by MACKINLEY HELM
COUNT HENRI DE TOULOUSE-LAUTREC was rich. He was also grotesquely misshapen and chronically drunk and at the end acutely unstable. He did his drawing and painting at irregular hours from sketches taken, more often than not, in bistro or brothel. Nobody could say he did not draw sharply and well, but, for a painter, he had an odd sense of color, which he dabbed or washed on, very sparingly, in off-key tonalities: bilious greens, jaundiced yellows, soiled lilacs, all put together in a curious unnatural light with no shadows. And he lacked, it was said, the standard professional finish. Out of hundreds of starts, he almost never worked anything up that got to the public in a state of completion.
For these reasons, in his lifetime and after, Lautrec was sometimes written off as a talented amateur. And since a significant part of his work was installed by his mother and two or three intimate friends in three drafty chambers in the fortified archiepiscopal palace of Albi, the remote town on the Tarn where the painter was born, it was quite a long time before the unprejudiced eye could discern for itself the true stature of an original and much maligned genius.
One of the most satisfying experiences of this midwinter art season has been provided by a part of precisely that group of paintings and drawings from Albi, placed there in the twenties and now lent for a nation-wide tour which began in New York in November. New York and Chicago have heretofore seen Lautrec to advantage, but for many people in the rest of the country — Minneapolis, Cleveland, San Francisco, and Houston, where the show ends in April — this may well be the first ample look at a painter who has posthumously shown himself to have been a shining ornament of the age of Cézanne. In any estimate of that epoch, Cézanne must, of course, loom above him, though at thirty-seven — the age at which Lautrec died — the great innovator had made only three or four of the paintings for which we revere him. And there is more depth and magic, more finish and scale and magnificence, in the whole work of Van Gogh, whose life was identically brief, than in that of Lautrec. But where else is so much of that time so sharply and durably captured and set down with such thrifty means?
As I saw the Lautrec exhibition, installed in the galleries of M. Knoedler and Company, it was dominated by three memorable paintings. The “Admiral Viand” showed the artist preoccupied, at the end of his life, with the ultimate painterly problem of constructing a picture in color. The great scarlet spread of the admiral’s tunic, like a slack lateen sail, was a tragic index to an unfinished phase of the great draftsman’s development. Had he lived, he might have become a proved master of color, whose native genius was line. In “Chilperic,” lent by John Hay Whitney for the New York showing, a music hall star of the day — Marcelle Lender — danced the Bolero in her famous green dress and pink petticoats. “Chilperic” sums up Lautrec’s recording of the overt aspects of night life in Paris, while “An Salon,” the most sumptuous of the maison close paintings from the Albi collection, pertains to the period in which Lautrec lived with a girl in a brothel.
Typical of the scores of paintings and drawings from the same secret source, “An Salon,” with its air of prim expectation — Madame in a buttoned-up lilac gown erect in her parlor with five unemployed inmates — has not the slightest pornographic intention. Too ugly for unbought caresses, the painter took love where he found it and portrayed his professional partners with a kind of casual reverence, his brushes at once cool and friendly: governed, as always, by acquiescence to grim actuality, as wrought out of Lautrec’s own painful experience, and by the gift of objective appraisal which lay at the very heart of his genius.
The Albi collection of portraits contains, among many revealing examples, those of Mlle. Dihau, at whose music studio Lautrec met Degas, his idol; his cousin, Dr. Gabriel Tapié de Céléyran, the subject also of his last great painting, the “Examination”; and Mlle. Marguin, whom the artist shows in her hat shop, the dignified subject, surely, of one of the finest “democratic” portraits of a notable epoch. The painter himself was seen in a portrait by his friend Édouard Vuillard, who transmuted the ugliness which offended Lautrec’s dandified father into something endearing and wistful: Lautrec in red shirt and bright yellow bags concealing the horrid imbalance between the thin, shattered legs and thick torso, the whole person contrived with affection to look droll and not monstrous. . . .
Lautrec was compared in his lifetime to Goya, but the concurrent exhibitions of Goya and Lautrec in New York this winter, the former at the Wildenstein Galleries, under the auspices of New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts, show that the key to the line of Lautrec is dispassionate humor, whereas in Goya it is a passionate if sometimes compromised satire—surely in the matter of Joseph Bonaparte, hand and heart were divided — or else a form of high comedy, as in the delicious small paintings lent by the Art Institute of Chicago, the adventures of gaunt Fray Pedro and the rotund thief Maragato.
