"Painted in Absinthe": Toulouse Lautrec and the Radical Aesthetic Sublime
I've been thinking a lot lately about the interaction of art and politics, and the fact that whilst people can discuss that dichotomy in general, politics is generally absent from the study of artists, of art and art history on a more detailed, academic basis. Also the importance of aesthetic ideology to radical culture. This rather flowery response to the Lautrec folio I've been looking through recently is the result. Perhaps I'm on to something here, or perhaps this is just me trying to justify my latest volition to stay on for an interdisciplinary Art History-Romanticism Mstud. Whatever. Enjoy!
[To all writers: 1. Anything more than 1,000 words in an HTML document on [rhexisFEATURE] with a weblog summary post linking to it, please. 2. It is OK to proof-read your articles. No, really. -Subed.]
Paris in the 1890s. The Bohemian revolution is sweeping Montmartre, and somewhere amongst its sleepless, twisting alleyways, a sleepless, twisted artist is creating a new radical sublime. Henri de Toulouse Lautrec creted a manifesto of sumblimity in the first radical underground society of the post-industrial age, with his garish, obsessively figurative art that a contemporary critic declared to have been painted "mostly in absinthe".
This drunken, vice-ridden, syphilitic, flat-nosed dwarf understood keenly the limitations of beauty, of convention, of conventional beauty. A practical non-sleeper, he spent his career wandering, drunk and dreadful, through the cobbled rises, the brothels and music-halls of Bohemian Paris, creating amongst the gloomy subusols [Not a word. Please advise. -Subed.] of the Chatnoir and the Rue des Moulins, a figurative art that re-defined beauty for the Bohemian age. His obsessive line traces the intimacies of the lives and bodies of the street-walkers and music hall girls upon whom his figure-studies are focused. His fixation is as a backlash against the bland landscapes of the Impressionist movement upon the figurative:
"Only the human figure exists; landscape is, and should be, no more than an accessory; the painter exclusively of landscape is nothing but a bore. The sole function of landscape is to heighten the intelligibility of the character of the figure. Corot's greatness is revealed in his figures, likewise that of Millet, Renoir, and of Whistler; when a figure painter executes a landscape he treats it as if it were a face; Degas' landscapes are unparalleled because they are visionary landscapes. Monet's work would have been even greater if he had not abandoned figure-painting."
He rejects, moreover, the concept of the physical and aesthetic ideal:
"I have tried to depict the true and not the ideal. It is a defect, perhaps, for warts do not find favor in my eyes, and I like to embellish them with playful fur, to round them, and to put a shining end on them. I do not know if you bridle your pen, but when my pencil moves, it is necessary to let it go, or - crash! ...nothing more."
Lautrec's art is radical because it rejects the bland aesthetic idealism of previous generations, the wan and draped beauties of the Pre-Raphaelites, the Impressionists' heady bucolism. ["Bucolism" means "rusticism". I had to figure that one out by looking in three dictionaries for "bucolic". Thought I'd save you the trouble. Will stop butting in now. -Subed.] Unlike the latter, he streaks his bodies with brilliant, deliberately unworldly colours that etch in the contours of human beings offset by, and not in easy accord with, their environs; unlike the former, he depicts heavy, sharply contoured, real-unreal bodies, flesh twisted in but not obscured by drapery, returning to the nightmarish Gothic figuratism of Blake, Fuseli, and the Romantic school.
The later Victorian schools, apparently utterly alien to one another in aesthetic terms, were nonetheless both working within and as expressions of the socio-cultural and political mores of Victorian and Early Modernist convention; not only this, but both focus, crucially, on the search for beauty in visual art. Lautrec's art is radical in that it rejects convention, just as its well-born creator wilfully disappeared into the Parisian underworld; necessary in that it subverts this ideal of beauty that has been perpetuated in Western medie since the mid-1800s.
But surely beauty is the highest function of art? Not so - at least, only so within the confines of the limited and limiting auto-critique of established Western aesthetic standards of the Nineteenth, Twentieth and, now, Twentyfirst Centuries. Previously, art in Europe had attempted somehing far more ambitious: what Kant identified and Edmund Burke advocated as the sublime:
"In aesthetics, the sublime (from the Latin sublimis (exalted)) is the quality of transcendent greatness, whether physical, moral, intellectual or artistic. The term especially references a greatness with which nothing else can be compared and which is beyond all possibility of calculation, measurement or imitation. Edmund Burke and Immanuel Kant both investigated the subject (compare Burke’s Essay on the Sublime and Beautiful, 1756, and Kant's Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime, 1764). Both men distinguished the sublime from the beautiful." (Wikipedia)
The tragedy of modern art-ideology in the West is that it diverts, as it has since the Victorian age, the attention of the young and visceral away from the necessary terrors of sublimity. As Western cultural structures become increasingly centred around commercialism and callous meritocracy, our assessment-centred, acheivement-obsessed school-and-workplace superstructures conspire with increasingly anodyne, politically sterile, idealised mass media to create an aesthetic culture which depends on the banal limitations of beauty assessments under the assorted value-judgements of the material perfectionism that has been cultivated by the expansion of global markets as a supra-political oligarchy.
