MANCHESTER, N.H. — The singer Yvette Guilbert remembered her first encounter with Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec in her memoir. She noted his “oily, greasy skin,” his mouth like “a large open wound,” and “flabby, flattened lips.” His eyes?
She found them luminous.
Guilbert was among the gaggle of Parisian chanteuses, dancers, and prostitutes Lautrec befriended as he made his way through his brief, prolific life.
His charm no doubt disarmed anyone put off by his appearance. After Lautrec broke both legs as a youth, he stopped growing, and stood at 4 feet 11 inches. His wealthy family kept his pockets lined, but they bestowed him with genetic baggage. His parents were first cousins; the family encouraged intermarrying to preserve their wealth and maintain the purity of the lineage. Lautrec was not the only one of his generation with a congenital disease.
He was brilliant. A 19th-century Andy Warhol, he capitalized on celebrity culture and purveyed his art through multiples. “The Paris of Toulouse-Lautrec: Prints and Posters From the Museum of Modern Art,” at the Currier Museum of Art through Jan. 7, cavorts through the bars and cabarets of fin-de-siècle Paris.
Lautrec painted, but he is best known for his beguiling, witty lithographs and posters. He found the medium endlessly inspiring, and MoMA has a rare trove. Sarah Suzuki, the museum’s associate curator of the department of drawings and prints, organized the show.
The artist was caught up in the fever for all things Japanese that held France in its sway in the late 19th century. Taking a cue from ukiyo-e prints of kabuki actors, he, too, portrayed stars with great economy of line, relying on telltale features — a topknot, a beaky nose, a pair of gloves — to identify well-known performers.
Many of his compositions spin around raking diagonals, also familiar from Japanese woodblock prints. It’s the central design element in a poster for “Reine de joie (Queen of Joy),” a trashy novel by his friend Victor Joze, the story of a fat cat, the Baron de Rozenfeld, and his arm candy.
The couple canoodles at the dinner table, which slants vertiginously across the picture — she in a flashy red dress, he in a black waistcoat and a poor comb-over. Baron Alphonse de Rothschild claimed the tale was defamatory and anti-Semitic, and sued to halt the distribution of the book and the poster.
Scandale! But unseemliness was Lautrec’s element. A well-to-do aristocrat who ate with his pious mother nearly every night, he spent much of his time in the bordellos and cabarets of Montmartre, the tawdry part of town. Indeed, for a time he lived in a brothel, and drew on that experience when a publisher commissioned a portfolio of erotica, “Elles.”
It’s an exquisite, rather dear, series of prints. Commercially, it flopped — at best, it’s only tangentially erotic. Nor is it like Degas’s abrasive brothel scenes, which Lautrec likely knew. Images such as “Femme au tub (Woman at the Tub)” more closely resemble Degas’s benign depictions of women washing, and Kitagawa Utamaro’s series about courtesans — unsentimental, but intimate. And Lautrec’s waggish sense of humor, which came across in so many antic celebrity posters, here winks fondly at the ordinary awkwardness of a woman bending to pour water into her bath.
Lautrec loved women, and perhaps feared them. He never cultivated a long-term romantic relationship. He developed obsessions with women performers, and many of those turned into friendships. He was, perhaps, enmeshed with his cher maman, who slept with her son until he was 8.
There’s affection but also something cutting in his depictions of the women who sang, danced, and clowned at clubs such as the Moulin Rouge and Les Ambassadeurs. Guilbert complained that he depicted her as “atrociously ugly.” In illustrations Lautrec made for a book about her, her long neck extends comically, and her mouth is generally grim.
Like Lautrec, the dancer Jane Avril suffered from a congenital condition. During her childhood it caused spasms, from which she ultimately conceived her trademark dance moves. She was a frequent subject, and a great friend, who attributed her fame to Lautrec’s depictions of her.
Lautrec’s poster of Avril on stage in a red skirt, hoisting one black-stockinged leg up, has a striking composition — the gray border swoops into the neck of a double bass in the orchestra pit. A hairy-fingered troll of a bassist appears in shadow below the border with his sheet music. It’s genius, really, a beauty-and-the-beast picture of the music’s febrile call-and-response with the dance as Avril’s eyelids droop in erotic languor.
The artist worked and played devilishly hard in the last decade of the 19th century. He curdled his liver with absinthe, and he contracted syphilis. In 1899, he spent months in a sanatorium, and after his release things only got worse. A stroke killed him in 1901. He was 36.
His prints and posters burble with revelry, but there are moments of darkness. In an otherwise jaunty social scene, “Irish American Bar, Rue Royale,” all is outlined in gold: the bartender, his boss, and two patrons. One is Tom, Baron Rothschild’s coachman, a plump fellow, his face a map of woe. The midnight blue wall behind the barkeep — an unusual block of pure, deep color for Lautrec — seems to match Tom’s mood. And it makes all else — the revelry, the drinks — a kind of dream or folly. Or perhaps a cabaret.
THE PARIS OF TOULOUSE-LAUTREC: Prints and Posters From the Museum of Modern Art
At Currier Museum of Art, 150 Ash St., Manchester, N.H., through Jan. 7. 603-669-6144, www.currier.orgCate McQuaid can be reached at email@example.com.