A man from Albi (Einer aus Albi)


Encore. The route is through Toulouse, and the little detour is bound to be a pleasure. All the more so because Toulouse is three carats uglier than Lyon. The remains of beautiful architecture have the appearance of museum pieces. Unfortunately, it is also Sunday, and strolling around the streets are: eight hundred francs monthly salary and a new Sunday suit; a fully furnished, cold betrothal; forty-eight years book-keeping with a modest pension and a small private provision – the people don’t really know what to do with their free afternoon. They just stroll around. All in all a town, as Valéry Larbaud put it, où l’on sent tout l’après-midi une désespérante odeur d’excrément refroidi. So: Albi.

When I arrive there in the evening, it is in complete darkness, only a little lantern burns invitingly at the prison. It can’t be easy running an electricity supply. In the hotel, a candle burns on a table. I cross the threshold, and bright light bursts out – not a bad entrance. In the dining room, a fine table d’hôte, this cotillion of meals, was still in full swing. All the provincial gentlemen stuff their serviettes around their throats, and will hopefully be shaved presently.

The next morning, I walk slowly through the winding streets, past the de Guise and Enjalbert houses, two Renaissance buildings with splendid portals. And there is the cathedral. I am not a well-travelled man, and I can not casually let drop, „The house of the Dalai Lama in Tibet reminds me of the north façade of St. Peter’s in Rome…” This cathedral in Albi doesn’t remind me of anything. Yes it does: of one thing, of God. It’s sight floors disbelief for the duration that one looks at it. It bursts aloft like a deep organ tone. It is red. The entire church is built of pink bricks, and it is fortified, with thick walls and towers, a fortress of metaphysics. The Lord God is the Seigneur here in the most literal sense of the word. Its construction began in the thirteenth century, it’s style is a sort of Toulouse Gothic. The enormous tower becomes narrower as it rises, its windows get smaller and give the impression of a height which it in reality doesn’t have. But then, what is reality? This cathedral is not real. It is, in contrast to the what goes on in Lourdes, a genuine miracle.

And the episcopal buildings next to it have a pink glow. The sky is coloured pink. The cathedral is not particularly beautiful inside. There are some nice features, but it is really just a high church, whose internal space has unfortunately been divided. I go back outside and approach the monster like a dwarf, from all sides. It is enough to make one petrify. The gardens of the episcopal palace are covered in autumn leaves, against a background of pink bricks. Opposite glistens the river, le Tarn. I soak it all up. In the episcopal palace there is a museum, an exhibition of paintings, but who wants to see that now? But then my gaze fell on a small poster for the exhibition. I must have misunderstood it. No. La Galerie de Toulouse-Lautrec. Toulouse-Lautrec? Here? In the episcopal palace? Yes, here, in the episcopal palace. And that’s where I spend the whole day.

Toulouse-Lautrec was born, and died (1901), in Albi. And they have collected this exhibition, in three rooms, in his honour. There are: The big posters of Aristide Bruant, with his red scarf thrown disdainfully-regally around his neck; La Goulue kicking up her legs as though she were advertising underwear; a dirty old swine bent over a young girl; the hard faces of radiant blond whores; the great-grandfather of jazz: Cakewalk in a bar; a fancy-dress ball at which stockbrokers sweat, paying amusingly, as Marquis Posas, with pince-nez; a chalky youth on grey paper, a flabby, cheesy person, his whole life is recorded in these few square inches. And Yvette. ‘Yvette Guilbert, greeting the audience’. I don’t steal paintings. Anyway, it is too big. She stands there with her upper body leaning forward somewhat, and supports herself with one hand on the gathered curtain. The long, black gloves end in spiders‘ legs. She smiles. Her smile says, „Swine. Me too. Isn’t the world strange?“ Very much „half fading cocotte, half English Governess“, as Erich Klossowski described her. She contains a bit of a man who is making fun of women, but is one at the same time, and, deep in the background, a dead little girl slumbers. This mouth could say anything, and did.

And on every second picture, the theatre, again and again. The theatre, which Toulouse-Lautrec loved and hated, dressed, undressed, removed it’s make-up, kissed, made-up, and laughed at. Soft actors apply rouge in front of a mirror. What a ridiculous profession, to smear butter into one’s face in dirty, little stalls, in the evening, under the lights! There is a palette, there a lithographic stone with Tristan Bernard’s [1] beard. Sharp cries rise from these pages: lust, ardour, revulsion, indulgence in revulsion, in the consumate debauchery. The emphasis is on consumate.

A woeful mouth looks at one, looked at him. Everything else in this woman’s face is just thrown on top, it was drawn because of these lips. Delicate pastels on paper: a white jabot is laid on grey so that one can pick up the sheer material, and all the serious pictures demonstrate this man’s whole technical mastery, his diligence, the conscientiousness of his craftsmanship. One should wrap the pictures of the rabble who cheekily imitate him these days in Paris, around their ears. One can’t just walk into a house and hawk one’s wares with a grin. But that’s not what this is about.

