A recent visit to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (Musée des Beaux Arts) included a visit to two shows featuring the above artists—shows that were not designed to relate to each other, but that in my mind did.
On the surface, the artists are quite different.
Toulouse-Lautrec was a post-impressionist whose biggest sale was “La Blanchisseuse” (The Laundress), which went for $22 million in 2005.
Toulouse-Lautrec died 45 years before Mapplethorpe was born.
But what struck me after seeing the two shows were the similarities between the two men.
Both lived on the periphery of society.
Toulouse-Lautrec was dwarfish, as a result of breaking two legs in accidents when he was 13 and 14—also, his parents were first cousins, which seldom helps.
Mapplethorpe was homosexual.
Toulouse-Lautrec found comfort among the performers and prostitutes of bohemian Montmartre.
Mapplethorpe found comfort in the homosexual subculture of the art world of New York.
Both documented the world around them.
Toulouse-Lautrec immortalized the singers and dancers of Le Moulin Rouge with his quick pastel drawings and his advertising lithographs.
Mapplethorpe immortalized friends, celebrities and sexual adventurers with photographs that ranged from formal to erotic.
Laid low by alcoholism and syphilis, Toulouse-Lautrec was committed to an asylum and died in his mother’s house at the age of 36 in 1901.
Mapplethorpe died in 1989 at the age of 42 due to complications from HIV/AIDS.
Despite having died young, both left behind large bodies of work, which we can enjoy (or at least view), today.
The exhibit “Toulouse-Lautrec Illustrates the Belle Époque” will be at The Phillips Collection in Washington DC from February 4 until April 30, 2017.
The Mapplethorpe exhibit, “Focus: Perfection” will be in Montreal until January 22, 2017.
But now I get to the hard part. Having described the basic differences and, more important, the similarities in the artists’ circumstances, what does it mean? Where is the value?
Is it enough to say that these men, unable to adapt to normal society, became flaming candles that illuminated their dark worlds and were prematurely extinguished?
If each had been born a bit later, he would found a society more accepting of his differences.
But then might we have been denied the art that was born out of those circumstances?
I don’t have any answers, but I do think it will be interesting to see what the art market is saying about Mapplethorpe’s photographs a century after his death.