Friday, May 14, 2010

Toulouse Lautrec: Beyond the Moulin-Rouge

Every item that comes through the shop is important.  Clients bring in their most cherished possessions and it is my job to preserve them.  Occasionally, items of such global import are brought into the shop that I am humbled just to be breathing air in the same room. 

A familiar client (who on a good day has a flair for the dramatic, but on this particular day also was shrouded in intrigue) laid on my design table a small crayon drawing.  He alluded to a recent exclusive private auction as we gazed together at this:

The image is that of a lady clown and a circus animal in the ring.  A small "TL" circled on the upper right.  Regular newsprint drawing paper.  Some erasures.  Very saturated colors.  A hand-rendering.  Before me was an original Toulouse-Lautrec drawing, authentication pending. 

I noted a few condition problems--one, that is mounted to chipboard (this is an antiquated style of mounting that WOULD NEVER be done today) and another, that it is stained with the fingerprints of the culprit who mounted this (directly under the clown)--but both of these could probably be easily taken care of by a paper restorer.  The client was unconcerned.  He was madly in love.

I confess to you that I was then unfamiliar with this work, but the client understood and explained to me the theme, the subject (even the clown's name), the artist's state of mind--and spoke with such passion!  I hung on every word and immediately after he left I went straight to work to discover more about this tender drawing.

Toulouse-Lautrec is best known for his lithographs of can-can girls and posters for the Moulin Rouge, but he did win some early acclaim for this circus-themed oil, cited by some has his first important painting:

Equestrienne (At the Circus Fernando) 1888

His love of the circus carried through to his time at the Moulin Rouge when a certain clownesse became his unlikely muse for a brief period between 1895 and 1896.  Cha-U-Kao, her unusual stage name, was perhaps intended to sound fashionably Japanese. Cha-U-Kao was French, although little else is known about her, and her name was actually a phonetic transcription of chahut-chaos, a popular and exuberant dance similar to the 'can-can'. Lautrec normally depicted Cha-U-Kao wearing her platinum blonde hair in a topknot, and clad in pantaloons and a yellow (always yellow!) chiffon ruffle as can be seen in the following five examples:

Cha-U-Kao was a performer at the Nouveau Cirque as well as at the Moulin Rouge.  A Boston Globe article explains the scene this way:  "The circus in late 19th-century Paris, like the cabarets, offered many kinds of fun, but not all of them were innocent. 'To take the little one to the circus' ('amener le petit au cirque') doubled as an underhand reference to sexual intercourse, and the female horse riders, or ecuyeres, were generally understood to be sexually available. Indeed, it was a sign of class to flirt with them, so they were always in demand among the wealthier men."

The grand party was over for Toulouse-Lautrec in 1899 when suffering from alcoholism and a mental breakdown, he was committed to a sanitorium by an intervening group of friends and family. 

It was there that he created an incredible folio of circus drawings.  There is some debate whether he created them just to prove his sanity to his doctors, or as an expression of his captivity.  (Interested parties should read this incredible thesis.)  There is also debate on whether he drew them from memory or from life, as a circus rehearsed nearby the sanitorium and it is suggested that Lautrec could have been taken on outings to watch and draw from life.  However, the images he created at that time of the clownesse, Cha-U-Kao, are undeniably from memory.

When researching these drawings online, I found conflicting numbers...some sources say there were 50 or more, some say 30, but most agree that a folio of 39 circus drawings was created then.  I ordered this book from amazon, not sure of what I'd find in it.

Toulouse-Lautrec's The Circus: Thirty-Nine Crayon Drawings in Color

When it arrived I scanned through it, and stopped short at page 36:

The introduction of the book explains that Lautrec gave all these drawings away shortly before he died (and he died a year after he was released from the sanitorium at age 36).  An intrepid collector rounded them all up for one brief, shining moment in 1953 to create lithographs, and then once again they were dispersed to the four corners of the globe.

I found in this book's collection 2 other images of our clownesse:

I think neither compares with the image on my design table, though I am completely biased, and by now you should be, too:)

Allow me to show you some details from the original:

see the crispness of line?

the faint erasures?
the saturated color?

the dainty gesture?  the delicate hand?

I hope these give you a sense of the artistry and sensitivity of the work. Just incredible.

Materials arrived, I prepared mentally for framing.  I would not touch anything and not use any adhesives whatsoever.

I built up sides with 2-ply mat as it was the same thickness of the chipboard.

Adhered mats to to 2 ply (not to chipboard), glazed with museum glass, and put on the loveliest frame--so evocative of a Parisian circus! And do note Cha-U-Kao's signature yellow in the bottom mat.

I love my job.

Upon seeing it, the client gasped with joy and reached for a chair.  He was thrilled, as I was to tell him how much I enjoyed learning about his piece and helping him to preserve and display it.  We embraced as now we each had a connection to the art and through that, to each other.  I showed him my book and he asked me to order another one for him.  We will both have dog-eared souvenirs of our unique experience.