For my weekly artist date yesterday I went to the exhibition of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s art at the National Gallery of Australia. It was fascinating. The loose lines and bold colours, the huge lithographic posters. Beautiful.
The thing that fascinated me most though was the subject of the vast majority of the artworks … they were prostitutes and cabaret personalities. Toulouse-Lautrec lived for weeks at a time in brothels in order to do series of drawings – to capture these women in their most vulnerable, humane moments. He hung out back stage at baudy cabaret shows and painted the portraits of young men who had drunk one too many absinthe cocktails. His portraits … although sensitive and beautiful portrayals … are of a very dark and seedy underworld.
As I looked around me in the gallery halls it was easy to see that there were a lot of families and several very wealthy, high society patrons visiting and viewing the artworks. The kind of people that pride themselves on being the pillars of the community…and yet here we were all standing together admiring this deeply sensual, gritty art. Were they understanding what they were seeing? Perhaps they had abstracted themselves out to the point where they were merely looking at marks on paper. No-one seemed to bat an eyelid.
I found it more than a little ironic. Was that lifestyle no longer shocking or disturbing because it was being portrayed as oil on cardboard? Would photographs have been more confronting? Was it the passage of years perhaps? Looking at the dark side of life through the lens of history….did that make it less desperate? These were real people caught in a lifestyle that left their mouths twisted in wry little pasted-on half-smiles that hid the conflict within and with eyes that seemed to lead to a haunting emptiness.
All of those artworks collected in a beautiful, pretty, clean gallery, presented as an exhibition….it almost felt as though prostitution had been normalised and made acceptable fodder for upper-class entertainment, just as it had been in the halls of the Moulin Rouge in La Belle Epoch Paris. It felt romanticised.
It’s not acceptable of course. Would you want your child working like that? No, me neither.
I don’t know what Toulouse-Lautrec’s intent was when he was capturing these tableaux, I doubt his motives were altruistic, but they certainly made an impression on me. Good art makes us think. It makes us uncomfortable. It makes us react.