La Clownesse at the Moulin Rouge, 1897

The Englishman at the Moulin Rouge, 1892

The Urban Comedy

The city in itself was never really a theme to Lautrec. His interest focused on human behaviour as it manifested itself in the modern city. He was fascinated with the entertainment scene. Here, in a whirl of overwhelming sensory input and a liberal atmosphere, the city’s drama of consumption and sexual desire unfolded itself.

Very rapid developments in the city
Lautrec did not employ the city as such as a theme, but nevertheless the modern metropolis served as the foundation of his works. In Lautrec’s day Paris experienced very rapid developments. Department stores, cafés, dance halls, and brothels were just a few of the many new tantalising opportunities on offer, and they catered to and stimulated a growing consumer culture.

New behaviours and new social relations
These social spaces served as the setting of encounters between people, giving rise to a range of new ways of acting and being together. Conventional views of e.g. gender and class still set the norm, but modern urban life also offered opportunities for challenging traditional values. In his works, Lautrec emphasises such new behaviours and new social relations.

The city's vast gallery of characters
Lautrec uses the vast gallery of characters provided by the urban scene, e.g. the stars of the stage, the bourgeoisie, the flaneur, and the prostitute. He portrayed them as types, using them to decode human existence. But Lautrec did not simply reproduce what he saw. He found his motifs in the overwhelming whirl of sensory input provided by light, people, and movement, depicting them in distorted and exaggerated forms bordering on caricature. The human comedy took on its own theatrical and tragic-comic feel when viewed through Lautrec’s distinctive optics.

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