Toulouse-Lautrec and Goya
Toulouse-Lautrec by Gerstle Mack (Knopf, $5.00) is perhaps as comprehensive a study of an artist as any we have recently had, for here is a man’s strange life projected full against the double background of his times and his art. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, of noble lineage, became a dwarf by the fracture of both his legs in childhood, and dissipation exhausted what was left of him before he was thirty-seven. But nothing could reduce his spirit’s stature. The ’little monster, of whom Yvette Guilbert has written, recorded on canvas and card and poster the Paris of the late nineteen-hundreds, Montmartre particularly, with all the cheap gayety and elegant vice that delighted him. Forain and Daumier, Degas and the Japanese, shaped his art; his own great charity filled it, and his private income insured its honesty beyond the need of commissions. This wry prodigy who inhabited brothels and limped through cabarets to the eventual asylum became the finest draftsman of his time and an incomparable designer of pictorial posters.
Gerslle Mack has here drawn a biography even more roundly than in his excellent Paul Cézanne, and in a curious manner: half the book, perhaps, contains scant mention of Lautree the man, but is devoted solely to his art and the scene that inspired it; and not only is that decadent Paris portrayed excellently, with the same decision in the author’s writing that characterized his subject’s art, but it is studded with a dozen interior biographies, all exceptionally complete, of the men and women with whom Lautrec was surrounded. Here is Aristide Bruant, the chanting maestro of the cafés, the infamous La Goulue, Valentin the Boneless, Van Gogh, and Oscar Wilde. Here is the curious circle that capered to the wit of the dwarf Lautrec, and because we can see it clearly we can better understand the man whose personal records are all too few. In attempting to deepen still further the relief of his portrait, the author has been overgenerous in description of Lautrec’s many canvases, lithographs, and etchings that are not here reproduced, but his zeal and devotion, and his own artist’s eye for detail, have joined to compound a distinguished book.
The Goya of Charles Poore (Scribners, $3.50) stands decently alone between those biographies which either flay their subject or romanticize him so blowzily that his true character is lost in legend. Mr. Poore makes of Goya no less a man and no greater an artist by the simple estimate here. He confounds the fabulists, but wisely he presents the fables, ill-bred though most of them are. The tales of great Goya’s brawling, of his preoccupation with women and the bull ring, of his arrogant vulgarity, are plausible enough and appropriate to the man, but there is rarely the evidence even of contemporary hearsay on their behalf.
Certainly Goya would be an heroic figure in any age, but he is the more remarkable in that he shouldered his way to greatness through an epoch of confusion and revolution, of monarchic collapse and terror, that was more devastating than what Spain is suffering now. Charles IV made him court painter and inadvertently the historian of that sorry time, for his brush has captured all of it all of Spain, from the hags of peasant superstition to the decayed colossi of the court whose figures he drew with such accuracy that the wonder is he was not garrotted. But the Inquisition tolerated him, and the Church condoned his etchings because of the grandeur of his Christian art.
Mr. Poore has made no pretense of filling the many gaps in Goya’s life, or of moving him from place to place by the romantic means of less meticulous biographers, ‘the twittering analysts.’ This is a forthright book, condensing in its brief compass all that needs to be known of Goya, with an appraisal of his work that is notably expert and entertainingly phrased: ‘There is usually a touch of flounder blood in his stallions.’ They are ‘more epic than hippic.’ Goya’s progress is illustrated with excellent reproductions of his paintings and etchings, and the appendix supplies a key to the famous series of ‘Caprichos’ which, with the ‘Desastres de la Guerra.’ so topical to-day, show his genius at its best.