Marking the 150th anniversary of his birth, the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest has put on a unique exhibition dedicated to celebrated French artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.
One of the best-known painters of the post-impressionist period along with Cézanne, Van Gogh and Gauguin, Toulouse-Lautrec was a colourful figure who became famous for his depictions of the late 19th century Parisian nightlife.
“Our Lautrec collection is one of the largest in the world, we have more than 200 pictures. It was last on show 50 years ago, for the 100th anniversary of the artist’s birth,” said the museum’s director, László Baán.
As a young artist, Toulouse-Lautrec established himself in the bohemian neighbourhood of Montmartre in Paris, which he rarely left for the next 20 years. When the Moulin Rouge dance hall opened, he was commissioned to produce a series of posters, which are now famous around the world.
“Many dancers, show girls and singers were happy with Lautrec’s placards, for example Jane Avril. But Yvette Guilbert didn’t like his style. She thought the portraits of her were ugly,” said the show’s curator, Kata Bodor.
“But Lautrec wasn’t focusing on drawing a pretty or an ugly face,” she adds. “What he wanted to do was capture the character of the person he was depicting. He believed that was the key to a good advertisement.”
In Lautrec’s time, French celebrities often came to Budapest to perform. French cabaret theatre was unforgiving in its social and political satire.
“It was a privilege to be the subject of a French cabaret show at the time. That’s why Lautrec was brave not to depict perfect beauties on his posters,” says theatre historian Tamás Gajdó.
“Even Yvette Guilbert or Sarah Bernhardt were far from perfect. Special costumes were designed for Sarah Bernhardt to hide her physical imperfections. Lautrec was brave enough to show the real characters as they were. Maybe this was the secret of his success.”
An aristocrat whose parents were first cousins, Toulouse-Lautrec was himself physically challenged, suffering from congenital disease and stunted growth.
But his own ugliness meant celebrities and prostitutes felt unthreatened by him and let him into their world, allowing the artist to depict the secret daytime lives of those working in Paris’ nightclubs and brothels.
“Lautrec wanted to show that the nightclubs were not visited by female guests but by men who came there as clients. So he wanted to document the everyday life of the prostitutes, their daily routine which was the same any other woman’s: waking up in the morning with messed up hair, having a bath, chatting with other women, and waiting for the clients, resigned but sometimes with a smile on their face,” explained the exhibition’s Kata Bodor.
A heavy alcoholic, Toulouse-Lautrec died in 1901 at the age of 36.
Throughout a prolific career that spanned less than 20 years, he created thousands of pieces of work including some 5,000 drawings and an unknown number of lost works.
‘The World of Toulouse-Lautrec’ is on at the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest until the end of August.