Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was tiny — just 4 feet, 11 inches, with a perpetually runny nose and brittle bones likely due to a hereditary condition brought on by his aristocratic family’s generational practice of marrying first cousins. A mite of a man, he nonetheless looms large in any telling of the bohemian scene of fin-de-siècle Paris, and those tellings have been legion. How many Toulouse-Lautrec exhibitions has the world seen? Twenty-eight major solo museum shows in the last decade alone — one of them at the Museum of Fine Arts, in 2009 — according to Widewalls, a London-based art database, testament to the diminutive artist’s powerhouse box-office pull. Famously drawn to the performers of his day, Toulouse-Lautrec’s name now sits highest on the marquee.
In any event, along this well-trod path comes the MFA’s “Toulouse-Lautrec and the Stars of Paris,” the museum’s summer blockbuster, with its 199 pieces making a big footprint in its gallery reserved for marquee shows. Let’s not mince words: I was more than a little leery when I saw his name on the MFA’s list of spring offerings, and more so given the real estate involved. On its face, such easy crowd-pleasing fare feels a little tone deaf to the moment, with most museums — the MFA included — embracing the urgent tenor of the times (Bouchra Khalili’s “22 Hours,” a new video work exhuming local history around the Black Panther Party, opened here not two weeks ago).
Trotting out an inoffensive greatest hit, of which Toulouse-Lautrec surely is one, can on its face feel lazy, a throwback to a simpler, less-engaged time. But “Toulouse-Lautrec and the Stars of Paris” is anything but lazy, and performs the delicate balancing act of pleasing the casual fan while deepening the understanding of the artist and his context. It connects present to past in ways I hadn’t expected, linking celebrity obsession and self-branding across a century and a half — were there an Instagram in fin-de-siècle Montmartre, Toulouse-Lautrec would be an influencer sans pareil — while sketching a fuller picture of a foundational avant-garde. It goes beyond the artist’s penchant for naughty hedonism — that’s the crowd-pleasing part — and reveals his interests as a social critic, a creative engine, and a tender heart. It’s a Toulouse-Lautrec show as much about Toulouse-Lautrec as the sparkling moment of liberty and social change in which he dwelled.
Like the artist, the show has vitality. You’re greeted in the opening gallery with a pair of towering mirrored prints of Aristide Bruant, a bourgeois who built his cabaret performer brand as a man of the people, in black boots, cowboy hat, and a shock of red scarf. Among its home runs is its borrowing of several films from the Lumiere Foundation, which bring its galleries to jaw-dropping life: Digitally remastered and unnervingly clear, the Lumiere Brothers’ late-19th century Paris is suddenly vibrant and dynamic — horse-drawn carriages dodge traffic in gridlock; frilly-bloomered can-can dancers flash undergarments and taunting grins — as Toulouse-Lautrec would have known it. They make his gleeful, action-packed scenes all the more alive.
Alive, of course, is really the best word for his short life’s work. He died of over-drinking and complications likely due to syphilis at 34, which would be a comic bon vivant cliché well-matched to his indulgent era were it not so truly sad. But he packed a ton of living, and a ton of making, into his abbreviated time, and the MFA does well to break the hedonist myth and weave the artist through the bubbling scene all around him.
We see a young — though he was always young — artist obsessed with Edgar Degas, whose misanthropic ways proved impenetrable to the youthful enthusiast (when approached, the elder artist abruptly rebuffed him). He painted horses, like his hero, all the same — lively and fluid, like a breeze caught on paper. Later on in the show, we see a teenage Pablo Picasso pay Toulouse-Lautrec particular homage with his tiny painting “Stuffed Shirts,” of a cabaret performer preening for a faceless audience of men in tuxedos. Even the most influential artist of all time had heroes, and Toulouse-Lautrec was one.
He occupied a fluid moment of social and creative change, when the seamy avant-garde Montmartre scene had begun to draw the well-heeled Parisian bourgeoisie to its bawdy cabarets. Industrialization was on the rise; new fortunes were being made. Status no longer relied exclusively on being high-born — though Toulouse-Lautrec was, the heir of a southern Count — and the traditional line between classes and culture, high and low, was dissolving.
A decade or so before, Edouard Manet had opened a window between worlds with his masterful painting of the Parisian underclass — prostitutes and barmaids, beggars and squalor — giving birth, some say, to Modernism. If Manet opened the gate, Toulouse-Lautrec was the one who tramped most gleefully across the divide, leaving his high-born privilege behind.
Advertisers were learning that images compelled, and that sex could sell. Toulouse-Lautrec was fluent in all of it. He painted posters and adverts with the same unbridled glee as a portrait. A huge ad here for bicycle chains (“La Chaine Simpson”) feels just as dynamic as his drawings of his favorite performers: a keenly expressive image of Jane Avril, the red-haired siren who inspired Nicole Kidman’s performance in the 2001 movie “Moulin Rouge,” in an uncomfortable arch, entwined with a snake; or Yvette Guilbert, a bawdy singer so famous she was recognizable only by her gloves.
He chronicled a new Paris, where mixing between classes became not just accepted but fashionable. He could also be a critic — a bloated tux-clad gentleman lasciviously pawing a young woman on his lap uncomfortably closer in “Reine de Joie”; an Englishman at a bar primly propositioning a pair of dubious looking courtesans. The artist captures their mood in color: The Englishman lacks definition, shaded head-to-toe in dull aubergine.
Action was the mark of Toulouse-Lautrec’s work, which I think is partly why it endures. Photography of his time was stilted and mannered, partly because of the long exposures required to capture subjects in focus. His pictures, meanwhile, nearly quiver with ebullient energy. One of my favorites is of the singer Albert Caudieux, famous for his twitchy, kinetic performance. In a poster for his show, he’s on the move, eyes wide. You’ll never see a still image that more suggests perpetual motion.
So it’s surprising, then, that Toulouse-Lautrec could also be still. Of the many things it is — many, many things, over a half-dozen galleries with drawings, prints, photographs, films, hats, shoes, and a particularly striking gilded art-nouveau lamp — “Toulouse-Lautrec and the Stars of Paris” is a showcase of the deep trove of the artist’s work held by the Boston Public Library, much of it on public view here for the first time.
One of those is “Elles,” a portfolio of prostitutes made by the artist in one of the brothels he frequented (by the end of his life, he was a permanent resident). They are notably discreet and chaste: A woman cleaning up, face turned; another tucked in a rumple of sheets, eyes closed. Amid the bright colors and constant movement, the artist chose this as his moment to be still, imbuing his downtrodden subjects a tender dignity.
It can be a challenge to rethink an artist so overexposed, and while the MFA doesn’t tear down and rebuild, it does widen the conventional lens. It offers a view of celebrity as a construct, then as now, and the artist as its lead architect in chief, with every picture a building block of his own enduring renown. I doubt that’s what he intended, but here we are: A tiny artist with a towering reputation, put in context and now made just a little bit deeper.
TOULOUSE-LAUTREC AND THE STARS OF PARIS
At Museum of Fine Arts, 465 Huntington Ave., through Aug. 4. 617-267-9300, www.mfa.org
Murray Whyte can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @TheMurrayWhyte.