From the Wildenstein showing, of which the Metropolitan’s red-vestured don Manuel Osorio de Zuñiga and his cats and his birds made 1 he centerpiece, it became clear once again how many sides Goya had to his genius. Goya the professional portraitist, habitué of high places, painted the likeness of many a bemedaled and gold-braided courtier, and for this kind of thing he worked from a formula which showed little change through the years, the paint licked in smoothly, the design always tidy. Then there is Goya inspired, working for pleasure, laying on colors with knife and coarse brushes, and coming out with such textures and contrasts as the world had not seen since the great baroque epoch. This Goya was not lavishly represented. The Institute had no help from Spain. But still one could see a few figure pieces, like the Duke of Leeds’ “Duke of Wellington” and Kansas City’s “Don Ignacio Omulryan y Rourera,” which rank high among the world’s psychological portraits and were painted, gold lace and all, with great verve and style. As for the still lifes, the hares and the duck and the woodcocks coaxed from some knowing but unknown collector, these showed to a thrilling degree what a high point of sheer virtuosity Goya could reach when he really let himself go.
Since I have never heretofore seen half enough, in one place, of animal sculptures, I found particular gratification in an exhibition which will remain on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York through the first three weeks of January. Looking, after a season of spit and polish, as nearly as possible as they must have appeared to their authors, fresh from foundry and buffer, 200 bronze figures from seven of the Museum’s departments are being shown against the bright walls, blue, green, and yellow, of well-lighted cases in three repainted galleries. And a generous part of these sculptures are animal pieces.
The oldest figure, from 2600 B.C., is the head of a Mesopotamian bull with azure-blue eyes. The tiniest piece is a little bronze dog with a silver collar, hardly more than half an inch high, more than 3000 years old, and very expressive. A Greek horse, four hands high, was cast solid in bright gold-flecked metal; his polished coat is so sleek that you want to caress it. An Egypto-Arabic eagle attacks a frail deer; a crowing cock was the spout of a Persian ewer. How well these small figures confirm a recommendation recently made by Daniel Gallon Rich, Director of the Art Institute of Chicago. If people feel in our time that they cannot house the big sculptures, he has said in effect, then let the sculptors make collectible pieces to be cast nobly in bronze, heroic in feeling however tiny in size.
Sculpture has by no means been neglected by other museums in an acquisitive year. The Detroit Institute of Arts is displaying an alabastreous bas-relief discovered a hundred years since at Nimrud. It shows a delightfully mannered TiglathPileser III, the usurping Pul, in what appears to be the gratulatory end of a man hunt with bow and arrow. The captive — is he a prince of the city of Sibur? — is saluting his feet. This Pul is the Biblical king of Assyria who, for a thousand talents of silver, “confirmed in his kingdom ” another usurper, Israel’s Menahem, who ripped up the bellies of all women with child in the nation of Tiphsah. In near-by Toledo, a more respectable ruler, King Tanwetamani of Egypt, is newly seen rearing bis sable torso, monumental in granite, in the Museum of Art. How Tanwetamani “bore the Double Crown in savage Nubia” cannot, alas, be told, for the torso is headless.
The Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, whose restful flat planes ascend from a quiet, grass-bound lagoon, made an important event, in its season, of a loan exhibition of all manner of pre-Columbian sculpture. Visitors could take in there the classical elegance of alabaster and jade wrought with stone chisels and drippings of water by the so-called Olmecs of southeastern Mexico. They could see with aesthetic and not merely antiquarian pleasure the chalcedony masks from Teotihuacan in the Valley of Mexico, the clay figurines from the island of Jaina, the steatite carvings produced by highland Aztecs before the grotesque and rococo decadence at the eve of the Conquest.
Thanks to Albert Skira of Geneva, Switzerland, it is now possible to install a select library and museum of modern art in your own home for just forty dollars. Issued in three 10'' x 13½'' volumes during the past year, the Skira History of Modern Painting contains 280 hand-mounted reproductions in color, almost half of them full-page and all of them tipped into the letterpress so that they appear exactly where the reader will want them. Thus, when you read in Stuart Gilbert’s familiar translation of the first volume, From Baudelaire to Bonnard, that Courbet the painter and Baudelaire the poet were among the founders of a new school of art, you can see, across from the text, the painter’s portrait of the art-loving poet. Or when, in Volume II, Matisse-Munch-Rouault, you are examining, say, the origins of Fauvism, you can see with what shrill colors Matisse, Marquet, Vlaminck, Derain, Dufy, and Braque, before taking their separate ways, alike constructed their first “wild beast” paintings.
