The Father of Pop-Art: Henri Toulouse-Lautrec
“It is fair to say that without Lautrec, there would be no Andy Warhol”
Cora Michael, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
David Hockney or Roy Lichtenstein are names synonymous with the Pop Art genre, however there is one artist who although completely unconnected in history, time and culture was a forefather and laid the foundations in the Western psyche for Pop Art to be as popular as it became: Henri Toulouse-Lautrec.
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec cut an unusual figure in Paris during the late 19th century. An adult sized torso paired with legs that stopped growing aged 13 meant his eventual adult height only reached 5″1 and was probably also for this reason that he sought solace in the Parisian brothels of Montmartre.
The Parisian ladies of the night accepted all types of client; from aristocrats to the flâneurs who roamed the streets of Paris, to social outcasts who were unable to procure affection from women unconnected to the vice underworld. It was this setting he found acceptance , amongst the winding alleys and late night drinking haunts, and it was here where Toulouse-Lautrec made his home.
His unusual appearance contributed to the unconventional life he led in Paris until his early death aged 36 after staying at a sanatorium in Malromé, South East France. Years of inbreeding between his aristocratic ancestors, his grandmothers were sisters, meant he suffered congenital health conditions that impacted on his mobility. During the years in which he was immobile, because of two broken legs, he began to paint and his talent for painting blossomed.
After moving to Montmatre at the age of 18, Lautrec surrounded himself in the bohemian world of circuses, dance halls, nightclubs and racetracks. He began to document the individuals in his world through his work.
It was a cultural scene brimming with iconic artists such as Degas, Van Gogh and Manet. There he met this artistic cohort who would remain his friends for the rest of his life. They would party and drink into the nights discussing new and improved painting techniques. It is the world that created the Impressionists.
Lautrec’s Impressionist work is beautiful, heartfelt but also dark and melancholy. He developed his unique style of work with the help of Fernand Cormon at his studio and together they honed his techniques.
The Impressionists had a large impact on his art, as did the subjects he painted, but it was his love for nightlife and the way he symbolised it that led him to be considered a pioneer in poster art. He offered to create advertisements for his friends who ran venues and nightclubs and most famously the Moulin Rouge.
By adapting the fashion at the time for Japanese style (characterised by asymmetric composition and flat areas of colour) and combining with the growing art of the picture poster, Lautrec began to immortalise his friends and advertise their venues.
Asymmetric compositions, vibrant and flat areas of colour can also be used to describe the Pop Art movement of the 1950’s/60’s. It was popular art that captured the sentiment of its subjects. What both pop artists and Lautrec managed to depict is the vivid, colourful emotions of the cultural setting of their era.
Pop Art was an expression of modernity post world war II; full of colour and vibrancy which caught one’s eye and invited the viewer to imagine and Lautrec’s era in Paris bore similar characteristics to the post war cultural revolution. Similarities such as available disposable incomes for workers, booming economy and changes in society’s attitudes towards having fun characterised both periods. These elements also contributed to a surge in creative advertising and companies sought to capitalise on society’s optimism.
The style of Pop Art developed out of the American artists’ search for more bold and striking ways to captivate their audience. Their search led them to dramatic styles with the aim to distance art from the skilful and clever commercial materials that the advertising industry had crafted. In this respect Lautrec’s work and the ideology behind Pop Art differ. Pop Art was a backlash against mass consumer culture, Lautrec on the other hand sought to celebrate his culture through advertisement. However both pop artists and Lautrec used the same type of symbolism in their work.
The symbolism used by both Pop Art and Lautrec centred on female characters mostly. Prostitutes and housewives are culturally and socially polar opposite, yet both are used to symbolise their own epoch. Prostitutes encapsulated late 19th century Parisienne “joie de vivre”. Lautrec’s favoured subjects, prostitutes Jane Avril and Louise Weber ‘La Goulle’, epitomised his knowledge of women in Paris at that time. In comparison Lichtenstein used stereotypical American women in tragic emotional states to convey women who
“look hard, crisp, brittle, and uniformly modish in appearance, as if they all came out of the same pot of makeup.”
John Coplans, 1972
Both artists chose to create symbolic pieces of work by using women as icons of their time. The classic American housewife: made up perfectly yet weeping from the woe her husband gives her. The Moulin Rouge prostitute: makes her living by giving pleasure to men, kicking up her legs as if they could never fall off, throwing back her head as if to say she takes it all in her stride.
“His (poster) masterpieces define the limits of poster style: Lautrec is the embodiment of internal, personal vision with a point to make, not, to be sure, a moral judgment, but rather an amused, wry observation on the passing scene. “
Jack Rennert, 1990
Rennert’s description here could be applied to Pop Art. David Hockney’s paintings often depicted subjects from a personal perspective on an observed passing scene. Although Hockney and Lichtenstein didn’t produce posters, their work would not have looked out of place advertising a place or activity.
Hockney could be advertising a trip to Paris
Lichtenstein could be advertising a jewellers
Likening Hockey and Lichtenstein’s work to advertisements should not be taken as a flippant comparison, far from it. What the comparison is meant to show is the ease of which you can apply passing observations of personal moments or human activities to tap in to a cultural consciousness.
Tapping into a public’s cultural consciousness is what poster art and Pop Art really excel at. It was what Lautrec excelled at. Warhol or Lichtenstein’s famous works are still innately American and are still used to represent not only 1950’s/60’s American but are also used in modern day American pop culture.
If you walk the streets of modern day Paris you will find in bookshops and on postcard racks the images and art Lautrec created over 100 years ago. They still symbolise Paris. They still symbolise Parisienne spirit. This is the legacy Lautrec left, his poster art was the original Pop Art. It is still popular today.