The Walker Art Gallery’s Toulouse Lautrec Exhibition, High Kicks and Low Life is a delight. It manages to show the essence of his work, even in a small scale show containing only his graphic work. The show may be small scale but there is nothing small scale about his theatrical prints which fill the first section of the show, Public Passions. I love the ambition of his work when it is transferred onto a huge poster. He is showing you a whole world, not just giving you a quick peep round an open door. There is a real joy about his stage portraits, they are full of atmosphere and vitality. The line of the drawing is perfect and he uses the stage lighting to make performance images that almost seem to move and speak. He obviously loved theatre and must have relished every moment of making them. You could be sitting there among the audiences, or right next to the band, who are often silhouetted in the foreground. He gives you a front row seat to the Paris of the 1890’s. They must have been irresistible to the potential audiences who saw them on the street, advertising shows, and both the proprietors and the stars knew it. His work could put bums on seats. This made him needed, and very much part of bohemian Paris and he used that to his advantage. He needed one, as he had a lot to overcome.
The second section of the show, Private Passions, is quite different. As well as his commercial work and his large scale depictions of public café life he drew and painted tender intimate studies of café life behind closed doors, showing prostitutes and their clients, and these form a large part of the exhibition. This aspect of his work is quite beautiful. Graphically his drawings have the same clarity of line that you see in his posters, but there is a real innocence and warmth to them, maybe because of his severe health problems he was an un-threatening presence and the women felt able to allow him access to their world. There is a particularly beautiful drawing of a young prostitute in bed who has just been brought a drink by what is probably her mother. She is looking out, straight at the artist- at us- with a quiet amusement while her mother’s face is tense and closed off as she carries away the tray. It has the immediacy of a photograph. You really feel that you are there alongside him in a moment from over a hundred years ago. All of the drawings from the series Elle are like that, there is no voyeurism or judgment involved. These are real, warm, breathing people who deserve our sympathy, made by someone who understood and empathised with them. Henri knew all about a need for sympathy. His health problems meant that he was often ridiculed, one factor which may well have led to his dependence on alcohol, and it must have been a great solace to him to find acceptance and friendship where he could. He died at the age of 36 from complications due to alcoholism and syphilis. A sad end, but looking at these prints made me thankful that he had his talent and was able to find a place where he could express it.