Toulouse Lautrec or the underrated artist. Great exhibition at Palazzo Roverella in Rovigo


By John

Strange fate that of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (Albi, 1864 – Saint-André-du-Bois, 1901). Popular, indeed very popular, thanks also to the cinema which turned him into a character, almost as if he were part of those shows that he described through painting; present in our visual memory for his short stature (a genetic disease, due to the fact that his parents, nobles, were first cousins, and two accidents caused him to have a normal bust and two legs as a child, for a height of only 1 meter and 52 cm); at a superficial examination, above all creator of posters and singer of that French historical period between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries known as the Belle Époque, so much so that he appears overwhelmed by images of dancers, singers, prostitutes and heavy drinkers. A popularity which, however, has passed on more of his “midget” image, as they told him, than his more authentic personality and, at least for the general public, has remained distant from the substance and quality of his art. Almost as if he is a major character and a minor painter. Therefore, the exhibition hosted in Palazzo Roverella in Rovigo until June 30th, promoted by the Cassa di Risparmio di Padova e Rovigo Foundation with the Municipality of Rovigo and the Accademia dei Concordi, arrives as necessary.
The exhibition, produced by Dario Cimorelli Editore (which publishes the ponderous and interesting catalogue), is curated by Jean-David Jumeau-Lafond, Francesco Parisi and Fanny Girard (director of the Toulouse-Lautrec Museum in Albi), with the collaboration of Nicholas Zmelty (posters and engravings section). The result, in fact, in some ways is even surprising because it gives back to Toulouse-Lautrec everything that is Toulouse-Lautrec, starting with his peculiarities as a painter, without naturally neglecting his famous affiches. Far from adhering to currents, but always tied to the full freedom of his artistic curiosity (much before social, as some of his subjects might suggest), the French painter went through impressionism, post-impressionism, naturalism and even symbolism, all leading back to his personal desire to visually tell what he saw, misrepresented by his gaze. Because, precisely, his works are narratives, sometimes rich in a color that signifies movement, others almost monochrome (not to mention a sort of unfinished, almost tending towards the dissolution of bodies, which precedes so much art after him), ready to fade into distant thoughts.
Let's be clear, I don't think that Toulouse-Lautrec was even consciously seeking introspection, rather it seems that his eyes on the world and the people who inhabit it – or rather that particular world of Parisian dancing cabarets, which today we would call nightlife – capture distant aspects , premonitions and sensations, with the typical prescient sensitivity of a true artist, who cannot experience, even intensely, the superficiality and “damnation” of entertainment linked to sex and alcohol without also seeing the tragic ending. Let's not forget that, in the last years of his short life, Toulouse-Lautrec, alcoholic and ill, still had with him the sense of death, despite the strong colors of his posters.
In over 200 works, of which 60 by the painter from Albi, the exhibition also tells a good part of the artistic history of that period, with paintings, among others, by Picasso (a pastel), by Degas, the great colleague more than any another admired by Toulouse-Lautrec, and Giovanni Boldini, of which an unusual (compared to the famous Parisian portraits of ladies and nudes) “Scène de fête” is on display, a great environmental work at the Moulin-Rouge or perhaps at the Folies- Bergère, in which he also portrays himself sitting and drinking a glass of champagne.
There is much more in this exhibition that is not spared, with many references to the clubs of Montmartre (where Toulouse-Lautrec also frequented Van Gogh) such as the history of the artistic cabaret Chat Noir, where one could perform with the utmost imagination and of innovation or, even more interesting, that of the Incoherent Arts group, the “legendary movement, whose intent was to contest through laughter”, not surprisingly appreciated by Breton and Duchamp. Only a few years ago, 18 works by the group were rediscovered, now exhibited in Rovigo for the first time. Among them the legendary «Combat de nègres pendant la nuit» by Paul Bilhaud, a completely black canvas, considered the «prophecy» of the monochrome works of Maleviĉ and Klein.
However, let's return to Toulouse-Lautrec, because here we can also clearly understand his completely original painting technique, described by Fanny Girard: «oil painting diluted in turpentine on cardboard». The result is great fluidity of the mark and quick drying. Thus were born, among others, the portrait «Madame BertheBady» or «Femme se frisant» (woman curling her hair), in addition to the many oils, spectacular and refined, between splendor and decadence, no less than the famous graphics, in the preparation of which – another curiosity – he constantly used toothbrushes which he often carried with him in the pockets of his jackets. Yes, a character, but first of all a great artist.