Today’s post comes from Kristina Arike, Class of 2014 and Art Center Student Docent.

Toulouse Lautrec Monfa, Henri Marie Raymond, comte de. French 1864-1901. Yvette Guilbert: A Menilmontant, De Bruant. 1898. Lithograph. 1953.2.1

Brian Mann, Associate Professor of Music, presented this week’s installment of the Artful Dodger series on the subject of several lithographs by French artist Henri Toulouse-Lautrec. These works on paper feature cabaret singer and actress, Yvette Guilbert. One of Professor Mann’s areas of interest is nineteenth-century French popular music. His presentation discussed the intersections among popular music and its criticism; art; and Parisian culture.

Professor Mann began his talk with some background information on the artist: Toulouse-Lautrec came from a wealthy aristocratic family, but was born with a defect which rendered his legs the size of a child’s while the rest of his body grew to its full adult size. This disability has, in part, fueled interest in Toulouse-Lautrec and his biography; he was a prominent character in the popular movie “Moulin Rouge.”

Toulouse-Lautrec did spend much of his time in Paris (where he moved early in his career and remained for the rest of his life) frequenting music halls, cabarets, café concerts, circuses, and brothels. He is known for being intimately acquainted with the raunchy underbelly of French society that made up the nightlife of Montmartre. He did not paint “high” subjects; rather, his work depicts the contemporary world.

Guilbert was a Parisian actress turned singer who became quite popular among people of influence, including Toulouse-Lautrec, who followed her career for many years. Reviewers of her time were filled with high praise for her style of singing, her elegant and simple manner of dress, and her modest demeanor. As Professor Mann pointed out, though, we as contemporary listeners may be disappointed by the thinness of her voice.

In order to give the audience a better picture, so to speak, of Guilbert, Professor Mann played a few early recordings of Guilbert and distributed the accompanying lyrics to the songs. Interestingly, the lyrics seemed to be a bit of a mismatch for a singer who was described as of a “modest demeanor.” In her song “Je suis pocharde,” Guilbert declares:

“I’m drunk;

I say silly things,

Ah, but I’m tipsy!

But hey: so what?

What do you want me to say?

I’m tipsy!”

This sort of lyricism translates, in a modern context, to a pop song by the likes of Ke$ha or Katy Perry. It is a celebration of partying, which refuses to make any explanation or apologies for her fun-loving behavior. Several audience members, as well as Professor Mann, pointed out the strategic creation of a sellable image at work in Guilbert’s choice of song repertoire—much in the way that Lady Gaga and Madonna sing provocative lyrics in order to get the public’s attention.

I spoke with a member of the audience after the presentation in order to get their reaction to the talk. They were “fascinated by the multidisciplinary approach” taken by Professor Mann, and were impressed by the recording which showcased Guilbert’s variety of intonation and impressive timing. The Artful Dodger talk gave patrons a chance to experience both precious recordings and lithographs, while connecting their significance to a contemporary example.

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