Cover image for Explosive acts : Toulouse-Lautrec, Oscar Wilde, Félix Fénẽon and the art & anarchy of the fin de siècle
Explosive acts : Toulouse-Lautrec, Oscar Wilde, Félix Fénẽon and the art & anarchy of the fin de siècle
Sweetman, David, 1943-
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Publication Information:
New York : Simon & Schuster, 1999.
Physical Description:
512 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm
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N6853.T6 S93 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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Reviews 4

Booklist Review

Sweetman, a biographer of Gauguin, articulates the unique energy of fin de siecle Paris through fine-grained portraits of key figures. Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, Oscar Wilde, and the influential critic Felix Feneon are at the center, and they are orbited by dozens of other artists, writers, and cabaret performers. This inclusive approach yields an extravagantly detailed and anecdote-rich chronicle of extreme personalities, explosive creativity, and cultural and political volatility, but Sweetman never loses the narrative thread. The cohesion of his complex narrative is attributable to his focus on the "spirit of revolt, born of an inchoate sympathy for the poor" that characterized Paris in those heady years. Sweetman adeptly traces that mind-set's expression in the indelible works of the feverishly prolific and beleaguered Toulouse-Lautrec, the brilliant writings and bold gestures of Wilde, and Feneon's devotion to anarchy and prescient commentary on art and literature. Genius and tragedy went hand in hand for those aesthetic pioneers, and their artistic glory and personal suffering prefigured the greater strides and sorrows to come. --Donna Seaman

Publisher's Weekly Review

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.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

The biographer of Gauguin and van Gogh portrays Toulouse-Lautrec as a socially conscious artist deeply concerned with the fate of humanity. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

The title of this book suggests a study of the relation between the anarchic politics (hence its sense of "explosive act") of fin de si`ecle France and the art and writings of Lautrec, Wilde, and Feneon. It is barely that. Of the three, Feneon was the most committed to mixing artistic purpose with radical politics, and it is one of the virtues of Sweetman's book that the critic emerges as one of the most important personalities of the period. Politics indeed did matter for Lautrec and Wilde: their views were from society's margins and radical critiques of any sort were natural sympathies. In the final say, however, politics remained tangential to their art. Sweetman's version of their familiar stories is wonderfully fresh, seamlessly told, and richly amplified by an enviable breadth of inquiry: there are detailed discussions on the sociology of Montmartre, prostitution, homosexuality, advertising art, the Dreyfus Affair, avant-garde literature, and of course, politics. The author, however, is ill served by his publisher: the reproductions (none in color) are muddy, often with the book gutter disfiguring the image, and there are no footnotes to the informative text. Otherwise, an excellent read. Upper-division undergraduate and graduate students. L. R. Matteson; University of Southern California



