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The poster "Moulin Rouge - La Goulue" (1891) makes "dialogue froufrou feminine and masculine stiffness fairly explicit". Photo taken in the exhibition "Toulouse-Lautrec, resolutely modern" at the Grand Palais. © Siegfried Forster / RFI

Has he revolutionized art? Why the painter of the Moulin Rouge and brothels is very little known in Africa? Who is today's Lautrec? Interview with the curator of the exhibition "Toulouse-Lautrec, resolutely modern" which opens Wednesday, October 9 at the Grand Palais, Paris.

Please leave your vision of Toulouse-Lautrec in the locker room of the Grand Palais. Far from the frivolous and flamboyant world of the Moulin Rouge, the scenography surprises us with its sobriety. And the hanging surprises us with its very serious character, giving almost an academic flair to this painter reputation of hectic, sulphurous and irreverent, died September 9, 1901, victim of cerebral haemorrhage, at the age of 36 years.

There are 225 works to admire: from the refusal of her first painting at the Salon to her world-famous posters and her boundless passion for women, cabarets and freedom in all its forms, to the women's couple, the circus, horses and skits of the Chocolate clown. Much more than a retrospective, the ambition of the Grand Palais is to present a thematic itinerary of the work of Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901) to place it, once and for all, in the history of art next to the big ones. Danièle Devynck, director of the Toulouse-Lautrec museum in Albi, has dedicated her life to studying the painter. As curator, she designed this first major exhibition since 1992, the year of the artist's last French retrospective.

RFI: For you, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec is an " involuntary birth attendant of the 20th century ". How is this exhibition unique and important for the 21st century ?

Danièle Devynck : For the 21st century, as for the 20th century, it is important to reproduce this work and to put it in an approach that is that of artistic evolution at the end of the 19th century. An evolution towards a pictorial freedom in which color and line predominate, and which makes mimicry ultimately disappear. This is what will guide all the art of the twentieth century.

How ?

Lautrec abandons the traditional perspective, the concern for the realistic image, to create plastically transcriptions that he invents freely, even if he starts from the motif, even if he remains in an image that can have a narrative content. In doing so, he will introduce wild animals, Expressionism, but he will also inspire artists like Picasso.

Is Picasso inspired by Lautrec ?

When he arrives in Paris, Picasso looks very strongly at Lautrec's work. He takes the same themes: the drinker, the circus ... For example, he will also introduce expressionism, when we think of prostitutes or scenes of brothel houses of Rouault, again, these are scenes of an artist who has obviously a lot of people looked at Lautrec's work. We can also say that the futurists, especially the work of Frantisek Kupka, is not without thinking of the kinetic approaches of Toulouse-Lautrec. All this is to put into perspective. This is really the object of this exhibition. Even for our contemporaries, it's interesting to discover.

That is to say, beyond introducing motifs and scenes from the Moulin Rouge, cabarets, magazines, brothels, Toulouse-Lautrec revolutionized painting ?

I do not like the word "revolutionized". He has advanced art in a way that will truly open all the pictorial freedom and artistic freedom of the twentieth century.

"In the bed" (around 1892). Lautrec has brought homosexuality, male and female, into his painting open to all the unspoken in society. Photo taken in the exhibition "Toulouse-Lautrec, resolutely modern" at the Grand Palais. © Siegfried Forster / RFI

When one reflects on what could be Toulouse-Lautrec today, one could think - any measure kept - of the filmmaker Ladj Ly and his interpretation of Les Miserables in Montfermeil. Like Lautrec, he draws his inspiration and his strength from the margins of society, innovates in reframing images, dares to show truncated people, reverses perspectives, captures ordinary life in places that have remained until then in the shadows, occupies the public space otherwise. Both of them prefer to show amateurs as models or professional actors on the web while seizing new tools. In his day, Lautrec rubbed against Loïe Fuller's photography, cinema, and light effects, to overcome the contempt of his contemporaries and win the recognition of society. Today, Ladj Ly grew up with "copwatch" videos, and since then he has enriched his cinema thanks to social networks and drones, and finally won the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. Who is today's Toulouse-Lautrec for you ?

I, for her photographs which she puts in scene really, I would quote for example the work of the American artist Cindy Sherman. With this notion of gender that it totally disrupts by disguising itself, by not hesitating to show homosexuality or scenes of lesbians. It's something that runs through the art of our time. The meaning of Lautrec's color, one would find this taste of chromaticism in many artists, but rather in the middle of the twentieth century. Basically, I would say that art is also the fruit of an era. And the art of today is also the fruit of our time.

Toulouse-Lautrec has become a world star. Beyond Europe and the United States, do we also find repercussions of his art in Africa ?

This is not a continent where Lautrec is well known. It is probably the continent where Lautrec is the least spotted. Of course, he is known in Asia, the Japanese love Toulouse-Lautrec enormously. It is known in the United States, North America, South America. There are major collections in these territories. Indeed, Africa, it seems to me, does not have this look on the artist Toulouse-Lautrec. Maybe the Parisian party is finally a screen through which the reading goes again.

"Mademoiselle Marcelle Lender, in bust" (1895) (in several states). Photo taken in the exhibition "Toulouse-Lautrec, resolutely modern" at the Grand Palais. © Siegfried Forster / RFI

► Toulouse-Lautrec, resolutely modern , exhibition at the Grand Palais, Paris, from October 9, 2019 to January 27, 2020.