SAY WHAT YOU WILL, there is a kind of exquisite irony about the record-breaking show of "Toulouse-Lautrec and Montmartre" at Washington's National Gallery having Time Warner as its corporate sponsor. The more than 340 works created primarily by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec include not merely paintings, drawings, and sculpture, but posters, prints, zinc silhouettes from the Chat Noir shadow plays and printed matter such as illustrated invitations, song sheets, advertisements, and admission tickets. Work from his distinguished predecessors, Edgar Degas and Edouard Manet; his contemporaries, Pierre Bonnard, Vincent Van Gogh, and Pablo Picasso--not to mention poster artists such as Jules Chéret--admirably complement the exhibit.

The irony lies in the fact that by the time of the artists represented in this exhibition, French society had become notoriously corrupt, extending through all levels, including government ministers. The press often depended on kickbacks and under-the-counter payments in return for favorable coverage. Much of this illicit income resulted from posters promoting one commercial product or another plastered over the walls of towns and cities throughout France. In the early years of the 19th century, Balzac declared that the occupation of journalists was such that it was no more possible to emerge pure from that profession than from a brothel.

This very handsome show should be viewed with some sense of the times in which the art works were being created. France was barely recovering from the humiliation of having lost the 1870-71 Franco-Prussian war. (Montmartre was also the site of the "Bloody Week" of May 1871, during which 25,000 Parisians were killed by government troops putting down the Commune, a memory still very much alive a decade or so later.) The national mood was one of depression, cynicism, and despair, a state of spirit that would eventually lead to another devastating defeat at the hands of the Germans in 1940.

Little wonder, then, that despair and a sense of futility ran as something of a constant through French life during those years. Which may be why a kind of bitterness and cynicism is reflected in so many of the brilliantly executed works in this dazzling exhibit. Dancing girls may kick their heels high, smiling broadly, but you do not feel any real joy in their performance.

The exhibition is being presented as--in the words of the press release for the handsome, 308-page Princeton University Press catalogue--"a lavish celebration of the decadent glamour of Montmartre." The National Gallery opened a special Toulouse-Lautrec exhibition shop crammed not merely with reproductions of the artwork--calendars, postcards, a thousand-piece puzzle--but also such items as long black silk gloves, such as those worn by the chanteuse Yvette Gilbert in some of the artist's best-known posters and paintings.

As for the exhibition itself, the artwork on display is incontestably of the very first order. Toulouse-Lautrec was a superb draftsman, and an exceedingly popular one, from his own day to the present. Time was in this country when every self-respecting college student would have at least one or two Lautrec reproductions (usually of the posters) proudly fixed to his/her dormitory wall as a required icon, a testimonial to sophistication.

What is interesting now to consider is how this all represents an exclusively man's world. Montmartre's night life at the turn of the 20th century was one oriented to the male and his pleasures. At that time, decent women--proper, respectable bourgeois wives or single women--did not frequent dance halls, café concerts, or cabarets. The women portrayed in the paintings, engravings, and drawings are all creatures of the demi-monde of that day: cocottes, prostitutes, entertainers, performers of all sorts, and those dregs of society barely subsisting on drink and a life of degradation. (Not that much earlier, the Roman Catholic Church did not permit people of the theater to be buried in consecrated ground.)

This portrait of a decadent man's world of a century ago is being presented to Americans today by one of this country's largest corporations dedicated to, inter alia, the promotion of popular culture. It would be nice to think that our age may yet produce cultural commentators as gifted as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and his peers.

("Toulouse-Lautrec and Montmartre" will be on view at the National Gallery of Art through this week, and at the Art Institute of Chicago during July 16-October 10.

Cynthia Grenier writes the Mag Trade column for the Washington Times.

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