There are animal studies, with a sensitivity to form, portraits, small landscapes, and again and again, horses, whose movements he loved so much. In between, ageing whores with half-exposed breasts. How exactly the proportions of decay, common sense, and even something like decency, are balanced! One of them is somewhat motherly. And there is an entire salon. The ladies are sitting in the large reception salon on the ground floor, before they go upstairs. A salon? It is the salon. Deadly Marie, and the snub-nose, and the fat, pretty girl, and the indifferent one, and the one who always walks around naked… And the most beautiful of all, Etude de Femme, 1893. A freezing young thing lets her blouse slip, one breast points in the air. An autumnal spring. Paintings all around. His mother, twice. Self-portraits, portraits of others. A bearded face with a pince-nez and protuberant lips. One mockery of his deformed body.

He was born and died in Albi. Where? The street is now called rue de Toulouse-Lautrec, and it is the house number 14. A smooth facade, a high, closed door. His cousin, Dr. Tapie de Céleyran, receives me. He is an elderly gentleman with a little black cap on his head. He leads me into the holy of holies. There lie the works of Lautrec, in crates: the lithographs, the originals, and a lot of unpublished work. And he shows me a story which the boy illustrated – the quill and ink drawings remind one strangely on Kubin[2]. He worked so hard… And I am told that the family and the main trustee of the estate, Herr Maurice Joyant in Paris, who is writing a major work about the painter, do not approve of his reputation. “He was not just the sketcher of whores, the circus and the theatre! He could do so much more!“ Some of his admirers are admittedly interested in the subject matter, but that is the uniqueness of the man. Who would want to deny the world of skill behind the bitter cry of lust, the high, whistling tone that it emits? And that Toulouse-Lautrec was not just a lecherous dwarf staggering around, or if he was… more power to his elbow! And we part with a handshake.

In the afternoon I get to see the things in the museum which are not on display: drafts, outlines, hurried  sketches, unfinished and discarded things, and schoolbooks in which the Latin and Greek exercises are decorated with garlands and figures. The pen has glided dreamily across the paper, far, far away from Cicero, and caught horses as they jumped, foxes… The little dogs which he drew here are already little people. And when the friendly curator has packed everything together again, I go back to the high rooms once more, and take my leave of Yvette Guilbert, of the delicate colours, and of the resounding tap of a walking-stick handle on a champagne bucket. None of that exists any more. One behaves badly differently these days. With time, which passes so quickly, feelings sink to the ground. Optical innuendo which was only understood by those who were titillated by it. I cannot now read some of what I see, correctly, but I understand it with the other nervous system, the solar plexus. Something of which I only know that it is delivered with a wink, and tongue-in-cheek, but is still not just superficial, comes across. It is that tension which arises when people touch: a hateful tension, mockery, and a somewhat risible formality. Love after dinner.

I don’t get to see any more of Albi then. Or at least, I have forgotten it all. I can only remember that I wanted to visit a bottle factory. I wondered how bottles were made, but two older workers stood in front of the entrance gate, and said, “Not today.” „Why not?“ I asked. „We’re on strike,“ they said. „Morocco.“ It was only a symbolic strike, and they knew that as well as I did. “It won’t do any good,” they said. I didn’t say anything, I’m in France. But I knew it always does some good. Nothing is lost. It is one more stone when a few factories protest against state-sanctioned murder, when they won’t go along with it, when the workers refuse to give up their sons.

And then I drove back to Toulouse where someone else lived whom I had to visit. An old lady received me in her apartment, which is in a quiet street. The Comtesse de Toulouse-Lautrec is eighty-four years old. She walks slowly, but she is fresh, friendly and benign. She approached me, examined me through her steel-rimmed spectacles, and then she began to speak about her son. She speaks about his youth, when he learnt so diligently in Paris, about his strong will, and she said, „He was such a good swimmer, you know?“ Only a mother could say that. And now she becomes livelier, and draws my attention to the charcoal drawings on the wall: the heads of two old ladies, Lautrec’s grandmothers. Again I see: there is no cheating in art. The man was trained as a craftsman, an Academy draughtsman, like Anton von Werner, and he built on this foundation. Are people aware that George Grosz can draw photographically? One can only leave things out when one has something to leave out. There’s no cheating.

And the mother shows me little pictures, the unfinished illustrations of a work by Victor Hugo. The publisher was awkward, and Lautrec slowly tore up the picture which he happened to have in his hands. And an album of clumsy drawings by the boy, which already indicate here and there something more than just a child’s hand taking pleasure in drawing. And she speaks about his life, and tells little stories of his schooldays. How hard he always worked. „I was always just a pencil, all my life,“ he once said of himself. And how he never went out without his notebook, in which he recorded countless details. And how he lived, and how she didn’t have him for long. He died at the age of thirty-seven. At the end, when he was already very ill, she wanted to travel to Japan with him. He loved Japan. A Japanese print which he had bought still hung there. The journey was no longer possible. And the old lady said, “Il est si triste d’être seule.” And then I leave her who gave birth to the master.

And when He blows his horn: will the Judgment Day be fairer than the civil service on Earth, which consider themselves to be courts of law? When He blows his horn, this little, somewhat genteel man, will appear. „Henri de Toulouse!“ calls the crier. „Ouse…,“ comes the echo. „Lautrec!“ calls the crier. „Treck-treck!“ laugh the little devils. There he stands. „Why did you paint such filth, you?“ demands the great voice. Silence. „Why did you wallow in Hell, waste your talent, and exhibit ugliness? Tell me!“ Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec stands there and makes a quick mental note of the way an angel’s cuffs are folded back. “I asked you why?“ The deformed little man looks at the heavenly Lord, and speaks, “Because I loved beauty,” he says.

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