Blitz Magazine, March 1999
That’s what the experts call him. They say that, by challenging conventional assumptions about artistic content, and by being the first to use creative realism as a sales tool, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec invented advertising and revolutionized the art of marketing.
Considering the crew that spawned him, it was a miracle that he fathered anything. His aristocratic family was inordinately concerned about ‘pure’ bloodlines–his grandmothers were sisters, his paternal aunt married his maternal uncle, his parents were first cousins. Consequently, their boy maxed out at 4’11” and required a cane. He was knock-kneed and weak-chinned, with a perpetually runny nose, gaping nostrils, bulbous lips and an enlarged tongue which left him with a lisp and an excessive salivation problem. His father (a cross-dresser given to lunching in a tutu), knowing that the only way his son was going to get a date was by paying for it, introduced him to the Montmartre brothels where the lad learned to flirt with his eyes and do other things with other things (the bawdy babes called him ‘The Coffee Pot’.)
This was 1880, the Banquet Years. Paris was reaping the rewards of industrialization; it was a time of feasting, fun, high living and hypocrisy. In Montmartre, while the Church hurriedly completed Notre-Dame du Sacre-Coeur at the top of the hill, the bordellos and nightclubs below became beacons for slumming lords. Lautrec, finding his sanctuary and inspiration, moved in.
By night, he lived in the clubs and brothels, sketching everything he saw and immortalizing his friends–the labourers, prostitutes, entertainers and the reveling elite. He depicted the mundane and the erotic, always with wit, without pretension or sentimentality, expressing la joie de vivre without ignoring its depravity.
By day, Lautrec was an industrious artist, working out of a dingy studio to produce 6,200 canvases, water colours, prints and drawings. Financially, he could afford to reject the Salons and exhibit his work where he chose. Creatively, he believed that art was for the masses, and this belief transformed his voyeurism into a new form of modern art–the poster.
Competition among the Montmartre cabarets was fierce; letterpress handbills were not cutting la moutarde. Lautrec knew that advertising had to arrest the collective eye. Fascinated by Japonism and the ability of the Japanese masters to capture a subject’s essence with minimal lines and colour, he exploited technical innovations in lithographic printing to produce designs with bold colour and incisive images, providing depth and silhouette with vanishing lines, monochromatic areas and subtle juxtapositions. His stunningly effective posters turned the streets of Paris into a permanent exhibit and forever altered the form and purpose of graphic design.
While Lautrec designed advertisements for other purposes–he did book covers, menus, song sheets, bicycle ads–it was the poster Moulin Rouge-La Goulue (1891) which made him famous. Instead of portraying the cabaret, Lautrec presented its key elements so as to make them familiar and implant them, and the venue’s name, in the public mind. It was this poster, often called the most important in the histories of lithography and advertising, that initiated the movement of artists into commerce.
One can only wonder at how far Lautrec would have pushed the creative and commercial envelope. But pain, alcoholism and syphilis turned him into a delirious wreck–he died in an asylum, in 1901, at age 37.