Art Around the World

Musical Lautrec

By Tom Gross, May 05, 2000

The life of the French artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901) has been brought to stage in a major new musical in London’s West End.

But “Lautrec,” which opened in April at London’s Shaftesbury Theater and recreates the decadent life of Paris’s Montmartre district in 1900, is already coming under criticism – not just from the sometimes harsh professional critics of the London press (one described it as “lavishly mounted, yet peculiarly empty”), but also from members of the artist’s own family.

Toulouse-Lautrec, who suffered from a mysterious bone disease thought to be the result of inter-marriage by his family (his parents were first cousins), grew to only 4 feet, 11 inches as an adult. He shunned classical portraiture, and instead preferred to paint showgirls and cabaret performers, along with prostitutes whom he befriended.

The family claims that the musical, written by the celebrated French singer and composer Charles Aznavour, misrepresents the life of the colorful and (in his own day) controversial artist, who died a poverty-stricken alcoholic at age 36.

Bertrand Duvignaud, the vice-president of the Paris branch of Christie’s auction house and Lautrec’s closest living relative, is angry that the new production “sensationalizes the fact he was a cripple, a drunk and with all these prostitutes.” Some critics, on the other hand, have complained that, if anything, the musical tones down the lurid details of his Montmartre life.

But Lautrec’s family says the artist has been misunderstood, and should more properly be compared to Andy Warhol, as both were adept at reproducing the popular icons of their respective ages.

Lautrec’s defenders have even more to worry about. A new film about his life, Moulin Rouge, has just gone into production. It will star John Leguziamo as Lautrec, and Nicole Kidman as his model and lover, Suzanne Valadon. Valadon was an accomplished artist and the mother – by another lover – of a famous painter of Parisian scenes, Maurice Utrillo. Even so, the film is said to pay at least as much attention to Lautrec’s sex life as the musical.

Article copyright © Tom Gross. All rights reserved.