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Lautrec Reveled in Ribald Paris

Retrospective shows how the artist treated the city's underclass with wit and canny charm. ART EXHIBITION

ALL over Paris, on public walls, the windows and doors of bistros, shops and buses, even in the most modest little grocery stores, the posters for art exhibitions confirm the obvious. The heart of Paris is the love of art.

On Rue Galilee look above the tomatoes and strawberries in a grocery store no bigger than an opera balcony; there hangs a vibrant poster for a major retrospective of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec's works at the Grand Palais National Galleries.

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Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901) would have loved to see his poster there, coequal as it is with a stack of fresh fruits. He once told his cousin, Tapie de Celeyran, "The poster, that's the only thing." But he was also a man so enamored with the taste and preparation of food that he wrote and illustrated a cookbook filled with joyous but vague recipes.

Toulouse-Lautrec's Paris, as he painted and drew it at the end of the century, was vastly energetic and bawdy, almost explosive with encouragement for all les arts plastiques, defined then as sculpture, painting, the new art of photography, lithography, and printmaking.

The intent among artists and writers was to break away from the "academism" of the past, to liquidate the l9th century with the ideas and styles emerging from a different energy.

Commercial posters, for instance, became so popular during the era that Paris auctioned off space on the public walls in an effort to control the proliferation.

French governments, no matter how their politics bloodied the nation, have a history of promoting arts and artists in Paris.

Louis XIV, one of the more robust patrons of the arts, started the Academie de France a Rome, which still operates today as a center for French artists. And after the French Revolution, the Louvre Palace, shorn of the monarchy, was thrown open as a museum.

Not long after World War II, President Charles de Gaulle added a Ministry of Culture to his cabinet. Today, with an unabashed annual budget of $2 billion, the Ministry of Culture encompasses all the arts to a degree not found in many other countries in the world.

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In Toulouse-Lautrec's day, as a product of an aristocratic family from Albi, there was no parental hesitancy to encourage him to do what he wanted, to play outside, to read, to attend the theater, to learn English and sketch everything around him.

"Henri sings from morning to night," wrote his grandmother of his early years. "He's a little cricket that cheers up the whole house."

The little cricket was fragile. In his boyhood he was forced into periods of immobility by weak bone structure in his legs. During his convalescence he drew from memory for hours, often horses he had seen during the artillery maneuvers or hunts on one of his family's estates.

His "L'Artilleur Sellant son Cheval," a vigorous oil painting of a horse done when Toulouse-Lautrec was a teenager, reveals his fondness for a strong central figure. The figure was seldom drawn straight-on and usually had a partially developed background providing nothing more than color and an ancillary setting.

Eventually this approach would lead to his understanding that an effective poster had to have stunning boldness with big areas of bright colors and not much detail. Often he synthesized a moment of action or a glancing look in a poster and allowed only a limited number of posters before he defaced the master stone.

Jules Cheret was considered the leading poster artist in Paris at the time, designing with confetti-like atmospheres. Toulouse-Lautrec's posters verified why "less is more." Eventually Cheret refered to Toulouse-Lautrec as "a master" because he not only revolutionized poster art, but knew the intimate mechanical details of lithography.

When Toulouse-Lautrec moved to Montmartre, a working-class part of Paris, it was more than a symbolic move away from the "academy," but in truth an immersion in the cabarets, dance halls, and brothels there. In this spirited and seamy place, Toulouse-Lautrec moved as a participant and witness.

It was not so much a rebellious spirit that led him there but a combination of factors; without any financial limitations and exuberantly in love with life, he welcomed the excitement and companionship of people who were unaffected in the exhibition of their appetites and talents.

Nor was he interested in the political or social implications of life in Montmartre. What led him to draw the stage performers, dancers, and women in brothels was their guileless humanity, however tainted the world viewed their excesses and activities.

It is this humanity that marks Toulouse-Latrec's faithfulness to his view of life. Without lewdness or provocation, he draws the Paris underworld in anecdote, natural gestures, and rest, amazingly clear about his vision while his personal life was slipping into drunken ruin.

At first Paris was shocked by Toulouse-Lautrec's subject matter. Compared to the brutal, provocative images of a Robert Mapplethorpe, whose work is shocking to much of the public today, Toulouse-Lautrec's work ultimately touches the heart rather than making political or sexual statements.

Most of Toulouse-Lautrec's familiar works and portrayals are in the exhibition: Aristide Bruant, Jane Avril, La Goulue, Yvette Guilbert, Tristan Bernard, many of the brothel drawings, theater drawings, and a number of the scenes at the Moulin Rouge.

The show is the first major retrospective of his work since l964 in Paris, and some of the major paintings from United States museums have not been shown in France since l931. The exhibition closes June 1, l992.

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