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Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. A brilliant printmaker, he distilled Paris night life into a few lines

TRULY great draftsmen are as rare as hens' teeth. And even when one comes along, the public tends to be less interested than in the arrival of a spectacular colorist. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec is one of the major exceptions -- as much perhaps because of his exotic subject matter and erratic life style as for the brilliance of his drawing. But no matter. Art history has already tapped him as one of the immortals of 19th-century art, and one of the greatest printmakers of all time.

Should anyone doubt the latter, I heartily recommend a visit to the Museum of Modern Art to see its stunning exhibition of Lautrec's lithographs. The over 300 works on view should convince even the most determined skeptic that he belongs among the very finest graphic artists.

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A show of this size and quality doesn't automatically spring into being, of course. In this instance we have Wolfgang Wittrock, who served as its guest curator, to thank -- as well as Riva Castleman and Audrey Isselbacher, who co-ordinated it, and Mobil Corporation, which helped fund it.

Although it covers only the last decade (1891-1901) of Lautrec's short, 37-year life, this assemblage of prints, posters, and related drawings and paintings beautifully demonstrates the flexibility and innovative nature of his genius. Because it includes unique hand-colored and trial proofs showing various stages in a print's evolution, as well as printed variations derived from a single image, it exists as much as a learning experience as a purely aesthetic one.

Almost every print is an outstanding example of talent, observation, imagination, and skill distilled into a few lines, tones, textures, and -- in Lautrec's color lithographs -- hues. So autographic was his draftsmanship, and so responsive his medium, that even the most delicate touches of the lithographic crayon became as alive and provocative in his hands as any of his more complex effects. He was a virtuoso performer who drew at top speed, skimming the paper, darting in and out to emphasize a form or

accent a detail, and leaving stunning linear patterns behind as evidence of what he had seen and felt.

His ability to depict movement was uncanny. It takes a very special kind of talent, after all, to capture a flamboyant dancer's movements, features, character, and costume in a few lines that in themselves echo the excitement and wildness of the performance. Or to so render a racehorse running at full speed that we can both appreciate every detail of its form and feel what it is like to be in the jockey's place. And yet that is precisely what Lautrec did time and time again -- when he wasn't, that is, t urning out dazzling linear recapitulations of the other things the people of Paris were doing in its nightclubs, circuses, theaters, and other, less reputable establishments.

We should not, however, be fooled by the amount of gaiety we see in his work. Despair lurks below the surface of much of the fun and excitement taking place. Many of his protagonists live at night and under artificial light, and have little to sustain them but their wit and style. Lautrec understood all this, and responded by depicting these people as he saw them and as they saw themselves. He didn't judge them as he might have, considering that his was one of the oldest and most distinguished families in France. True enough, he may have pointed out the physical peculiarities of certain cabaret dancers, clowns, actresses, members of the upper classes who came to ogle, and others, but he never did so with the intention to hurt or embarrass.

By almost never crossing the line into caricature -- the few exceptions being illustrated menus, designs for magazine covers, and advertisements -- he was able to retain the sense of compassionate humanity that underlies even the most flamboyant of his images. Everything he drew was precise and particular -- be it a mouse, a circus ringmaster plying his trade, or a bevy of showgirls kicking up their heels -- although it usually was, at the same time, as elegantly rendered as anything has been these past

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200 or so years.

Lautrec was fascinated by what differentiates one person from another, and so he never transformed an individual into a type. And neither would it have occurred to him to organize his pictures according to predetermined compositional schemes or formal ideals. In all things and at all times he followed the dictates of what he saw and felt, and in this case he was perfectly willing to allow his subjects' actions to determine his work's design. Life was too rich and varied to be boxed in by theory. And bes ides, his genius was such that he could always trust it to come up with something new.

Or at least he could until the end of his life. His very last years were difficult, with only occasional flashes of creativity. His color became increasingly dark and heavy, and his draftsmanship lost much of the verve that had previously distinguished it. And yet the basic style and elegance remained, perhaps not in as pure a form as before, but certainly to a greater degree than was the case with all but two or three of Lautrec's older contemporaries and with the just-emerging Egon Schiele and Pablo P icasso -- both of whom were significantly influenced by him.

Just how magnificent a talent Lautrec had is made abundantly clear in his truly first-rate exhibition. It is the most ambitious presentation to date of his graphic production, and one of the most convincing demonstrations of lithography's ability to enchant and provoke that has ever been assembled.

At the Museum of Modern Art through Jan. 26, 1986. Tickets are required and are available on a same-day, time-designated basis at a desk adjacent to the exhibition area.

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