All That Is True

"I paint things as they are; I don't comment, I record." - Henri Toulouse-Lautrec

La Goulue Entering The Moulin Rouge (courtesy of the NGA) 

La Goulue Entering The Moulin Rouge (courtesy of the NGA) 

I was at the NGA yesterday with the Dread's delightful parents (yes pirates have parents - where do you think they come from - treasure chests?) Anyway, the work of the above-quoted artist is currently on special exhibit there, which is wonderful for the NGA and for Canberra, particularly in her big birthday year.

Toulouse-Lautrec has been one of my favourite artists ever since I chose him as my particular study way, way back in my HSC - or the year 637 B.C. (Before Choos).

Incredibly (and ridiculously) ambitiously at the age of 16, I chose to reproduce one of his most well-known works - that of La Goulue (The Glutton) on stage at the Moulin Rouge - what is essence a poster, which, along with his iconic images of Aristide Bruant, are what tend to come to mind when people think of T-L.

And I didn't do a bad job. For a 16 year old school girl who is not and never will be Toulouse-Lautrec, or any other great artist (although I will try absinthe any old time if pressed), it was a bloody great job.

But for me his work has never been about the Eldorado cabaret posters of Bruant, or the cynical twisted grin of Mlle Weber as she enters a restaurant on the arm of her sister. It has always been about his fascination with the demi-monde and his - and I mean this - respect for the girls who made their living sleeping with men for money.


Walking around the exhibition, I saw so much tenderness in his paintings and sketches and lithographs of those from a sphere of society totally removed from his own aristocratic upbringing. His studies give a dignity to these women, but also don't attempt to pull any fairytale happy ending punches about the end state of the life of a prostitute.

I love that he could see the beauty in these broken women. That he found a way to show their humanity in an age when they were treated as no more than pieces of meat. That as they aged, like Mlle Lucy Jourdan sitting at Le Rat Mort, out they went, to be replaced with the fresher and younger and newer.

It'd be nice to say things have changed, Henri.

But your sketch pad - or more likely your Nikon, or LifeFrame - would still find plenty of material in 2013, of both a first and third world variety.

What I am grateful for is that I know you could find the beauty in the subject still. What I would be more grateful for is if the subjects didn't have to exist - or perhaps subsist - to be there for you to capture.

But that, I know, is a pipedream. So I shall just have to be grateful things are better than they once were, and keep striving for change.

And put up my prints of Henri's sketches on my walls, and feel gratitude for his compassion, and wisdom. Because with the quote below, in any age, boy he hit the nail on la tête.

“Love is when the desire to be desired takes you so badly that you feel you could die of it.”

C'est vrai. And I am grateful for that too.