With this handsome book, David Sweetman, a biographer of Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin, brings together the dissolute lives of various artists who came to represent decadent fin-de-siècle Paris: Oscar Wilde, Félix Fénéon, Alfred Jarry, and, of course, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. As the author reminds us, imitations of the latter's work adorn the walls of French-themed bars worldwide and have become a shorthand for sanitized debauchery. Toulouse-Lautrec--absinthe drinker and brothel frequenter--was instrumental in the development of the poster, but what is his artistic legacy? Although Toulouse-Lautrec dominates the book's subtitle, Sweetman's sweep is much grander. In much the same way as his main subject was, Sweetman proves a sympathetic host to the women of Montmartre, tragic figures such as La Goulue, Jane Avril, and Suzanne Valadon, and he is particularly insightful on the singer Aristide Bruant's influence on the fledgling artist. However, the amount of tertiary detail, allied to an ambitious attempt to run a parallel life of Oscar Wilde, tends to be a little too much for the author to handle at times. Sweetman's demands for Toulouse-Lautrec's art to be taken more seriously--for people to look beyond the scenes of dancing and drinking--appear overstated, especially when the painter appears, at best, morally mercenary. Of course, Lautrec was more than a "deformed man who saw ugliness in everything." His work influenced Picasso, Seurat, and van Gogh and was part of a vanguard of realism in French art that swept it into the 20th century and helped establish graphic art as the people's art. It also had the dubious distinction of paving the way for popular culture as we now know it. Hamstrung by a lack of color plates, Sweetman's book is nonetheless a worthy and well-told account of a pivotal time. --David Vincent, Amazon.co.uk
From Publishers Weekly
Unlike comparable studies--Carl E. Schorske's Fin-de-Siecle Vienna or Elaine Showalter's Sexual Anarchy, for example--Sweetman's colorful new book (following his bios of Gaugin, Van Gogh and Mary Renault) gives life to the period by focusing on the specific men of the subtitle, and especially Toulouse-Lautrec, who, Sweetman shows, was much more involved in the leftist politics of his time than is generally acknowledged. The doomed artist, born to a well-to-do family whose lineage can be traced to the medieval courts of Toulouse, emerges here as not only a charming poster maker and illustrator, but also as a serious, politically savvy artist intent on illuminating the shadowy corridors and hidden crannies of the Parisian demimonde, a project influenced by his close contact with the radical and revolutionary thinkers, artists and literati of the age. The "most committed" anarchist in Paris may well have been the "dandy" publisher, Felix Feneon, who wished to associate himself with Baudelaire's flaneurs, those who "set out to savour the pleasure of modern life that the poet had extolled." Feneon, for example, provided a platform for the unappreciated and the outrageous, including Andre Gide, Alfred Jarry, Proust and Picasso. Wilde and his 1895 trial for "gross indecencies" receive a familiar once-over, but we also see how Lautrec stood by Wilde longer and more steadfastly than many others. The trial itself, moreover, is understood by Sweetman as a convenient focal point for cultural anxieties of the time, anxieties that, as Marjorie Garber has elsewhere argued, often accompany social change and find their most prominent expression in sexuality and the gendered body. Though not explosive in terms of revelatory material, Sweetman's study paints a fascinating and nicely detailed picture of the Parisian landscape, as well as of some of its most important people and places. It further suggests the many ways in which the fin de siecle laid the foundation for the coming of the moderns and literary and artistic modernism. (Jan.)
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