I have a special affection for tortured souls, the misfits, the geniuses who feel a sense of ‘otherness’ – the opposite of belonging. Toulouse-Lautrec was one of those…and his artwork affects me on a soulful level, and I know, in part, it’s not just his creative work – it’s his backstory.
I’m sure you know all of this…about Henri’s tortured life? Endlessly chronicled in books and famous, artsy movies. Still, I remind myself that a healthy portion of my affection for Toulouse-Lautrec…his artistry and his life…is about his origin story. His childhood was traumatic, born into an aristocratic French family where in-breeding was common. Biographers made that point clear – little Henri’s parents were first cousins which likely resulted in his genetic challenges, impacting growth in his legs. As an adult, he stood just 4’ 6” and despite his mother’s devotion to his care, as he matured, his torso grew but his legs were stunted. One can only wonder what life was like for a little boy who was different, bordering on deformed, yet had magic in his fingers, in his soul.
He died when he was just thirty-six years old, in 1901. His excesses – brothels and absinthe and his addiction to alcohol are the splashy, tabloid-like and tawdry tales about his life, but what fascinates me the most was his attraction to the underground – bohemian life in Montmartre where he found a sense of belonging. Amongst the wannabe artists and vagrants, prostitutes, and thieves. We see you, Henri, in ways your family and the social elite cannot. That’s a storyline that resonated for me when I traveled to France and spent as much time as possible in Montmartre, in Paris. Soaking up every bit of atmosphere…the remnants of history nestled in a tiny enclave that lovingly accepted and celebrated Toulouse-Lautrec.
His artistry championed the unthinkable, at the time – commercial art – in the form of posters and I believe (because I must) that he did so in order to pay respect, and in tribute to fellow artists, musicians…and even the ‘working women’. Not just to make a buck…or a franc 😊. They were his people. I think it’s that story, combined with his disabled condition and attempts at self-medication that carved a place in my heart. Not just his art. But oh…his art holds a tender place.
Broken and brilliant? Those characteristics draw me in, with gravitational-like pull. I got myself into a heap of trouble for ditching class and wandering Montmartre as a sixteen-year-old truant. I talked to artists, admired their works, ate too many baguettes, and longed to bring part of the feeling home with me. Bottle it, you know?
Given the impossibility of that, I chose to plant memories in my heart and they’re still there. When I pass by the posters, the ones I struggled to bring home, I can time-travel and transport myself if I pause – just for a beat or two. My teachers thought I was nuts – buying prints in France that I’d need to lug home…trains, planes, and automobiles. But it was worth it, then and now. Decades later, I treasure them more…because they came ‘from the source’.
Happy Friday…with big hugs,