The scheme of the History runs like a wellplanned lecture course. It could be used in this way in neighborhood study groups. You read a stimulating essay by Maurice Raynal, for example—one of seventy-one readable studies of artists and movements by eight different experts — and do your homework on dates and cross references provided by the teaching assistants, all the while feasting your eyes on the sparkling pictures. Raynal’s talented colleagues are Herbert Read, Jean Leymarie, Georg Schmidt, Arnold Rüdlinger, Hans Bolliger, Jacques Lassaigne, and Werner Schmalenbach.
Volume I ($12.50) describes and illustrates the work of twenty-six painters from Courbet, born in 1819, to Bonnard, who died in 1947. The members of the Impressionist brotherhood are shown first in their pre-Impressionist aspects, with Monet looking back to Courbet, for instance. Then they are seen looking at the world’s surface together, with Renoir and Monet seeing nearly identical Impressionist visions while Pissarro and Sisley, not so intransigent as their more famous companions, formulate the Impressionist doctrine of creating, not copying, life. The giants Cezanne and Manet and Degas listened to Impressionist doctrine and were by no means unmoved. Yet each had his own way to go: and where they went is once more made handsomely visible.
The pattern repeats itself in the studies of Seurat, Signac, and Henri Delacroix, who signed himself “Cross.” Van Gogh first appears with a painting made in 1887, the year he met Seurat and began to work in what Gauguin called the “dotand-carry-one” style. The volume concludes with a passage on Toulouse-Lautrec and the “Nabis,” the neo-Impressionists like Vuillard and Bonnard, the latter delightfully rating eleven plates to himself.
In Volume II ($12.50) Raynal tells the story of Matisse and his followers. He shows Van Gogh’s painting “Fourteenth of July,” which, when first hung, swept Derain and Vlaminck off their feet and set them to conjuring up new visions in slashes of unmixed pigment — as the whole movement known as Fauvism essentially did. Paintings hitherto unknown to the public illustrate this vigorous movement: privately owned Dufys, Derains, and Vlamincks, and the rare Copenhagen Matisses. When I went over this volume with Raoul Dufy in a hospital room in Boston last summer, he expressed great satisfaction in the subtle tonalities reproducing his monochromatic oil painting, “The Red Violin,” a difficult picture to set down in inks.
Arnold Rüdlinger, following Raynal’s pattern, discusses the German painters allied with the Fauves: Paula Modersohn, whose death inspired Rainer Maria Rilke to compose his Requiem for a Friend; and Schmidt-Rottluff, whose landscapes are composed in broad tracts of color such as found in the early works of Gauguin and Marquet. To augment Jacques Lassaigne’s account of Rouault and Soutine, great taste and scholarship have provided fabulous early Rouaults from private collections and bright splashes of Soutine in his full southern glory. Looking afresh at the Soutine reproductions, after viewing that painter’s memorial exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in November, I was more than ever persuaded of their uncanny fidelity.
The new third volume ($15.00) bears the title From Picasso to Surrealism. Here Raynal returns to the retrospective exhibitions of Cézanne and Seurat in Paris in 1904-1905 to account for the remoter origins of the Cubist movement which swept across Europe upon the occasion of the “discovery” of African art and the appearance of “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” the Museum of Modern Art’s Picasso masterpiece of 1907. How Cubism thereafter evolved is profusely illustrated by paintings of Braque and Picasso, who rightly dominate the last volume. And how this movement, by some indirection, bore the less satisfactory fruit of Futurism, Dadaism, and Orphism is explored at great length — perhaps greater than need be. The “Blue Riders" provide an unforgettable section: Kandinsky, Marc, Macke, and Klee. Chagall is here with his recollections of childhood and Chirico with the metaphysical painters. Of the native Americans, only Marin and Feininger receive much attention: a fact reflective of European opinion in general. The volume concludes with Joán Miró’s wonderland. What a feast is provided!