painter and lithographer Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec is best known for his diminutive stature (his growth was stunted due to two thigh fractures in his youth) and his status as the forerunner of modern graphic design in his magnificent, evocative posters advertising Parisian nightlife around Montmartre in the 1880s.



Toulouse-Lautrec's painting style, developed in a studio alongside Vincent van Gogh and with Edgar Degas as a frequent visitor, is spare and eloquent. Much of his canvases show through, the weft adding a texture to his limited use of line, his oil paints resembling pastels. His figures are contorted in a style that at first recalls Mannerism, but with a caricature component reminiscent of the popular 19th century magazine illustrations and the work of Honore Daumier. Slashes of eyeshadow-blue, lipstick-red, and absinthe-green form the outlines of sad women who are obliged to show a false enthusiasm in their roles as prostitutes or seedy nightclub performers in Paris's old, lively red light district.



Toulouse-Lautrec was particularly sympathetic to these women of the night, whom he frequented professionally but also considered his friends. Their openness with him granted him access to brothels and footlight green rooms that we might consider behind-the-scenes, and allowed him to paint the women he saw during their down time, with the sleepy, haggard faces that must shortly paint on smiles and return to the performance.

This exhibition at Cankarjev Dom in Ljubljana, Slovenia shows Toulouse-Lautrec's original posters, along with high-quality reproductions of some of his paintings. It is easy to forget the impact that artful, lithographically-reproduced, large-format posters had in late 19th century Europe. They were the equivalent of today's viral YouTube videos or Superbowl commercials — talked about, admired, and influential to the art community.

Toulouse-Lautrec used lithographic techniques to create posters advertising night club acts, most notably for the writer, wit, and performer Aristide Bruant, and for night clubs like Moulin a la Galette and the popular dancer nicknamed La Gouloue. The beautifully curated exhibit tells the story of Toulouse-Lautrec's life, and also nicely displays the lithographs that he produced alongside the posters that were made from them. The difference is usually a subtle one — the same size, the lithograph contains the artistic image and the poster simply adds text, but to see them side-by-side is interesting from the perspective of contemporary graphic design. Anticipating this connection, the curators include in a large portion of the exhibition modern posters made as homage to Toulouse-Lautrec by numerous leading contemporary artists and designers. After seeing the graphic work that essentially established the genre, visitors can see what modern designers make of posters inspired by, or in homage to, Toulouse-Lautrec.

Also useful is a series of four prints, each representing one stage in the process of lithography, the earliest  method of color mechanical reproduction. The first shows the yellow color, the next adds red to the yellow — and it is still unclear as to what we are seeing. The third adds black, the main lines of the poster and the subject manifests itself. The fourth, final print adds the blue, and the lithograph is complete. The same sheet of paper would be run through each of the colors until the final, full-color work is ready. Turning these into a poster was a simple matter of adding advertising text.

Toulouse-Lautrec himself was inspired by Japanese prints, particularly those of Hokusai, which employed an older form of lithography. A number of these Japanese prints are also on display, creating a nice continuum of influence, from Japanese prints to Toulouse-Lautrec to modern admirers of his art.