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Archive for January, 2014

Toulouse Lautrec fell apart quickly and spectacularly, as did his art.

This great and tragic figure was beset with problems that would destroy lesser men but which shaped and tempered him. Such great love and passion meeting with such hardship.

Much of his work is doomed to destruction and decay. Many of his later pieces were painted on raw cardboard where the very oil paints that he used are destroying the surface they are painted on. Can they be saved? No. Should they be saved? No.

Lautrec nude

Toulouse Lautrec – Nude on a divan

Decay, like autumn, has its own aesthetic. The rotting leaves and low grey mists are perfect in their decay, their fertile beauty often heart-rending. Our air-conditioned malls and cities, our networks of highways choke the animal and plantlife and choke our own experience of the cycles of beauty. Toulouse Lautrec is the artist of autumn. Like a little forest animal he forages among the browns and golds and tans and the rich smells of dirt and foliage and he delights in the beauty of decay.

I imagine that this early and technically perfect picture may have been done in a Paris art school. Certainly the pose suggest a studio setup. A model in a simple pose that can be retaken for several sessions (by contrast his later works are spontaneous sketches from life, observed and recreated from memory).

There is a strange and modest perfection about the girl in the picture. Look at the introspective pose, and the delicate colour of her skin. Note the difference between the tan of her face and hands and the milkiness of her body. This is no dancer from the clubs of Paris. This is a young woman who spends her days in the sun. An innocent from  the countryside; a farmgirl stepping into the life of the big city, in her way as courageous as the young man behind the easel.

But is there a second story here? The artist was young when he painted this picture, young enough to spend time with his family on their farm at Toulouse.  Certainly the paintings done at the same time include the portrait of his mother, a farm labourer and friend, and studies of farm animals.

Was this a young love, a moment of perfection in the countryside? Was he painting this young woman in her bedroom on the farm? And then, what became of her?

Modern society is scared of decay and feels itself safe in concrete and glass. What is scary is life. It takes courage, love and passion to embrace it.

Art demands your life.

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