Chapter One A Commission In November 1926 the Parisian magazine L'Amour de l'Art carried an indignant article by the critic Georges Duthuit which brought to light the disturbing news that a dealer called Hodebert had been cutting up and selling segments of two huge paintings by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. According to Duthuit, Hodebert, a partner in Barbazangues et Hodebert, had organised an exhibition at his Paris gallery that featured eight unknown portraits by Lautrec. As the artist had died twenty-five years earlier in 1901 and was already famous, the appearance of a number of previously unseen works inevitably caused a stir. If Hodebert hoped that potential customers would accept that he had somehow stumbled upon eight missing canvases, he was quickly disabused. While most of the subjects were innocuous enough, the usual characters from Lautrec's night-time existence in the bars and cabarets of Montmartre, two of the heads were so unusual that suspicions were immediately aroused. Indeed Duthuit not only identified the two portraits, he also knew where he had last seen them and could now report that they had been cut from two of the oddest works that Toulouse-Lautrec ever produced, two panels which had been hung on either side of the entrance to a funfair booth that was set up at the Foire du Trône in east Paris in April 1895. As Duthuit also recalled, Lautrec had painted these large canvases for the one-time star of the Moulin Rouge, Louise Weber, whose nickname -- La Goulue (The Glutton) -- signified the cause of her decline. Louise had loved food and drink, she had emptied anyone's glass and a spreading waistline monitored her consumption. By 1895 it had spread to the point where she could no longer go on dancing the can-can and her new idea was to perform an Egyptian belly-dance in a 'Moorish' funfair booth that she was having built. For this, she needed some eye-catching artwork -- she would provide the canvas, Lautrec the art. No doubt amused by her audacity, he agreed, working non-stop to produce the two huge scenes in time for the opening a week later. In the left-hand panel he showed the dancer in her glory, the leading performer of the Montmartre dance halls aided by her supple partner Valentin le Desossé ('the Boneless') with his trademark jutting chin and high top hat. In the second panel he painted much the same thing, with a solitary La Goulue still going through her old high-kicking act rather than the new belly-dance promised within, though that is less surprising than the people gathered round watching her. Most were friends of the artist, like the dancer Jane Avril, and there was even a glimpse of Lautrec himself, though only back view, but it was the two large figures in the foreground, who really stood out. In the bottom right-hand corner was the easily recognisable profile of the literary critic Félix Fénéon, a notorious anarchist whom some suspected of having caused an explosion in a Paris restaurant that seriously injured one of the diners. While Fénéon was never found guilty, few doubted that he was more than just a lover of avant-garde art and poetry. But this was relatively minor compared to the reputation of the second figure, the most notorious character of the fin de siècle, someone whose behaviour was considered so vile that his name could not be mentioned in polite society -- Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde. Armed with this information Duthuit was able to launch a campaign to stop Hodebert from dispersing the portraits and thus wrecking for ever what he and a few others knew to be two key works that revealed a side to Lautrec that was often overlooked. To the men trying to save the panels, the presence of Fénéon with memories of his terrorist activities and Wilde with the revelations of his double life among the society queens and low-life rent-boys of the British capital, was just too significant to be passed off as an attention-grabbing joke. Both were anarchist theorists, leading revolutionaries in their day, yet Lautrec placed himself beside them, as if he and they were a team. In all, Lautrec made nine portraits of Wilde, one painted when he visited London during the trials that ended with Wilde's imprisonment in Reading Gaol, and when Fénéon became editor of the radical journal La Revue blanche, Lautrec joined him as a contributor and an intimate member of the close-knit group of anarchist writers and artists that gathered in the publication's offices. And there are other works, drawings especially, a surprising number, that reveal interests and depths quite different from the amusing images of Montmartre night-life that have been reproduced over and over again in countless coffee-table books. Many of Lautrec's best drawings were a result of his friendship with the singer Aristide Bruant, whose earthy ballads about the poor of the Paris slums were anarchist anthems intended to shock his bourgeois listeners, or the diseuse Yvette Guilbert whose plaintive songs about the lonely and the downtrodden stand in stark contrast to the superficial gaiety that Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec is thought to represent. And how familiar these characters seem to us as we stumble through our own fin de siècle. The 1890s may have been a time of relative calm after the unprecedented upheaval of a century of change, but socially, personally, morally, there was an inner discontent that was experienced by many, yet little understood. In France, governments were more moderate than formerly and some of the most glaring social injustices were recognised and were beginning to be eradicated, but creative people, artists and writers, felt excluded from a political system that was at best callous and at worst sickeningly corrupt. Women were making the first moves towards a degree of emancipation, inducing fear in many men. There was a sexual disease that afflicted countless people, had no cure and might strike at any time, and often ended in a lingering, hideous