Genius is in short supply -- especially in the field of prints. But when the quality is present in an etching or a lithograph, it burns with a particularly bright light.
Such is the case with Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, whose genius found perfect expression in the lithographic medium. In his hands lithography reached new heights of expressiveness, becoming freer, more immediate, and more colorful.
One hundred and twenty-five of the most delicate, brilliant, and perceptive lithographs ever made are on view here at the Theodore Donson Gallery through May 31, the largest and most comprehensive assemblage of Lautrec prints in New York in 30 years.Lautrec's wizardry with the lithographic crayon are seen in published lithographs, posters, book illustrations, and song sheet covers. And there are several rare prints not found in any American public collection.
If genius is rare, so is great draftsmanship. Of the important printmakers of the past century, only three -- Lautrec, Picasso, and Matisse -- have established their right to be called great draftsmen. And of the three, Lautrec probably had the greatest natural facility for drawing.
Lautrec was an aristocrat by birth and by temperament, a belated offshoot of the ancien regime.m His art has an innate elegance, grandeur, and mannerliness which puts him closer in many ways to the aristocratic Van Dyck of the 17th century than to his immediate contemporary Van Gogh.
To a large extent his art is about manners, about how people lived, got along with one another, and survived or broke through the stratifications of society. He painted and drew the breakdown of one social order and the emergence of another. In portraying his fellowman he was frequently caustic, occasionally compassionate, but always ruthlessly observant.
He could also be tender. Seldom has the animal kingdom been so gently and lovingly drawn as in his illustrations for Renard's "Histoires Naturelles." His small mouse, for instance, is lightly sketched in the center of a page, and has all the nervous quiveringness of every tiny rodent caught helplessly in the open.
But above all Lautrec was brilliant and effervescent. He sparkled. He was seldom less than enchanting, and never dull or boring.
Lautrec was a virtuoso performer with crayon or brush. He drew at high speed , skimming the paper, darting in and out to emphasize a form or accent a detail, or completing elegant combinations of curves and angles -- leaving stunning linear patterns behind as evidence of what he had seen and felt. He was restless, imaginative, and inventive -- as though what he dreaded most was to be pedestrian and banal.
No subject is more difficult to capture in a few lines than a dancer at the height of his or her act. It requires a particular kind of anatomical insight and a high degree of concentration to produce an image which shows movement and character at the same time. This kind of drawing was second nature to Lautrec, who drew a succession of dancers in the most dramatic and difficult positions with the same apparent ease he drew cobblestones and men's top hats.
This exhibition is particularly rich in theatrical subjects, including several prints of the fabulous Yvette Guilbert -- and and others of Jane Avril, Cecy Loftus, La Goulue, Marcelle Lender, and Jeanne Granier. But my favorite for sheer bounce and vitality is "Miss Ida Heath." Only an absolutely first-rate talent could have caught this dancer's movement, anatomy, character, and lighting so simply and elegantly.
It is this combination of character and free-flowing line which sets Lautrec apart from all other draftsmen. One always recognizes the unique individual within every image he drew because of his particular attention to the irregularities in his subject's facial and body features. In this respect he came dangerously close to being a caricaturist. What saved him and made these studies of the shadier aspects of Parisian night life so impressive and alive was his ability to keep all the elements of his art at a high pitch but balanced and controlled by his exquisite taste and sensibility.
There was nothing innocent about the world Lautrec frequented or drew. Despair lurks below the surface of the excitement and fun we see going on. Most of the protagonists of his pictorial dramas live at night and under artificial light --though what they have of that is magnificent.
In many ways Lautrec's attitude toward the people who frequented the cafes and nightclubs of Paris was the same as his attitude toward the little mouse he drew so lovingly. In both instances he portrayed their vulnerability. But more important, he drew them all with such a light and responsive touch that one knows he shared the vulnerability with them --