NGA Curator Simeran Maxwell on Toulouse-Lautrec Blockbuster

NGA Curator Simeran Maxwell on Toulouse-Lautrec Blockbuster
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec "The sofa [Le sofa]" (detail) c.1894-96 The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York - Rogers Fund, 1951
(Image Courtesy National Gallery of Australia, Canberra)

The National Gallery of Australia’sToulouse-Lautrec: Paris & the Moulin Rouge” exhibition is the first major retrospective in Australia of renowned French 19th century artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.  The exhibition, currently on show until 2 April 2013, examines the artist’s abilities as an acute observer of Parisian life, his skill as a draughtsman, his experimentation in composition, and the brilliance of his technical execution in all media.

More than 120 works, many of which have never been exhibited publicly before, tell the story of Toulouse-Lautrec’s career from his earliest works to his extraordinary depictions of the Paris social scene, the dance halls, the café-concerts, the brothels and theatres. The exhibition will shed new light on Toulouse-Lautrec through an examination of his involvement in Parisian culture—the high life and the low life.

To find out more about the life and times of Toulouse-Lautrec, Nicholas Forrest, Executive Editor of Artinfo Australia, spoke to National Gallery of Australia Assistant Curator Simeran Maxwell.

What prompted the development of the Toulouse-Lautrec exhibition?

Toulouse-Lautrec is the fruit of over 3 years worth of work. The Senior Curator of International Art Dr Jane Kinsman was previously the curator of the 2008 exhibition Degas: Master of French Art and for her this was a logical next step. Although both artists’ careers were extremely different, as was their work, Toulouse-Lautrec drew particular inspiration from the older Edgar Degas in subjects as well as technique.

Was the exhibition curated around a particular theme?

The exhibition is Australia’s first major retrospective of the artist’s entire oeuvre – spanning the period from his youth and student period right up to his death in 1901. The exhibition has been divided into 6 main themes to help audiences better understand the breadth and depth of Toulouse-Lautrec’s quite large artistic output. These themes all relate to his work in Paris which became his home and the epicentre of his art. The exhibition starts with his early years and work as an art student in Paris, as well as his brief experimentation with Impressionism. The following rooms are laid out thematically and explore the man-about-town, the model, the houses of tolerance or brothels, and the largest section covers the cabaret culture, finishing with several of his finest late paintings. We have included his work in all mediums: painting, prints, drawings and his popular posters.

Does the artist's fascinating life overshadow his artistic talent?

Although I think Toulouse-Lautrec’s art is popular with many people, especially his bright and colourful posters, many may not be aware of many interesting facets of his life – even despite featuring in movies such as Moulin Rouge! and Midnight in Paris. His heady and fast lifestyle had a great influence on his artistic output. If he had been a loaner or a wall flower he would not have spent so much time at the bars, dancehalls and cabarets and created many of his most spectacular works. I don’t think it overshadows the works but I think a little knowledge of the man behind the art helps people to better understand why he became an artist and why he became so obsessed with Paris, its inhabitants and its nightlife.

Will an Australian audience approach Toulouse-Lautrec's work in a different way to a European audience?

People the world over love the art of Toulouse-Lautrec. Australian audiences, however, have less opportunity to see the artist’s work so this is a very exciting event for them. The art itself has universal appeal.

It seems that Toulouse-Lautrec used style and technique to convey particular emotions and recreate a sense of atmosphere.  Is it because the viewer can immerse themselves in the drama and tension of the scenes in his paintings that Toulouse-Lautrec is such an approachable artist?

Certainly one of Toulouse-Lautrec’s defining talents was ability to create great atmosphere and evoke emotion within works and is one of the key reasons why he has stayed such an enduringly popular artist. His posters, made to advertise nightspots and performers on the streets of 19th-century Paris, still attract attention with their great sense of liveliness and modernity. He so effectively created a sense of excitement which drew crowds to the venues – they could easily be used to advertise them today. His paintings have a slightly more sombre tone to them. They still capture the electrifying atmosphere of places such as the Moulin Rouge but there is a subtle undercurrent which suggests that behind the glittering lights the lives of some of the stars of the Parisian stage were quite hard at times.

It is the excitement and the sympathy which he demonstrates in his art which ensures his continuing appeal to the 21st-century audience.