death. Hundreds of thousands doped themselves to madness with alcohol, and often died of it. Anonymous terrorists exploded bombs in city centres for no very clear political reasons. Yet despite it all, most people continued to believe in the vague notion of progress, holding to a blind faith that things would somehow get better. Paris is the key to the story, for the city seemed to attract and exaggerate all that was good and bad at the time. The writers caught and dissected it well enough. Lautrec, if we let him, can show us what it looked like. With van Gogh dead, and Gauguin in self-imposed exile in the South Seas, Lautrec continued to look hard and long at the city and its denizens as his century drew to its close -- almost 1,000 paintings, over 5,000 drawings and more than 350 prints and posters survive, and he was only thirty-six when he died. Yet he was not as alone as that sounds -- indeed it is the repeated emphasis on the solitary nature of Lautrec's art, the isolated figure drinking and sketching in a corner of a dance hall, or the only male permitted to inhabit a brothel, which has created the impression that Lautrec's art is somehow insulated from the real world and is only an amusing counterpart to the sparkling show-business world that he often painted. In truth, as La Goulue's panels revealed, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was constantly surrounded by the most fascinating figures of an age of tumultuous social and cultural change. Wilde and Fénéon were only the most shocking of a host of fascinating characters that Lautrec knew and worked with, from the revolutionary playwright Alfred Jarry to Emile Péan, the greatest surgeon of the age. Nor were they mere bar-room acquaintances -- although seldom acknowledged today, Lautrec was involved in some of the most radical theatrical productions of his time -- he was even one of the set designers for Jarry's Ubu Roi, the obscene masterpiece which outraged the critics yet altered for ever the course of European theatre. Controversy engulfed him. Whatever the outrage, Lautrec and his friends were at the heart of it. When the mass protest over the Dreyfus trial was at its peak, the future Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau asked Lautrec to provide illustrations for a book about the Jews that some condemned as anti-Semitic while others lauded their sensitivity and compassion. All of which suggests that a conventional biography would reveal little more than a fraction of the man and his art. Only a portrait of the age could hope to embrace something of the diversity that Duthuit had glimpsed in those panels for La Goulue's booth, those things that had made him so determined to save them. There is a real sense in which those canvases typify the two quite different ways we can approach the fin de siècle. On the left panel we have the conventional view -- fun and champagne, wild dancing and high-kicking women. But that was painted just as the good times were ending and the real fin de siècle began. It is Lautrec's growing awareness of that change that imbues the right-hand panel with its nervous air of impending collapse, drawing in Wilde and Fénéon to represent the rich intellectual and political life that Lautrec knew, so different from those simplistic images of drinking and whoring with which he is usually associated. The right-hand panel, with its air of a world falling apart, proved terrifyingly prophetic. Most of those in the painting, including the dancer and the artist who painted her, came to a bad end. The first to fall was the man whose presence in the picture still holds the power to shock, for within weeks of the canvas being completed Oscar Wilde was condemned to hard labour and carted off to prison and the wreck of his life and his art. The positive side to this story is that Duthuit's campaign was successful, Hodebert was thwarted and the portraits saved. The restored panels now hang in the Musée d'Orsay in a corridor on either side of the entrance to the first of the two large galleries on the upper floors of the museum that house Lautrec's work. The two pictures are so big, it is hard to get far enough back in order to see them properly. In any case they hardly seem to merit the effort, having been painted in rapid, crude brush-strokes on what looks like pieces of old sacking that have been roughly stitched together. Patched and faded and brown, these curiosities lack the immediate allure of much of the artist's work. At first glance they seem to be no more than weaker versions of the scenes of can-can dancing that can be glimpsed in the better-preserved canvases further on. Why linger? In fact, few do, a judgement shared by the occasional critic or art historian who has bothered to consider the two scenes, which are generally written off as little more than an amusing aberration. Yet how wrong that assumption is. Those faded scenes are far more than the passing whim of a great artist. Approached with an open mind, they offer a glimpse of a lost world of ideas and feelings, of the beliefs and confusions, the ambitions and doubts that impelled Lautrec and Wilde, Fénéon and Jane Avril and all the others through the last decades of the nineteenth century. And like those visitors to the Foire du Trône in 1895 we too may climb, in imagination, the five steps up to the arched entrance of La Goulue's booth, push aside the curtain and enter the tiny space, lit by flickering lights, pungent with the odours of greasepaint and sweat, noisy with the wailing pipe and crashing tambour. Then, as La Goulue wriggles her embonpoint and twitches her gossamer veils, we may let our minds ease away from the tacky illusion to take in the surrounding details: Félix Fénéon watching it all with searching eyes and knowing smile, Wilde bemused by this further evidence of the human folly that is so often the hapless child of lust, and Lautrec, of course, there to record it all, sketchpad at the ready. Copyright © 1999 David Sweetman. All rights reserved.