Do you remember that tedious British sitcom Bottom? Well, in one episode, Mayall knocks back a pint of absinthe and screams: “They said Toulouse-Lautrec used to drink this. No wonder his legs fell off and his paintings were crap.” In the better days of British humour, Lautrec used to pop up regularly on Monty Python, as the vertically challenged postimpressionist gunslinger No Time Toulouse. Peter Sellers dressed up as him in The Revenge of the Pink Panther and Casino Royale. Someone’s even found Lautrec references in SpongeBob SquarePants.
So, name recognition has never been a problem for Henri Marie Raymond de Toulouse-Lautrec Montfa. Even when he was alive, people knew about him. “Look, it’s Toulouse-Lautrec,” they would giggle as the little man in a bowler hat stumbled onto the dancefloor at the Moulin Rouge with three girls, or turned up at Longchamp racecourse for a boozy lunch and a losing bet. Everybody knew Toulouse-Lautrec. And they still do. Whenever someone computes one of those annoying lists of the 10 most popular artists, he’s on it. Not at the top, where his drinking buddy Van Gogh sits. And not usually above Monet and Picasso. But soon afterwards. While filming his biography recently, I made a complete berk of myself, standing outside the Musée d’Orsay asking people if they had heard of him. Of course they had. It was the next question that threw them. What do you know about him? Quite a few people said, correctly, that he drank too much absinthe. And that he did all those posters for the Moulin Rouge. He, er, lived in a brothel, remembered one nervous American woman, also correctly. But most of the crowd knew only one thing with complete certainty, and that was that he was short. A dwarf. So that’s his tragedy. Everyone’s heard of him, but nobody knows him. His fame is immense, but worthless. The really shocking truth about Toulouse-Lautrec is that he was a profound and weighty revolutionary: a great tragedian. In my film, I call him “the Rembrandt of the 19th century”. And I’m never going to take it back.
He wasn’t even that short, and certainly not a dwarf. His final height was 1.54m, or just over 5ft — hardly a giant, but tall enough, at the time, to get into the French army. At the château where he grew up in the south of France, the Château du Bosc, near Albi, there’s a wall in one of the upstairs rooms on which the Lautrec family have been charting the height of their offspring for 300 years. After each growth spurt, they scratch a line on the wall to measure the height of the new child. Henri’s on there. I was shown the wall by his nearest living relative, an 80-year-old cousin who still lives in the château, and as I tried to imagine his final height, I realised he would have been slightly taller than she is. As I saw it, my first challenge was to return to Lautrec what Monty Python, Clouseau, Mayall and SpongeBob SquarePants had so crudely stolen from him: his seriousness. The poor man had had such a weird and painful childhood. His family were proper French aristocrats, related, somewhere along the line, to Richard the Lionheart. They were snobs, and snobs cover stuff up.
The illness that made him short was a rare genetic disorder of the bones called pycnodysostosis, triggered by inbreeding. His parents were first cousins. Their parents were first cousins. Pycnodysostosis causes the bones to be unusually brittle, and when Lautrec was 13 he slipped over and broke his right leg. A year later, he broke his left leg. The family tried to cover up the circumstances of these accidents and make them sound more dramatic. His mother said he had broken his leg in a riding accident. Until he died, aged 36, his family refused to accept the obvious cause of his illness.
I fetched up in some horrible places in pursuit of these demeaning origins. The worst was a spa town called Lamalou les Bains, to which he was exiled for months at a time, and which is still filled today with sad, bent, disfigured people, hoping to cure themselves of incurable conditions by submerging their bodies in hot water that stinks of rotten eggs. The doctors hung weights from his legs to make them longer. On the long journeys to and from the spas, they gave him morphine to keep him quiet. It softened him up nicely for the addictions to come.
People always remember his posters, which are remarkable. But the more I looked into him, the clearer it became that his paintings are better at telling the truth. The posters were work, advertising. They were brilliant, sure, but they weren’t honest. For example, it was Lautrec who put the Moulin Rouge on the map with an astonishing poster that popped up overnight in Paris, in December 1893, of the wicked cancan dancer La Goulue — wicked because she sometimes “ forgot” to put on her underwear, and you know how much high-kicking there is in the cancan. The poster shows the crowd leaning in for a good look. Is she or isn’t she? It’s certainly a pioneering example of the use of sex to bring in the crowds. But what’s more interesting is how different Lautrec’s posters of the Moulin Rouge are from his paintings. There’s no sex or the promise of sex in the paintings. They’re entirely glum.
They show people leaving the cabaret at the end of the night, drunk, hollow-eyed. Dancers trudging home in the rain. Girls picking the pockets of their johns.
Where had he picked up his instinct for getting inside women’s heads? One of his favourite tricks was not showing a woman’s face. He’d paint her turned away, or with her hair over her forehead, so you couldn’t see her eyes. But instead of blocking you off from the women, the back views and the hair seemed to pull you towards them. You really want to know what they’re thinking.
It started to make sense back at the Château du Bosc. His mother, Adèle, was a religious nut who saw him as her punishment for marrying a first cousin. She doted on him in a guilty, suffocating way. The Château du Bosc was a woman’s world. While the men were out all day, huntin’, shootin’ and ridin’, the women stayed behind, sewing, thinking and waiting. The clock in the hall that they listened to is still there, and its doomy tick and tock could trigger domestic depression in a Tupperware container. Later, he would go in search of these anxious moods and sapping silences in the brothels of Montmartre. The slow agony of the feminine wait he would evoke so superbly in his brothel pictures, or those spectacularly sad paintings of fallen women staring into their absinthe, would have been noticed first at home.
The other seemingly sleazy feminine subject he kept returning to, lesbianism, was driven by the same warm understandings gained during a childhood spent exclusively in the company of women. No man has painted lesbians with more tenderness than Lautrec. Lots of the girls in the cathouses were lesbians, as were most of the cabaret stars in his posters: Jane Avril, May Belfort, La Goulue. If they weren’t actually lesbians, the Montmartre gossips enjoyed claiming they were.
Lesbianism was in the air. And fuelling the fantasy was the unusually dirty, French, 19th-century masculine mind. Only one artist in belle époque Paris rose above this titillatory interest to make great art out of it. And that was Lautrec.