Result: we are losing, not only on an individual and emotional, but also on a wider cultural level, our grip on the sublime
On an individual scale, our young people are taught to shun ugliness, to disinfect their shower-nozzles, learn to fear dirt, imprefection and sub-excellence, to despise their own bodies and to pine for a perfection in daily life that is as unimaginative as it is unattainable.
More ominously, this cultural rejection of aesthetic sublimity extends to global politics, in the gradual aesthetic and philosophical self-immuration of Western culture: instead of embracing the sublimity, the dreadful beauties of existential self-awareness and acceptance of the notion of unsafety and ugliness, instead of finding, like Burke in the Alps, a sense of freedom in apprehension of the universal sublime, we swathe ourselves in social discourses and superstructures of self-protection and self-removal, refusing to accept a given degree of ugliness, discomfort and danger as part of the real beauty of existence, and focusing childishly on the defence of the individual above all principles. We learn, in short, to fear our own darkness and to live in terror of "Terror".
This is where the anodyne culture of the anti-sublime, of the myth of life's potential to be only beautiful and safe as perpetuated by global consumerism, becomes a dangerous fantasy.
Of course, in the Post-Romantic world the aesthetic and philosophically sublime has always been preserved, usually in subversive communities and dissident sub-cultures: the Montmartre of Bohemian Paris in which Lautrec was working embraces the dark, the dangerous and the differently beautiful in life; even as Lautrec's art celebrates and makes beautiful - more so, makes sublime - the daily realities of the lives of the women of Montmartre, replete with horrific glamour, with dazzle and drudgery, impoverished, joyful, desperate and short. One of his most emotive studies (see link above) is an aesthetically refined series of the washerwoman collecting the soiled sheets from the Rue Des Moulins brothel; Lautrec's glamour is far removed from the willowy, unreal, imagined feminine fantasies of turn-of-century Victoriana; his glamour is the aesthetic sensibility that would later be seized upon by the Punk, New Romantic and Neo-Goth cultural movements: disturbing, highly individuated, decadently imperfect; a sublimity in glamour that finds aesthetic power in the ugly and the terrifying.
In Twentyfirst Century Britain it can be seen how the sublime still forms a crucial part of the aesthetic ideology of certain enlightened subcultures, of the Goth movements and the cult surrounding the revival of the subversive theatrical traditions of Burlesque and Vaudeville.
But everywhere in our aesthetic cultural discourses - our music, our literature, our media - the safe, the bland, and the sterilely pretty continue to re-establish themselves as the aesthetic manifesto, accelarated by the consumer culture within which they are embedded; amongst countless examples: plastic popstars, whinging vanilla singer-songwriters, and slick electronica gradually replace the raw sublimity of the punk, metal and jazz movements of the Mid-Twentieth Century, the quietly emotive imperfections of folk music, at least in the world of the consumerist majority; defunct theory treatises and bland booker-prize selections get the press coverage, the prize-money and the subsequent self-fulfilling commercial success denied to more subversive, challenging, and visceral literature - the Houellebecqs and Palahniuks of our generation.
To reclaim our cultural ideology from the reductive anti-sublimity of Western consumer culture, a new focus upon and manifesto for the aesthetic sublime is required; not only the perpetuation of sublimity in aesthetic ideology within enlightened sub-cultures, but the extention of these radical cultural and aesthetic memes into the conscious and commercial sphere of the mass media: an engagement with the reductive ideology of the exponents of commercial globalisation on their own terms.
This is why the Internet is vital as a tool of dissemination; the art and writing of the champions of the Twentyfirst century sublime create, through their online prescence, a network of subcultural media engagement which global consumerism cannot afford to ignore. The art of Dave Mckean and Ian Miller, the graphic narratives of Grant Morrisson and Warren Ellis, the fiction of Miéville, Palahniuk, Ian M. Banks and the neo-Peakites are kept alive and current through their web prescence and dissemination; the 'anarch-e-texts' (subpol 2006) of Barbelith, the Electronic Disturbance Theatre (EDT) and subpol, as well as myriad blogs and dissident journals, perpetuate this aesthetic dissidence, making it accessible to the moiety of the world's populace with network access.
The dissemination of these sublime aesthetic sub-cultures brings home the fundamental activist truth that aesthetic dissidence is equally vital as political or sexual transgression in fighting the battles for cultural enlightenment in the Twentyfirst century: perhaps, indeed, it is more so, because more than anything else the aesthetic ideology of a sub-culture sustains the visceral sublimity of its existence and draws together its adherence through art, music, theatre, literature and poetry. In just this way, the Bohemian revolution of turn-of-the-century Paris would have been nothing without the music of Offenbach, the glamour of the chahut (cancan), or, indeed, the art of Toulouse Lautrec.
This is why we are poet-warriors: because our art, our poetry, our music, our radical aesthetic sublime is as subversive and as powerful as our politics will ever be; without our radical aesthetic, our politics would die. Lautrec did not have the luxury of living in a digital age: we have a duty as thinking creatures to perpetuate the power of the radical aesthetic sublime, not only within our own gloriously imperfect lives, but in our writing, in our art and our music and our dissemination of all three: a challenge to all that is banal, all that is sterile and pretty and vacuous and stringent and safe in the frightening globalized consumer society into which we were born.
Let's spit sublimity across the ether. Let's paint our lives in absinthe.