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Why Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec is much more than Google Doodle’s poster boy

On his 150th birthday, the subversive artist has been misremembered by Google as a man who just made posters for nightclubs
Dance at the Moulin Rouge: La Goulue and Valentin by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
Dangerous dancing … detail from Dance at the Moulin Rouge: La Goulue and Valentin, 1895, by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Photograph: UniversalImagesGroup/Getty Images
 
Google is celebrating Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s 150th birthday by reducing him to a pop-culture cliche. Its Google Doodle shows the resident artist of the Moulin Rouge perched on a stool in front of a row of can-can dancers making a poster that says Google Google Google.
It’s the thought that counts, and at least they remembered his birthday. Nor is it Google’s fault that we have such a thin and inaccurate understanding of one of the most radical, raw and courageous of all modern artists.
Toulouse-Lautrec has long suffered from his close association with Montmartre, the once-bohemian Paris district that has long since been turned into a tourist trap. His art decorates tea towels and place mats, his life has been caricatured by two films about the desperate glamour of the Moulin Rouge in which he was played by Jose Ferrer and John Leguizamo, and the result of all this sentimentality is that a powerful and subversive artist has been misremembered as a man who made posters for nightclubs.
He did make posters – terrific ones – but Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was so much more than a stylish graphic artist. The best place to get closer to him, in Paris, is not Montmartre where the last embers of artistic excitement died long ago but the Musee d’Orsay, where some of his most incisive art can be seen.
When one of his favourite dancers, La Goulue, opened a venue at a Paris fair, Toulouse-Lautrec painted two huge panels to decorate her booth that are today among the most provocative things in this museum. The pictures tell the story of the Moulin Rouge, reminding visitors to the fair that La Goulue really had danced there and preserving a history of its wildest moments. In one panel – which is about 3m sq – La Goulue dances with a character called Valentin le desosse (Valentin the boneless) whose body gyrates madly, as if he was doing some punk version of a rockabilly dance.
This image of the Moulin Rouge is far more savage and dangerous than those overpromoted posters make it seem. This is a deliberately primitive work of art, unfinished, wrecked by weather, later cut up and patiently reassembled. In its matching work, Oscar Wilde, a sad exile, is among La Goulue’s bohemian audience. People are strange, rough silhouettes, and dance is a self-destructive orgy of senseless energy, in these great, shocking paintings that put you right there in the real, dangerous Paris of the 1890s.
It is easy to see from these rock’n’roll paintings why the young Pablo Picasso imitated Toulouse-Lautrec when he first visited Paris. In fact, Toulouse-Lautrec influenced Picasso’s concept of art throughout his career. Picasso’s frenetic brothel scene Les Demoiselles d’Avignon echoes the raw energy of those panels on La Goulue’s fair booth. Interestingly, it too is square-shaped and intimidatingly big – although not quite as big as Toulouse-Lautrec’s two low-life history paintings.
Picasso followed Toulouse-Lautrec into a new world of sexual frankness that is this artist’s secret greatness. In intimate, achingly honest pastels of the dancers and prostitutes he lived among, Toulouse-Lautrec portrays them in bed with each other, or in close conversation, or sombrely alone. He manages to avoid voyeurism because he draws his friends with total empathy.
There always have been two Toulouse-Lautrecs. His posters glamourise sex and the city. They do it well. But the real greatness of his art is elsewhere, in his unvarnished, rough and tender portrayals of the true nature of the demi-monde he inhabited. Wild, savage dances, raw desire, aching loneliness and fragile intimacy make this other, less famous side of Toulouse-Lautrec far more significant.
He’d be 150 if he were alive today. But think about that. It means that in 1954 he would have been just 90. He could have lived into the age of Jackson Pollock, Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe. He is not so far from us as the hackneyed Montmartre movies make us think. Happy birthday Toulouse-Lautrec, spirit of modern freedom.

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