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Sunday, Jan. 14, 2001

Pursuing Japan's great love affair with Toulouse-Lautrec

The Japanese love Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901). His art is lively and interesting, and strong Japanese influences can be detected in it. The current exhibition at the Tobu Museum of Art makes much of this mutual admiration, with the French artist's work revealing his love for Japan while the museum treats his art like an honored guest in this, the 100th year since his death.

"Moulin-Rouge -- La Goulue" by Toulouse-Lautrec (1891)

Sometimes this reverence spills over into fetishism as several of his unfinished sketches are packaged like completed works of art. A rudimentary scribble of elephants receding toward a pagoda has not only been stamped with Lautrec's monogram and framed, but its childish elephant shape has found its way into the souvenir shop in the form of a mobile-phone strap!

To underline the point that he was heavily influenced by Japanese art, the famous photograph of a cross-eyed Lautrec dressed in Japanese clothes is reproduced on the walls. Outside Japan, however, Lautrec is known less as a devotee of Japanese culture than as the chronicler of the bohemian Paris nightlife of bars, theaters and brothels.

It was this bittersweet world of transient beauty, vice and disease, and the strange fascination he felt for it, that inspired his greatest work, such as "En Cabinet particulier ou Au Rat Mort" (1899), a portrait of the prostitute Lucy Jourdan dining at the quaintly named eatery. Using the green hues of his later period, this work cynically captures the sickly smile of this jaded creature of the night.

The brute carnality of the Parisian demimonde and the vigor of his brushstrokes sometimes transports Lautrec's work to the area later explored by British painter Francis Bacon. "L'Admiral Viaud" (1901) displays a giant red-coated figure with a chewed up, distorted face and "Femme en toilette de bal a l'entree d'une loge de thea^tre" (1894) shows an almost Cubist obliqueness applied to a human figure. This work also features his characteristic long coloring strokes, which, precision aside, seem like the hurried strokes of a giant child's crayon.

Lautrec's famous lithographs are well covered, with many prints and posters showing the beautiful, grainy, sometimes sooty textures created by the effects of stone, water and ink. An excellent example is "La Clownesse assise" (1896), a portrait of Cha-U-Kao, a notorious lesbian acrobat and clown.

The Japanese influence in his work is seen strongly in these posters, such as "Divan Japonais" (1893), an advertisement for a Montmartre cabaret. With its strong diagonals, curvilinear silhouettes, compartmentalization of color and the flattening of space we have a direct connection to the world of ukiyo-e.

On display there is also one of the original printing stones on which the mirror image of the final imprint can be seen. Using a grease crayon, Lautrec would sometimes create designs directly on the stone, which would later lose some of their balance in printing. It is an interesting experiment, therefore, to bring a mirror to the exhibition to view the pictures as they would have looked before printing.

"Toulouse-Lautrec: The Centenary of his Death" through March 4 at the Tobu Museum of Art (03-5391-3220), Tobu Deptartment Store, Ikebukuro. Open 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Closed Wednesdays. Admission is 1,200 yen for adults, 900 yen for students and 400 yen for children.

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