There’s a sassy new show at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, ~ Toulouse-Lautrec and the Stars of Paris. The multi-sensory exhibit is more than a display of retro-art; its immersive character can also be seen as five chapters of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s diary. Each chapter articulates polite society’s fascination with celebrity culture and all things psychosexual. Given today’s headlines, the exhibit is timeless.
Born in 1864, to one of the oldest and wealthiest of families in the south of France, Toulouse-Lautrec lived much of his 36 years as an aristocrat titillated by flash and flesh. The child of inbreeding between first cousins, Henri suffered from congenital health problems, likely to have been pycnodysostosis, a serious genetic condition that causes many disabilities, most especially brittle bones. Healing unsuccessfully from legs broken as a teen, Lautrec’s height was limited while his genitals hypertrophied and his torso continued to mature normally. Unable to play with kids his own age, the tortured young man turned to sketching, painting and printmaking.
The income of his parents, Comte Aphonse and Comtesse Adèle, enabled Henri to study art with influential teachers in Montmartre, a Parisian hotspot for artisans, writers and philosophers. Lautrec canvassed the gas-lit atmosphere and embraced the provocative cabaret lifestyle that welcomed him without judgment. An eclectic culture of entertainment exploded around these influencers inspiring the 4’8″ artist to grow beyond sketching horses as a Post-Impressionist. He chose instead to spotlight the glamorous, humorous and even mundane times of people who befriended him. Toulouse-Lautrec’s productions graphically articulated his boozy life with showgirls, prostitutes and the wealthy men who enjoyed their charms.
Stepping into MFA’s galleries layered with Paris’ hedonistic nightlife, visitors will see elaborate costuming and videos that echo street sounds of Can-Can cabaret music that swirled in the pre-selfie, celebrity-mad culture of Lautrec’s time. Flirting with the fringes of bohemian society and some of its late 19th century stars, this MFA exhibition has been meticulously organized with loans from Harvard University, New York’s Metropolitan Museum, Boston’s Public Library and private collections. Highlights of the collaboration include the artist’s first poster, Moulin Rouge :La Goulue, (MET) The Hangover, (Harvard U) and a poster of Jane Avril (BPL)
There is no hint of exhibitionism in the Insta-gramable exhibition. Taken at face value Toulouse-Lautrec and the Stars of Paris offers a fun trip to the City of Light without heading to the airport.
However, a more thoughtful consideration of Lautrec’s Stars reflect our shared humanity rests on the interior walls of the MFA’s color saturated galleries, there stuff-shirted men hang in pursuit of hung-over, day-drinking women, worn-out prostitutes and voluptuous showgirls. More than 200 artifacts show Toulouse-Lautrec’s legacy transcended his suffering by capturing some dazzling moments of Paris. His evocative subjects also reframe today’s newspaper headlines that feign strange-bedfellow surprise with today’s mixolgy of socialites and sex.
See the exhibit now through August 4th and see for yourself: ‘Is this display perverse? Or an acknowledgement we are as we have always been?’
Encore Boston Harbor, a Wynn Resort, is sponsoring the exciting, first-of -its-kind collaboration between the Museum of Fine Arts and the Boston Public Library. Soon to open, the Encore is beginning a broad civic partnership with the MFA, which aims to make art more accessible to a broader audience. Elaine Wynn, co-founder of Wynn Resorts said, “As a long-standing patron of the Arts I am impressed with the breath of the MFA’s programming and pleased to see Encore Boston Harbor partnering with this important civic institution.” Throughout the run of the exhibition Encore will extend to residents of Everett, Ma and their Resort employees, free admission to the Museum with appropriate ID.
Cardholders of the Boston Public Library (BPL) can visit the MFA throughout the month of June and receive free admission for two adults and up to six kids per visit.
The BPL’s complete collection of more than 350 works by Toulouse-Lautrec has been digitalized and is available online to all through~ digitalcommonwealth.org
Diane Kilgore is a journalist in the Greater Boston Area. She is a Cultural Contributor for NewBostonPost and creator of the lifestyle blog ‘To Di For.’