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.