ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Meeting Lautrec in Chicago

It is as if each of us possesses an ever-expanding mental gallery where we keep adding aterial—images, memories, and thoughts that are “us.”

From the time I knew about Lautrec in school and pronounced his name in my bad French (only to be corrected by a close friend’s sister who dabbled in art and learnt French at Alliance Française), he was my hero. The torso of a man sitting on a child’s legs, a man naturally quiet and serious but high on absinthe all the time, and the official artist of the most famous cabaret in Paris, perpetually obsessed with prostitutes—an “outsider” in a world centred around luminous Parisian evenings. An equal enigma possibly could not exist in the mind of a boy who was learning to apply colour on paper. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and his works have been etched in my mind’s gallery since then. In July 2017, I was invited to deliver a lecture at the eighth Urban Sketchers Symposium in Chicago. Urban Sketchers is a global community of artists, who, as part of the community’s mandate, sketch on location. It is an unwritten rule that a lecture delivered at a specific location should have some local references to make it chatty and relate to the audience. I knew about the renowned impressionist and post-impressionist collection of the Art Institute of Chicago. I also knew about the East Asian collection and the Japanese collection of Frank Lloyd Wright at the museum. But I needed to be thorough this time.

By the second day of my stay, we had already done a sketch-crawl (meaning sketching on location, a term made a part of art vocabulary by the community) at the Robie house, the iconic residence designed by Wright in 1909. I then decided to cross-check my virtual walkthrough of the museum with a “real” visit to see the pieces I was going to mention in my lecture. I knew that Georges Seurat’s A Sunday on La Grande Jatte—most representative of his style and on the bucket list of every visitor—would be there but could not locate the pen-and-ink Minotaur of Pablo Picasso. It must be off view, I thought. Or was it my mistake in not locating it? Distracted, I moved into the impressionist gallery and stood mesmerised in front of Pierre Renoir’s Two Sisters. The freshness of the treatment till this day, the luminance, and the stillness, I thought, surpassed his more famous “party” scenes that celebrated the exuberance of the youthful spirit. A painter of sensuous afternoons? And evenings? That’s how Renoir remains in my personal gallery.

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