Inspiration Fridays! Is it Ugly or Honest?

8paint Inspiration Fridays

Is it Ugly or Honest?

At the Moulin Rouge - oil on canvas - Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec - Art Institute of Chicago

At the Moulin Rouge – oil on canvas – Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec – Art Institute of Chicago

“I don’t belong to any school. I work in my corner. I admire Degas.” – Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

I saw this painting in person for the first time at the Art Institute of Chicago over 16 years ago. I was wandering through the vast rooms, enjoying the impressionists, when it reached out and slapped me across the face. This isn’t a pretty painting. It’s powerful and sarcastic, rich, and direct. It’s beautiful, but it’s not easy.

Lautrec invites you into a world that you may or may not want to be a part of, and then with unblinking eyes, dares you to look away. But if you’ve ever seen this painting in person, you can’t look away. This is the story of people with everything and nothing.

It’s a story that I spent much of my young and middle adult years, trying to re-create in my paintings because it resonated so acutely with the way that I viewed the world.  It’s raw, unflinching and honest. It’s also not afraid to be a public joke. That’s why it’s a masterpiece.

After Toulouse Lautrec’s death, the foreground portrait on the right of the under-lit English dancer May Milton was cut from the canvas along with the lower portion in hopes that it would make the painting, more accessible and palatable for prospective buyers.

Cropped version of At the Moulin Rouge before repair.

Cropped version of At the Moulin Rouge before repair.

And this is what artists continually will have to contend with if they are creating honestly. The world isn’t always ready. They want to cut away those parts that might make them uncomfortable. We all do it. And in doing so, we risk giving away the most innovative and beautiful parts of ourselves. The parts that stand out and stand alone.

Eventually, the painting was carefully knit back together when the short-sighted gallerist found that Lautrec’s work was soaring in value.

And so it is with our own work. If we let our need for external approval outweigh the truth of what we are making, greatness heads for the nearest exit.

Lautrec was born into an old and wealthy family but suffered from a recessive genetic bone disease that made his legs unusually short. This misfortune was likely due to the aristocratic tendency toward “marrying well“ which often meant marrying each other, in order to keep the money in the family. With plenty of financial support, but living in a society scandalized by his deformity, Lautrec was an outcast.

He found his peers, and a modicum of acceptance in the artists, entertainers, brothels, and bars of Montmartre. It was here that the wealthy and destitute shared space, and even some of the same pleasure and pain.

When I see a Toulouse Lautrec painting I can see some of that pain coming through. He was often photographed dressed as a clown and would regularly make disparaging light of his stature and appearance. Maybe it was this pain that allowed him to paint with such honesty and detachment.

“I paint things as they are. I don't comment. I record.”- Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

“I paint things as they are. I don’t comment. I record.” – Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

When we are inspired to paint. Remember that our inspiration is a gift. If we begin by second-guess and asking if that gift is OK instead of moving forward with excitement and gratitude, we risk homogenizing the richest parts of our work.  So the next time you find yourself asking “Is this ugly?“

Leave room for the possibility.

“Yes, this is ugly, but it is beautiful too.“

Is it ugly or honest?


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