Friday, September 22, 2006

Is it round or is it flat?

Toulouse Lautrec’s posters stand out even today for their modern look, with their broad flat areas of colour. The “flatness” of modern art became a big deal around the middle of the twentieth century, promoted by the influential American critic Clement Greenberg. But the overall effect of Lautrec’s work is not flat at all. On the contrary, he creates a wonderful impression of three-dimensional form, and he does it solely with line, not with darker tone (or “shading”, as it’s often called).

The lines of the red scarf show the roundness of the neck and the bulk of the shoulders and chest. The lines of the cuff/sleeve show the roundness of the wrist. The placement of the cuff and hand tell you the size, shape and movement of the whole arm. And we haven’t even got to the head and hat yet. You can tell just how much space this guy occupies, and roughly what he weighs. Which should be mundane but isn’t in the least.

To me this is drawing at Toulouse Lautrec’s brilliant best, with tone and colour playing secondary roles, although they may have more immediate visual impact.

In 1900-1901, the last year of his life, Lautrec lost the ability to draw. His figures lost their unity and became disjointed and amateurish-looking. For an example see The Art of Toulouse-Lautrec by Nathaniel Harris, republished 1996 by Chancellor Press, ISBN 1 85152 951 9, page 78, where the kneeling figure in Messalina is truly horrible (I was unable to find an example of one of the late awful drawings on the web).

Image from Wikipedia

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