Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Arsenic / Absinthe in the Limelight - Green in the work of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec [1864-1901] seems almost like a figure from mythology. You couldn't make up a person like that, except perhaps as a figure in a French fairy tale. Physically deformed from an early age--legs stunted so that he never exceeded 4' 8" in height--he managed to create an unique body of stunning work in just a few short years, before succumbing to the effects of alcoholism and syphilis.     

As a painter, Lautrec occupies a crucial position in the history of art, just after the ascendancy of Impressionism, but before the great iconoclastic convulsions of Modernism (pointillism, cubism, futurism, Dada, constructivism, etc.). His work is frankly representational, but infused with special qualities and innovative effects. His subject was Paris night-life, the garish watering holes of the well-to-do, as well as the brothels and circuses and bohemian quarter. 

Though high-born, with means, his physical deformity meant that the social circles of respectable class were closed to him, so he fell in with the lower elements with which he came to identify. 

Nearly everyone is familiar with his raffish poster designs, the nudes and dancers and candid vignettes. They recreate a fin-de-siecle Paris world, decadent, dilettantish, gestural, piquant, forsaken,  sad, vicarious, naughty.   

There are many ways to approach Lautrec's art. In it are aspects of exhibitionism, degeneracy, burlesque, casual malignity--all of which Lautrec portrays with a directness which belies his shrewd sympathetic regard. The figures in his art, though often seemingly lost to virtue, are interesting, intriguing, enmeshed in a closed world of sexual longing, frustration, and occasional bacchanalian abandon. Indulgence seems its underlying motive-force, with the predictable aftermath of boredom, fatigue and shame. 

One of the chief aspects of this transgressive atmosphere in Lautrec's use of color to shade meaning and spin aura is the subtle application of the color green. The more I've looked at Lautrec's work lately, the more noticeable this aspect seems. 

Lautrec was known to favor absinthe, the spirit liqueur which was once thought to generate hallucinations and visions, but which recent science has proven to be a myth. Nevertheless, artists and bohemians in late 19th Century Europe popularized the notion that the "green fairy" could seduce imbibers into a deadly addiction. Absinthe became a late romantic indulgence, hence its appearance in Lautrec's paintings of Paris cabaret and bistro culture. 

Absinthe appears frequently in the paintings, and its potent green color acquires a symbolic reference, a code for the dissolution and decadence of the epoch. The more you look at Lautrec's work, the more you notice this green tint, not just in representations of clothing, or decor, but around the edges of things, in the shadows, or in the outlines of figures or objects. 

The more you look, the more you see that many of Lautrec's paintings are virtually immersed in a shimmering, evanescent pale, lurid green numinosity, which signals the influence of mortality and cultivated decay. Sometimes it's obvious, other times more subtle.

One of the revolutionary elements of Modern Art is its counter-intuitive use of color, an aspect that became like a signature of the new style at the turn of the last century. We would expect that Lautrec, like Cezanne or Matisse or Monet, would use combinations and contrasts that challenge our assumptions about the actual appearance of hue; but in many of Lautrec's paintings, green doesn't just appear, innocently, as a delight and titillation to the eye. It has an explicit, subconscious presence. 

Ask yourself, looking at the painting above, what the purpose of all that green on the sheets and faces and pillows is? It almost seems a kind of ethereal plasm which covers everything in the scene. 

Ordinarily, we would say that the use of convergent, even clashing colors in a modernist composition is evidence of the panchromatic argument about the complexity of our apprehension of light, and how painters will play with that notion to achieve various effects. But in these works, it seems more an intention--conscious or not--

If a color can acquire a metaphorical connection beyond its initial associations, then anyone's version of the significance of an association is no better or worse than another's. Lautrec seems to have become habituated to using green the same way Morandi uses grey, or Ingres uses carmine, or de Kooning uses yellow. 

Does green have a moral quality for Lautrec? Does it symbolize elegance, richness, serenity? Or is it a code for corruption, depravity or obscenity? 

Historically, the color green itself seems to have had a kind of furtive, baleful association, since its chemical combination once included arsenic, a notorious poison. In the 19th Century, arsenic was used in wallpaper, women's clothing, and soaps, as well as artists' paint-boxes. Its dangers, though not well understood, were known to be harmful. 

In my mind, these qualities of green are conflated, in ways I suspect might well have occurred to Lautrec.     



Limelight, the type of theatre-lighting once used in the 19th Century, to illuminate performance, might seem like another planet in this constellation of associations, though it's not really green--employing an oxide of calcium (lime) to produce an intense flame light when subjected to an oxyhydrogen flame. 

This detail, from the first image shown at the top, is like a mask, a dream image conjured out of the fantasy of the unconscious. It shows an upturned woman's face, with unreal cream and lurid green features, corn-yellow hair, and orange-y red lips. It's both hypnotically strange, but also unexpressive and doll-like. A face that's been transformed by the glare of artificial light into an icon of modernity--not unlike those courtesans in Picasso's Demoiselles d'Avignon

That green cast overshadows much of the "scenic" background in Lautrec's work, and for me it's the underlying meaning and affectation of his aesthetic, suggesting both the attraction of the sensual, and the jeopardy of mortality. 

Lautrec stands somewhat apart from these things. As a participant, he drank his absinthe cocktail (the combination of equal parts absinthe (or pernod) and cognac) to excess, and slept with prostitutes, whom he used as models. He lived hard, and produced great art, documenting a segment of society which today strikes us as supremely decadent and over-indulgent. And he only lived 36 years. To paraphrase, are we as full of life as life was full in him? 


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