Lautrec: The Father of Advertising


poster (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 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.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec 019

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec 019 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

          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.

Lautrec moulin rouge, la goulue (poster) 1891

Lautrec moulin rouge, la goulue (poster) 1891 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

          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.



On Auks and Audubon

Blitz Magazine, January 1999

Consider the auk;

Becoming extinct because he forgot how to fly,

And could only walk.

Consider man,

Who may well become extinct

Because he forgot how to walk

And learned how to fly

Before he thinked.

                    Ogden Nash


          When we see a guy shooting birds out of the air, we say “That jerk’s needlessly killing wildlife to compensate for a lack of, er, something else.”

Two hundred years ago, people probably didn’t think that way, but they did note that James Audubon’s favourite hobby was shooting birds — hundreds at a time. He’d then select attractive corpses, wire them into life-like poses and paint pictures of them. People called him a ‘romantic figure’, likely not imagining that he would become history’s greatest wildlife painter.

          He was born Jean-Jacques Audubon, the bastard son of a French naval officer. In 1812, he dodged the Napoleonic draft and headed to the US, where he posed as the son of a Louisiana plantation owner. He blew all his wife’s money, did time in debtors’ prison and was running a Kentucky grocery store when he saw the work of nature artist Alexander Wilson. Audubon realized that his life-long habit of sketching wildlife produced far superior results.

          Off he went to paint birds, walking 50,000 North American miles. Along the way, he identified 35 new species and sub-species and revolutionized the way his world saw and portrayed nature. He respected birds as predators and gave them personality and character. While others had shown birds in life-like poses, or in their environmental context, or in their true sizes, he was the first to combine all elements. Although he was entirely self-taught, his work is highly-stylized and textured and exhibits the realism, scientific accuracy and artistic merit of a technically-disciplined painter.

          After completing 453 paintings, Audubon headed to Scotland in search of cash and production capabilities. In Edinburgh, then London, his work was engraved, printed and completed, by hand, with watercolours. It took 12 years but, in 1844, the 29” x 39” Birds of America became one of the greatest illustrated book of all time.

          Ever the hopeless entrepreneur, Audubon only sold 200 copies. But he created a huge market for wildlife art and, while he dressed up in buckskin to lecture at such august institutions as the University of Edinburgh (where Charles Darwin was in the audience), other people pirated his work and profited handsomely. The 11th Mayor of Toronto, however, bought an original, and it remains in the Toronto Reference Library. It includes the result of Audubon’s Canadian travels, the 100-plate Birds of Canada collection, and it can be seen at the Vancouver Art Gallery until January 24th.

          Even if you’re not a bird lover, the exhibit is worth a look. Audubon left us a record of the New World as it was before humans got hold of it. In his time, there were 5 billion passenger pigeons and he recorded a flock so large that it took three days to pass. The last one died in the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914. He reported a two-month period in which a Halifax man sold 400,000 auk eggs (at .25/doz.). The last auk died in Iceland in 1844; now, there are more Audubon auk prints than there are auk museum specimens.

          Humans hunted four Audubon subjects to extinction — there was also the Eskimo Curlew and the Labrador Duck. Some of his other subjects are now endangered, including the Whooping Crane, Peregrine Falcon, Harlequin Duck and Northern Bobwhite. So this may be your only chance to see what those birds look like. And the next time you see some guy using his shotgun to commune with nature, ask him if he can spell ‘Viagra’.

aud1 aud2