Can you imagine a major exhibition for the celebrated French artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec that doesn't contain a single painting? One just opened at the Allentown Art Museum, of about 150 lithographs and drawings from the most productive decade of his tragically truncated career.
Lautrec made more than 700 oil paintings, yet the essence of his distinctive talent is most effectively conveyed through his graphic work and his drawings. He was a superbly intuitive draftsman blessed with an uncanny ability to suggest character and capture energetic movement, particularly dance, with just a few well-placed strokes.
His posters, reproduced as color lithographs, are perhaps his most famous creations, not only because of their economically bold designs but also because they capture the raucous spirit of Parisian nightlife during the 1890s.
"Toulouse-Lautrec and His World" makes a virtue of the aristocratic Lautrec's attraction to Paris after dark, but it's also a case of function (the show's theme) following form.
The collection lacks paintings because even though it comes to Allentown from a small museum in Athens, Greece, it was assembled privately. The collectors are Greek Americans Paul and Anna-Belinda Firos.
Paul Firos founded a reservation-software company, Hotel Data Systems, which he sold in 2004. He used some of the proceeds to found the Herakleidon Museum in Athens. The Firoses deposited their Lautrec collection there, along with a number of works by M.C. Escher and Victor Vasarely.
For many collectors, works on paper are much more affordable than oils, especially those by world-famous artists like Lautrec. Consequently, the Herakleidon collection, which travels to three U.S. museums, concentrates on graphic works.
As noted, Lautrec's lithographs in particular tend to involve the entertainment culture of such nightclubs as the famous Moulin Rouge and the cabaret run by his friend singer and songwriter Aristide Bruant.
The artist became an overnight sensation in 1891 when he created a large color poster for the Moulin Rouge that was displayed all over Paris.
As we see in several Bruant posters, for example, Lautrec was strongly influenced by the stripped-down graphic power and simplicity of Japanese woodblock prints, which many French artists were discovering in the late 19th century.
In the posters and other smaller, black-and-white lithographs, we meet the performers whom he made famous, and who in turn made his reputation - besides Bruant, they include singer Yvette Guilbert and dancers Jane Avril and Louise Weber, known as La Goulue ("the glutton").
Several poster specimens, most notably a large Bruant, are what might be called artist's proofs, in that they consist of the pure design without lettering, which was printed last. Some color lithos are further distinguished by their remarkable state of preservation, especially the reds, which generally fade or shift to orange.
The majority of the show's lithographs are black-on-white, drawn directly on the stone with such facility and assurance that they're difficult to distinguish from sketchbook notations.
Most are portraits of varying degrees of informality, often captured in a social or performing context. Lautrec was an assiduous observer of human behavior and interactions; thus the exhibition constitutes a catalog of personalities recorded in their native habitats, usually places that served alcohol.
Time and again one encounters impressive displays of his ability to manipulate the expressiveness of his line. One obvious example is a small lithograph of Jane Avril in which the swooping outline of her voluminous skirt alternately swells and diminishes.
In works on paper, Lautrec usually employed color sparingly, and favored the vivid primaries red and yellow. This reminds us that his art was often the most public kind; it was designed to attract attention and be legible at a distance.
And this quality, in turn, emphasizes an important fact - that Lautrec's works on paper were as often as not commercial. Yet as one goes through the exhibition, the fact that one image is a performance poster and another the cover for sheet music and a third an illustration for a theater program doesn't seem important, or even noticeable.
With a few exceptions, such as a softly tinted interior scene of a woman preparing her bath, the works on paper are closely related stylistically and thematically. They describe a slice of Belle Epoque society with which Lautrec was intimately familiar and entirely comfortable.
Going through this show, one is often reminded of two contemporaries who shared some of his preoccupations.
One is Edgar Degas, famous for images of dancers of a more demure type, cafe-concert performers and women at their toilette. The other is Vincent van Gogh, whose most productive years, like Lautrec's, lasted barely a decade. (The Lautrec works all date from the 1890s.)
Van Gogh died at 37, a dissipated suicide. Lautrec, his legs damaged and permanently stunted in his youth, fell short of 37 by 10 weeks, a victim of intemperate drinking on the job and burning life's candle at both ends.
"Toulouse-Lautrec and His World"
At the Allentown Art Museum, 31 N. Fifth St., through Sept. 1. Hours: 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, noon to 4 Sundays. Closed July 4. Admission: $12 general, $10 for seniors, students and children 6 and older. Free Sundays. Information: 610-432-4333 or www.allentownartmuseum.org
"Art" by Edward J. Sozanski and "Galleries" by Edith Newhall appear in alternating weeks.