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Toulouse-Lautrec’s Au Moulin Rouge

One of my favorite paintings is Au Moulin Rouge by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. It lives here in Chicago, at the Art Institute.

Lautrec’s paintings capture the lure and alienation of nightlife. On the one-hand, he glorifies performance, artifice, glamor, surfaces (esp. his prints & advertisements for dance halls), on the other, he digs beneath surfaces and (I believe) empathizes w/ his subjects, celebrity women, divas, nightclub performers who were both reviled and idolized by Parisian bourgeois types. Additionally, I find the era in which he lived — the dawn of modernity or whatever — totally fascinating re: sexuality, gender, class, the emergence of consumer culture, etc. I think this is part of what draws me to Toulouse-Lautrec — in fiction, I’m very interested in what goes unspoken in characters’ everyday lives, their “interiority,” emotional vulnerability, etc. but I’m also influenced enough by Queer and feminist theories to be super suspicion of any notion of an “essential self,” and I reject the notion that supposedly superficial stuff like makeup, fashion, etc. is valueless and unworthy of exploration. I mean — google some of Lautrec’s prints. They’re badass, with their motion and their big bold blocks of color. Check out Aristide Bruant’s red scarf and tell me you don’t want to touch it… Something about shiny things, glitter, surfaces is total yum. Recently, I’ve noticed makeup recurs as a motif in many of my stories. Part of what interests me about makeup is tactile. I like powders, pastes, gooey things, things that spread.

I feel like I’ve gotten off-topic…

I see a lot of tension and ambiguity in Au Moulin Rouge, which is maybe why it so engages me. At first, I kinda want to jump into the painting and hang with these people. They seem like a fun bunch. Crazy place. Wild times. But then I realize… it’s getting late. I’m a little wasted. The lurid light frightens me. I’m not getting laid tonight. This night totally sucks. It isn’t what I expected. Who are these people? Why did I think they were my friends? Do I really know any of them? May Milton’s (figure in foreground) face looks totally scary. What is she thinking? It’s like she totally doesn’t care I exist. What if nobody cares I exist?

Art historians say when Lautrec painted this painting, Montmartre’s once-hopping nightlife had already begun to unravel, erode (as most/all “scenes” inevitably do). The end was in sight. The sheen was wearing off. The walls were muddy.

I wrote a (in retrospect, somewhat embarrassing) paper about this painting for my undergraduate art history course. I pulled in Foucalt’s History of Sexuality Part 1, and in particular, Foucalt’s “strategic unities” in the 19th-century deployment of sexuality, figures Foucalt believed were locuses for power-knowledge re: sexuality during the era when sexual “otherness” and abnormality was first associated w/ identities and personages rather than discrete acts. Two of Foucalt’s four strategic unities, I argued, were present in Au Moulin Rouge — the “hysterical woman” and the “perverse adult.” The “hysterical woman” represented the construction of women’s bodies, through psychology & medicine, as pathological, sexually saturated, prone to emotional extremes. The “perverse adult” referenced folks whose “perverse” impulses (including homsexuality, but not exclusively homosexuality) were understood for the first time by psychiatrists, doctors, etc (and eventually the greater public), as types of people rather than types of sex acts.  So in the painting: the red-haired lady with her back facing the viewer is Jane Avril, a famous cancan dancer hospitalized for hysteria and treated by a “celebrity psychiatrist.” (Um… shades of Britney, et al?) The green-faced lady is dancer May Milton, a known dyke.

Art historians generally speculate that Lautrec hung out with sex workers, can can dancers and other socially marginal folks (although dancers were both marginal/reviled and adored) because, as a person w/ a disability, a person of short stature, he couldn’t get laid or get attention anywhere else. I tried to reinterpret this more proactively, less pathologically. I speculated Lautrec identified w/ marginals, enjoyed their company, because he was himself  “sexually non-normative,” “queered” by his disability. He also ended his life in a mental hospital. I went so far as to suggest Lautrec and his women friends, sitting around the table (Lautrec is himself in the painting — he’s the dude with the dark hair and top hat) formed, “in anachronistic terms, a 19th-century “queer coalition.” I talked about how the painting is deliberately framed by Lautrec’s disability, with the viewer forced to look up at May Milton as would’ve Lautrec, reminding us of his source of identification w/ hysterical and perverse sexualities.

…I do not know where I’m going with this post, except something reminded me this morning of this painting and paper, and I thought it might be fun to introduce the conversation here. So… any thoughts? Surfaces vs. interiority? Makeup and things that are gooey? Divas and people with disabilities? Nightlife? 19th century sexuality? Bring it.

4 thoughts on “Toulouse-Lautrec’s Au Moulin Rouge

  1. holy shit what a great post!

    if i wasn’t so lazy i could probably posit that “surfaces vs. interiority” is what good fiction–or good writing for that matter–is all about. it certainly fascinates me.

    a really good story, or flash, or poem, plays with surface, the tactile, while shifting something beneath it, something in our consciousness–maybe a little out of grasp. it pushes us to figure out what we’re thinking, what we see, what we hear and feel.

    someone can argue with me here, and i’d honestly welcome it. i’d like to talk through these things: how does surface help or hinder communication? at what point does interiority become surface? what about transparency, or when interiority is “worn” as surface?

    i thought about these things a lot when i was reading joyce’s a portrat of the artist as a young man. his writing blends the interior with the exterior in a way that, in my opinion, has never been equaled. think about stephen’s ruminations on hell during the church sermon, his visions of fire and brimstone and eternity coupled with the place of the church itself, the voice of the priest, the five senses.

    1. I like this a lot:

      “a really good story, or flash, or poem, plays with surface, the tactile, while shifting something beneath it, something in our consciousness–maybe a little out of grasp. it pushes us to figure out what we’re thinking, what we see, what we hear and feel.”

      It feels specific enough to resonate w/o totally mystifying, but open enough not to constrict.

  2. I’ve been meaning to read this post since I saw it go up. Thanks for offering so generous a read of the painting, Tim. I was just at the Art Institute last week, but I didn’t step over to this wing (I was more in the new Modern section). But I’ll swing by sometime over the holiday and take a closer look.

    Have you written any fiction inspired by this painting? Or any other paintings? For a while now I’ve been meaning to write a story about Joan Miró. I was looking at his paintings and found myself impressed by how much stuff he managed to stick to his canvasses (besides paint). So I wanted to write a story in which I travel back in time and spend an afternoon with the guy, suggesting various things that can be stuck to a canvass. Whenever it won’t stay, I travel into the future and bring him more advanced adhesives.

    As for surface vs. interior, Scott McCloud points out how a common (or not unusual) technique in making comics is to write one thing but draw another. The example he gives in “Understanding Comics” is a drawing of a bank robbery in process. The text caption reads something like: “After college, I pursued a career in finance.”

    I’ve been wondering for a while now how a fiction writer can do something like this.

    Which reminded me of a novel a friend once told me about, although I don’t know its title. He recited one line to me:

    “Hello,” he lied.

    Does anyone know what book that is? Or have ideas as to other ways that surface/interior can be fiddled with in prose?

  3. I understand that Lautrec is the short man wearing the bowler beside the taller man wearing a top hat on the far side of the room. Also that Jane Avril gave him syphlis, from which he died, which might account for his being in an assylum. I have read that May Milton was a singer, and a dancer. Part of the painting was once cut off, cutting out May Milton and the blank space at the bottom of the painting.

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