The prince of prints

September 12, 1996|By Bennard B. Perlman

HE WAS DESCENDED from royalty, the last of a long line of French successors to the House of Toulouse in Albi. And he was a graphic artist whose color lithographs made him and the medium famous.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art's stunning exhibition of the work of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec has become the art-show sleeper of the summer. It remains on view through September 29.

Popularized and sentimentalized in film and fiction, Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901) is, like his one-time art school classmate Vincent Van Gogh, nearly as well known for his physical disfigurement as for his art.

Cousin, cousine

In Lautrec's case it was the embarrassingly short height of 4 feet, 11 inches, a deformity attributed to a genetic disorder traced to his parents having been first cousins.

At 14 he fell off a horse and broke both legs, further stunting his growth. Lautrec lived a life of pain causing him to walk with a cane.

The exhibition at the Metropolitan includes more than 100

posters, prints, oils, watercolors, gouaches, pen-and-inks, chalk and pencil drawings from the collection of the museum. Well-known examples abut completely unknown ones.

The dozen spaces in which the works are displayed represent a meandering, circuitous route through the galleries that can easily remind the viewer of the winding byways of Montmartre, the source of so many of the artist's subjects.

Breaking the silence

The prospect of experiencing this lively exhibit in an environment of hushed silence, so unlike Lautrec's boisterous domains such as the Moulin Rouge, Le Mirliton and Le Cafe Concert, is solved by having a film complete with can-can music and the gaiety of the naughty Nineties of a century ago, which sound constantly fills the air.

Some early works in the show reveal none of the mastery associated with the artist's later output: Watercolors of seven sailors rowing and the likeness of a naval officer, produced when fTC he was 15, are merely average for one of that age. But Lautrec's initial poster design of a dozen years later is suddenly striking and innovative.

He incorporated many of the characteristics of Japanese art in that poster, ''Moulin Rouge: La Goulue.''

Three-dimensional illusion is eliminated in favor of a flat picture plane. His color combination -- in this case red, cadmium yellow, yellow-gray, black and white -- is unique. Detail is avoided with stress on the big picture. And a big picture it is, for at six feet in height it is taller than he could ever hope to be.

His famous ''Jane Avril'' followed soon afterward, in which a foreground musician holds the neck of a double bass that is transformed into a heavy black, curved-cornered, art-nouveau frame surrounding the dancing Avril.

Lasting ephemera

There is a certain irony to experiencing so many Lautrec posters neatly framed behind glass, considering that each advertising poster was initially placed on the kiosks and walls of Paris, where they remained until marred beyond recognition by the elements.

Toulouse-Lautrec was not the first French artist to be influenced by woodcuts from Japan, which had been opened to Western influence only after Commodore Matthew Perry's mission in 1853. Edgar Degas, who subsequently inspired Lautrec, and Edouard Manet were likewise smitten by Japonisme.

As the Metropolitan Museum's exhibition clearly reveals, one can track the style of some Toulouse-Lautrec posters back to the oriental source; the dark line of ''Jane Avril,'' for instance, was employed earlier by the Japanese artist Hokusai.

Another disclosure here concerns Lautrec's use of photographs. Just as Eugene Delacroix painted some of his figures from photos -- cheaper and less tiring for the model -- so Lautrec used pictures of dancers Loie Fuller and Jane Avril for two of his famous compositions usually attributed solely to his own artistic genius.

Lautrec recorded in stylized images the prostitutes and playwrights, dancers and denizens, the depraved and the deprived of fin-de-siecle Paris.

Less than three months prior to his death in 1901, a fresh artistic talent, Pablo Picasso, appeared on the Paris scene from his native Spain. In acknowledging Lautrec's influence, Picasso confessed, ''It was in Paris that I realized what a great painter Lautrec was.''

Soon the young Spaniard was adopting the Frenchman's blue outlines, blue portraits and bluish-white tonality to inaugurate his own much-heralded Blue Period.

Bennard B. Perlman is a Baltimore artist and author.

Pub Date: 9/12/96

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