‘Toulouse Lautrec’: The Story of the Father of Modern Advertising

Henri Marie Raymond de Toulouse Lautrec-Monfa, generally known simply as Toulouse Lautrec, is usually thought of by most people today either in terms of his diminutive physical stature and his supposedly profligate, bohemian lifestyle, or as the sad clown sort of character portrayed in Baz Lurmann’s Moulin Rouge. The average person hears his name and immediately conjures various visions of vice and images of 19th century debauchery, complete with bustled backsides and high-kicking, crinolined can-can dancers.

Toulouse Lautrec represents an entire era in the minds of many, even if they aren’t sure why, in part because he was several of the things he’s accused of having been. He was an aristocrat who chose to live a bohemian life in the brothels of Montmartre. He was an alcoholic, syphilitic, artistic genius, who kept the company of whores. He was, and is, in fact, the poster boy for La Belle Époque. In quite a literal sense.

Because he was an artist whose work not only documented his times, it came to define that period. As an artist, Lautrec’s signature style was perfect for, and became the standard for, poster art and modern advertising graphics. Elements of his work and hallmarks of his style still form the basis for contemporary commercial art, more than a century after he began painting the praises of cabaret performers and Parisian nightclubs. In a way, he’s the father of modern advertising.

This, along with many other facets of his art, is addressed in Toulouse Lautrec. The film is an “art documentary”, directed by Hilary Chadwick, that originally appeared in 1988. It tells of Lautrec’s childhood and gives a glimpse of his life in the late 1800s before turning to a series of artists, historians and other experts who weigh in on Lautrec’s life, on individual pieces and on their lasting effect. It’s very informative, using photos and footage from the period in addition to Lautrec’s pieces to illustrate his impact on society, and on artists (such as Picasso and Van Gogh) who came after him.

This reissue of Toulouse Lautrec offers the option of viewing in English, French, Spanish, Italian and German, and the feature is brief enough at just 50-minutes. However, that fact leads to the two main complaints about this film. First, its abbreviated run time is slightly annoying because you find yourself saying, “That’s it? That’s all?” — you are definitely left wanting more. Second, most of the experts interviewed are British, and one really gets the sense that this documentary would have benefited greatly from a wider variety of opinions and more international input.

The DVD bonus material for Toulouse Lautrec includes the original theatrical trailer and, much more importantly, a “Picture Gallery”. The gallery contains 25 stills of many of Toulouse Lautrec’s most famous works, with several close up, detailed, looks at some of the more popular pieces discussed in the documentary feature. No disrespect to the filmmakers, but I believe this gallery is the very best part of the DVD, and I suspect that many fans of Toulouse Lautrec might agree.

RATING 6 / 10