There’s a line in Blade Runner that goes something like: “A candle that burns twice as bright, burns half as long.” Henri Toulouse Lautrec’s life, however, was less of a candle and more like a magnesium strip. He died aged 36 from complications around alcoholism and syphilis (my sort of guy!) but left in his wake over 7 000 known works (and many others which have since been lost) including paintings, etchings, posters ,and ceramics. The dude was an art-making machine and the National Gallery has begged, borrowed and acquired the most comprehensive collection of his work that Australia will see in a very very long time.
Considering this, the exhibition is somewhat underwhelming. The works are phenomenal, obviously. His sketches are hilariously unflattering and chronicle the gritty and colourful characters of the Parisian underbelly. His bold, towering posters embody the optimism at the turn of the century. And seeing his paintings up close is the peak experience of this exhibition because his genius, I think, lies in the way he makes every perfectly placed brushstroke look effortless. No, it’s the curation that leaves much to be desired: it’s uninspiringly chronological and omits many of his more notable works including At the Moulin Rouge, Two Women Waltzing and, my personal favourite, In Bed. It would have also been a treat to have seen his portraits of Oscar Wilde or Van Gogh.
But all galleries of course have their limitations, even national galleries, and trying to curate a definitive exhibition for someone as prolific as Toulouse Lautrec is a mountain of a task. Either way, it’s definitely worth the trip down. It’ll be the last time in our lifetimes that so many of his works will be down under and, you know, Canberra’s actually not that far away, compared to Europe.
Toulouse Lautrec: Paris & the Moulin Rouge
National Gallery of Australia
Exhibition open until April 2