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Explosive Acts: Toulouse-Lautrec, Oscar Wilde, Felix Feneon, and the Art & Anarchy of the Fin de Siecle Hardcover

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 512 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster; First Edition edition (January 6, 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0684811790
  • ISBN-13: 978-0684811796
  • Product Dimensions: 9.5 x 6.5 x 1.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 2.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #553,417 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

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.)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

14 of 15 people found the following review helpful By Richard S. Sullivan on February 25, 2000
Format: Hardcover
A delightful read. David Sweetman follows up his biographies of Gaughin and Van Gogh with another masterpiece biography. This is not only a book about Toulouse-Lautrec and his art, but also a broad sweeping look at his time and place. We are transported back to the Moulin de Gallete and the Moulin Rouge, which were two of the great dancehalls of Fin de Siecle Paris. Lautrec, a pretender to noble birth, broke with the "prettiness" of the by then established Impressionists by painting and drawing the scenes around his table at the dancehalls and clubs in seedy Montmarte section of Paris.
Lautrec went to great lengths to hide his louche activities from his prim and proper "aristocratic" doting mother even to the point of editing his painting for exhibitions to just proper portraits and leaving out the club scene paintings. She, as Sweetman suggests, was guilt ridden over her marriage to a 1st cousin when also her parents and her husband's parents were the results of close consanguinal marriages as well. This, Sweetman concludes, resulted in Lautrec's congenital defects and dwarfism.
The text is sprinkled with interesting tidbits. We learn that the Can-Can is not the movie version, but a dance that was participated in by the customers as well. Why the scandalousness of the Can-Can? It isn't too hard to figure out when it is explained that the dancehalls hired men to police the dances making sure that the women had their knickers on. Many of the girls in the club were surviving their low paid day jobs by picking up customers in the clubs. Knowing that changes our reading when we see them gaze at men in Lautrec's paintings. In his mother's eyes, this was not a place for a man of Lautrec's breeding. Lautrec thrived on it.
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10 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Mark Phillips on February 1, 2001
Format: Hardcover
I'm sorry to be so negative, but I found this book to be poorly written, often cynical, often self-contradictory, and, in its discussions of the radical politics of the period, often factually wrong. I have to admit also that I'm offended by the smug tone of authorial omniscience running through the thing.

As an example of its cynicism, see the discussion of the debates among young artists prompted by Seurat's success, which begins on page 123. These artists aren't in the least moved by passion for their art: "To them, the message was clear -- first get yourself a new, preferably outrageous style, then promote it with as much noise and opposition as you can provoke.... In ateliers and garrets across the city, the search was on for some manner of painting that would stir up the same sort of fuss."

As an example of self-contradition, see the alternating absolute categorizations of Suzanne Valadon who on page 164 is "in no way docile...fiercely independent, a trait that was to cause Henri much suffering" yet on the next page "obediently" wears an ugly style of hat for the rest of her life purely because Renoir once insisted.

As an example of factual errors re radical politics, see the statements on pages 227 and 378 which mention "the nascent Communist Party" and "the rising Communist Party" respectively, although the Communist Parties weren't founded until after the first world war, twenty years after the fin de siecle.

On the whole the book leaves the impression of having been very quickly written, so perhaps these statements, and the smugness with which they're made, are really the result of haste. If so, a really good editor might help a future edition.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful By SEAN MCDANIEL on July 4, 2000
Format: Hardcover
The subtitle of the Sweetman book, Explosive Acts, is "Toulouse-Lautrec, Oscar Wilde, Felix Feneon and the Art and anarchy of the Fin de Siecle". Sweetman has previously written a wonderful biography of Gauguin that I heartily recommend. This is a great book about a particular time and place rather than about a particular person. Sweetman begins with the discription of a huge canvas mural that Lautrec painted as a front wall for a "funfair" booth to be used by eccentric and exotic dancer "LaGoulue". As a framing device for the book, Sweetman explains the significance of the mural and points out real characters from the Paris/Montmartre socio-political scene in 1895 who are to be found in the foreground, including Wllde, Feneon, Lautrec himself, and others. Then Sweetman goes back and provides fascinating detail regarding the intertwining lives of all these people who knew each other at the fin de siecle. By the time he is finished the reader has a wonderful feel and appreciation for the time, the place, and the personalities of the various individuals involved. At the conclusion he comes back to the "funfair" booth and discusses the individual fates of the mural, La Goulue, Lautrec and the others. This is a wonderful read. Even if you don't consider Lautrec to be of the caliber of his more well-known contemporaries (Van Gogh, Degas, Gauguin, etc.), and even if you've already read Frey's well-researched biography of him, you'll find this book a fascinating analysis of a time and place you'd certainly like to if not live in, at least visit for a while.
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