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Woman as myth

By Spiros Tzelepis

An exhibition of Toulouse-Lautrec's work on the island of Andros in Greece

Amazon, 1899 (Oil on cardboard) - Tate Gallery, London

At the end of August, I spent a few days on the island of Andros - which is about two hours by ship from Athens - as the last escape before the beginning of the new school year. There is a long-lasting tradition in Greece according to which most cultural activities "move" to the islands during the summer period since most Greeks and tourists from all over the world spend their holidays there. Many interesting exhibitions are held at the various islands, but the island of Andros plays the most important part in the cultural events of the summer since the island has to show the museum of Contemporary Art which attracts visitors from all over the country by organizing interesting exhibitions.

For the summer of 2001, the museum hosted an exhibition of the artwork by the French artist Henri De Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901) entitled "Woman as a Myth". The title itself reveals the content of the exhibition: the diverse role of the female figure in Lautrec's work. The exhibition - which was over on September 23 - was organized on the occasion of the centenary from Lautrec's death as a part of the events organized all around the world to pay tribute to the artist.

Gabrielle, the dancer, 1890 (Oil on cardboard) - Museum Toulouse-Lautrec, Albi

A total of 135 works, oil paintings, drawings and prints were presented; they were lent to the exhibition by museums, foundations galleries and private collections from France, Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. Additionally a number of authentic lithographs were exhibited as Lautrec was an innovator in print making.

Ms May Belfort, 1895 (Oil on paper) - Private collection

"La revue blanche", 1894 (Colour lithograph) - Private collection

The first time I saw Lautrec's work was in one of my mother's history books in the chapters about the belle époque; what I saw then was some of his lithographs. Lautrec expressed the spirit of the belle époque more than anyone else. Later, I saw copies of his work in an atmospheric creperie in Athens where we use to go after cinema with my parents. This way I was already familiar with his work.

It seems that the female figure reigns in Lautrec's work. Therefore, he became the chronicler of the world in which these figures lived: the world of night, of fleeting pleasures. That world was Montmarte, where Lautrec from 1890 began to seek out models, ideas and inspiration for his work. There, in the theatres, cabarets and café-concerts, in the famous music halls, Lautrec came to escape from the difficulties of everyday life, to confound his fate. He had very small height due to a sequence of accidents which prevented the development of his legs.

From his earliest paintings, the artist showed an interest in the female figure in particular. He asked his relations and friends to sit for him and depicted them in classical portrait style against a background selected to reflect the cultural milieu of the subject; the painter produced portraits that revealed the social status and individuality of the subject. He left a series of portraits of every type of women from prostitutes to stars of the café-concerts, working class girls, actresses and aristocrats.

Ms Cha-U-Kao, Woman clown sitted, 1896 (Colour lithograph) - Private collection

In additional to his work with portraits, Lautrec was one of the greatest exponents of graphic art. In a brief period from 1891 to 1901, the year of his death, he produced 351 lithographs, 28 of which were posters that secured him a lasting fame. He almost always drew directly onto the litho stone, and only in exceptional cases he used specially prepared transfer paper. He drew mostly with greasy lithographic chalk or a paintbrush and ink only occasionally using a pen.

Lautrec's work influenced the work of many painters that came after him including Picasso. The spontaneous and instinctive organization of his subjects, the utilization of the line, shape and colour make him a forerunner of abstract art.

The fact that Andros combines a magnificent scenery, many wonderful beaches and a lot of cultural events is the reason that the island is the favorite place for Athenians to spend there their weekends.

Info and photographs provided by the Museum of Contemporary Art

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