Wednesday, January 25, 2017


I'm writing this to make a point about the purpose of the best pictorial art, but I'll need to set up an example first, and for that I offer the Moulin Rouge (above), the famous Parisian dance hall and theater as it was around the late 1890s.

The MR promoted itself as the birthplace of the Can Can. Some say it wasn't, that "kicking the Moon" had been around for decades. I dunno. What I do know is that lots of people believe this combination of Offenbach-type high energy music and eroticism was as good as entertainment gets.

 Anyway, here's (above) the outdoor beer garden in the back. Nice, eh?

To promote the Moulin the management contracted with well-known artists to turn out a series of posters which were pasted on fences and billboards all over Paris. Surely the greatest of all these artists was Lautrec. That's his very first poster for the Moulin, above. Geez, he was smoking hot right out of the starting gate.

It didn't hurt that he was working in an inventive new style that seemed to underline the hipness of the club.

The man had stiff competition. Jules Cheret (above) turned out charming posters that were dynamic and colorful.

Steinlen, the creator of the Chat Noir cat posters, emphasized the joy of people watching, of being shoulder to shoulder with dangerous, unpredictable, fun loving people (the poster above wasn't done for the Moulin but was typical of Steinlen's later work for the club).

Even so, I'll bet that for most people the laurel goes to Lautrec. Where other artists simply promised a good time, Lautrec seemed to promise something transcendent, something approaching insight and ecstasy. How the heck did he achieve that?

By way of an answer I offer two Lautrec drawings commissioned by performers at the Moulin. Both are close-ups showing a Moulin actress sitting in a carriage, but only one possesses the Lautrec magic.

 That's the second one, above. Here the actress is also in a carriage but she's unaccountably underlit as if by theatrical footlights, and she's elegant and accompanied by what looks like a rich man.

More than simple admiration it creates a yearning in the viewer to be there in that special time and place, to witness a confident performer in an exotic club in the world's most interesting city. You're induced to feel that if you miss this magical night you'll regret it for the rest of your life.

The point I'm trying to make is that Lautrec was selling adventure and a Utopian vision. He was selling dream fulfillment. In the case of the poster above he was selling the thumping of dancers on floorboards and eroticism and wild music played in blinding light.

1 comment:

Stephen Worth said...

Have you ever looked at JoJo's Leandre drawing? It looks a lot like that second Lautrec sketch