My favorite part of Woody Allen’s 2011 film Midnight in Paris is the moment when actress Marion Cotillard reveals her preferred moment from Paris’s illustrious past. Instead of being magically transported to the roaring 1920s of F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda, Pablo Picasso, and Gertrude Stein, she prefers the glamour of the Belle Époque—the riotous 1890s when the City of Lights basked in all its outrageous fin-de-siècle glory. A new sensibility called L’Art Nouveau was winding its organic tentacles around the built environment, infusing it with the sensuous forms and generative force of nature. The accompanying move toward abstraction was opening up new possibilities for artistic expression in painting and sculpture. Japonisme was all the rage, and its elegant asymmetries, colorful patterns, flattening of space, heavily outlined forms, and radically cropped images had taken Paris by storm. A renaissance of printmaking breathed new life into traditional approaches to artistic production, and the graphic potential of the poster reached its apotheosis. And what would that moment have been without the towering genius (if diminutive in physical stature) and force-of-nature personality of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec?
What has always fascinated me most about this artist was his chameleon-like ability to construct his identity(s), actively living every moment of his brief and physically disabled but spectacular life in a blaze of artistic glory. An aristocrat, born with a silver spoon in his mouth (not an absinthe spoon, that would come later), Toulouse-Lautrec lived with one foot in the rarified world of great privilege, in the palaces, salons, and soirées made accessible by his privileged birthright, yet with the other firmly planted in the rowdy world of the Parisian demimonde, surrounding himself with other gifted outsiders of the artistic and entertainment worlds. Adroitly bridging “high” and “low,” Toulouse-Lautrec embraced a culture of excess that almost single-handedly defined the idea of a bohemian lifestyle.
In the brothels and cabarets, at the wildest parties imaginable, clad in exotic costumes and mixing up the deadliest concoctions of cocktails (American style) that he served at infamous soirées with hundreds of guests, Toulouse-Lautrec creative flame burned brightly as he walked (albeit with some difficulty) on the wild side. At one of the more spectacular of these parties, the 1895 housewarming fête for Alexandre (Thadee) Natanson, editor of La Revue Blance, and his wife Misia, the artist outdid himself serving 300 guests 2,000 cocktails (or so he proudly claimed) mixed in lurid hues of red, pink, yellow, and green, and apparently creating the desired effect, as several guests (including the artists Pierre Bonnard and Édouard Vuillard) left the party horizontally, as they had to be carried off to an impromptu “triage unit” for the hopelessly inebriated. Clad in a waistcoat made from an American flag and a shaved head, Toulouse-Lautrec staged the event, designed the invitations, and entertained guests including Alfred Jarry, Andre Gidé, Mallarmé, and Félix Fénéon. Now THAT’S a party!
Some of Toulouse-Lautrec’s most engaging work depicts his close female friends and muses, included the celebrated performers Jane Avril [also known as “La Melinite”—“the bomb,” Yvette Guilbert, and La Gouloue (“the glutton”)], immortalized in a series of prints and posters currently on view in the exhibition The Paris of Toulouse-Lautrec: Prints and Posters from The Museum of Modern Art.
Come join me and other fans of 1890s Paris on October 16 or 22 for MoMA After Hours: Toulouse-Lautrec’s Nightlife, an evening of drinks, divas, and delightful conversation as we channel Toulouse-Lautrec’s demimonde while enjoying an after-hours visit to the exhibition and hands-on drawing project inspired by the artist’s constant doodling. Sample savory hors-d’oeuvres and raise of glass to “the green fairy” (absinthe) and to the incomparable joie de vivre of Toulouse-Lautrec and his divas. Who knows, you may even be inspired to dance the can-can.