I remember, when I was little, seeing the reproduction of a poster of La Goulue, by Toulouse-Lautrec. La Goulue was a famous French cancan dancer who entertained the audiences at the Moulin Rouge, where Toulouse-Lautrec spent a lot of time. Lautrec was the painter of women, of their intimate moments and their daily lives, and the painter of cabarets and Parisian nightlife.
I didn’t live in Toulouse, at the time, and didn’t think I’d ever end up there one day, but I idolised this mysterious city because of the pilots of the Aéropostale, like Mermoz, Guillaumet and Saint-Exupéry. Their exploits fascinated me, and I devoured their adventures, dreaming of joining them one day. Toulouse was a mythical city to me, as I’ve already said, and I was moved by the Claude Nougaro song dedicated to his “ville rose”.
And so there was a painter called Toulouse? He must have been good then!
A museum in honour of the native son
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was born in Albi. His health was poor, his life was short, but his output was huge. After his death, his parents wanted to ensure the legacy of his work. They offered to make a donation, but the Parisian museums refused (the Musée d’Orsay did not then exist, it wasn’t to open its doors until 1986).
The City of Albi had just taken over the Palais de la Berbie that had been abandoned by the bishopric. It was empty, and ideal for conversion to a museum! It would be inaugurated in 1922 and restored in 2012.
The building is beautiful with vaulted cellars, bright rooms, painted ceilings and a grand staircase: the display case is certainly worthy of the wonders it displays.
A painter of the intimate
Toulouse-Lautrec sketched, snapping up everything he saw and drawing on whatever came to hand. One feels an urgency in his work, the desire to capture the moment, the gesture, the truth of a pose, as in “Bouboule, le bulldog de Madame Palmyre” (1897), where we are almost surprised not to hear the dog bark.
Toulouse-Lautrec had a misshapen body, caused by a degenerative disease that required numerous periods in hospital and significantly complicated his emotional life. For this reason, he began regularly frequenting brothels and prostitutes and eventually became their friend. The portraits he made of them are modest, respectful, of great sensitivity. He manages to reproduce the putting on of a stocking, the tweaking of a dress, the frills of a petticoat, and he succeeds in capturing them on the spot. Unlike any other artist, his drawings are real-life Polaroids.
A fascinating painting
His painting fascinates me, I find it as much fun as the music of the cancan and, as I walk around this museum, as I often do (it’s one of my favourite stopping off places when I want to show Toulouse and the surrounding area to my friends), I can’t stop myself from hearing a fanfare being played or the orchestra at one of those cabarets where Toulouse-Lautrec spent so much of his time. His drawings are joyous, but sometimes desperate too: Toulouse-Lautrec knew loneliness, he depicted it beautifully, as in “Les Buveurs” (1889), he also drew portraits of a watchman, a coachman or a lad, and of Rafaël, aka Chocolat the famous clown, who seems entirely alone, in spite of the laughter he triggers (“Chocolat dansant”, 1896, published in the humorous journal “Le Rire”).
An optimism posted for all to see
Toulouse-Lautrec is famous for his posters, of the Moulin Rouge, of course, of La Goulue, but he also created advertisements for Simpson bicycle chains, the Salon des Cents and the Revue Blanche, for the concerts of Caudieux and Aristide Bruant, for Ripolin and the Folies Bergères. He knew he would not live to a ripe old age, but he was ravenous to live the life he had to the full. He painted it in a thousand colours, embellished by a thousand encounters.
In the superbly appointed rooms of the museum, his optimism is contagious, and as wander through them I silently hum Offenbach’s Infernal Galop to myself…
Palais de la Berbie – Place Sainte – Cécile BP 100 – 81003 Albi cedex
Tel: +33 (0)5 63 49 58 97
Fax: +33 (0)5 63 49 48 88
Open daily (except Tuesdays, off-season)
Closed on 1 January, 1 May, 1 November and 25 December.