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Toulouse-Lautrec portrays cabaret performers

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THE women Henri Toulouse-Lautrec liked to paint - who ranged from serious actresses via Montmartre nightclub dancers and singers to the abused, sad creatures of the Parisian brothels - were by no means always beautiful. One who was, however, was the young wife of a friend of the artist called Misia Natanson. He painted a poster of this ``radiant and sibylline'' woman.

But she didn't like his portrait of her. And she wasn't the first of his subjects to complain that this antiromantic, caustic painter had distorted her features.

``Lautrec,'' she said, ``why do your always make women so ugly?''

``Because they are,'' was his answer.

But Lautrec's quick, witty rejoinders were clearly often a guise hiding his actual feelings. His deeper sensibility is more than apparent in the subtleties of his paintings and drawings.

For all their frequently emphasized ``objectivity,'' their ``cruel and implacable observation,'' in the words of one contemporary critic, they continually betray a fellow-feeling with his subjects, particularly his female ones, that amounts to a kind of sympathy.

Enormously self-conscious about his extraordinarily little stature and obsessed (as is shown in a host of brilliantly self-teasing caricatures of his face) with a sense of his own physical ugliness, he was sometimes accused of tarring the world around him with his own brush.

It was as if he could only feel at home with the degraded and grotesque - or at least with those who had, for reasons of hardship or showmanship, become outsiders from conventional society.

There is, however, another way of looking at it. He himself criticized those who were incapable of appreciating the ``beauty in ugliness.''

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