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Toulouse-Lautrec’s work is so ubiquitous it’s sometimes difficult to see. You might meet La Goulue or Jane Avril at a framing store or in a hotel bathroom but your eye grazes them without dwelling on the heavily rouged ladies tossing their bloomers up with abandon. They have become such familiar characters that they project fin-de-siècle Paris perpetually into the present.

So the Museum of Modern Art’s retrospective of posters and lithographs is an agreeable little bombshell. Assembled entirely from the bottomless carpet bag of MoMA’s permanent collection, it reveals a deliciously muted version of his garish world. The medium is paper, the lighting dim, the atmosphere as quiet as this train station of a museum will allow. It’s the kind of low-wattage production that would sit best in the back galleries of a boutique institution but this is MoMA, so it’s full of jostling crowds who, drawn to the glittering name, might be surprised to find such a doleful view of pleasure.

Toulouse-Lautrec ground the lens through which later generations would observe urban life. In his posters we see the portents of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s grotesquerie and beyond that to Brassaï and Reginald Marsh. His astringent way of portraying the metropolis at night has guided the poetic musings of urban memoirists such as Luc Sante, Paul Auster, Lisette Model, Weegee and Diane Arbus.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec came by his luridness honestly. He was born in 1864, the son of aristocratic first cousins. A sickly child, he broke both legs in separate accidents and stopped growing as a result. He remained 4ft 11in tall and relied on a cane for the rest of his life. His father, a dedicated hunter and artistic dilettante, separated from his mother, who cultivated an unhealthy obsession with her only son. She doted on him, sharing his bed until he was eight. Later, as an adult, he supped with her nightly before hitting the bars. His thirst for absinthe and women, always acute, intensified with his artistic success. Eventually, though, the nights he whiled away at brothels and circuses took their toll; a decade-long career flamed out with stays at various sanatoria for syphilis and alcoholism. Confined to a psychiatric hospital for several months in 1899, he died of a stroke two years later, aged 36.

Toulouse-Lautrec inherited his father’s passion for hunting, except that his turf was the city street and he pursued the stalkers as well as their prey. He took note of the misshapen and decrepit men, the vulturine lurkers who scouted gaudily painted quarry. He immortalised the age of the great courtesans, the grandes horizontales who traded sex for political access, fabulous digs, and acres of velvet, silk and satin. Their low-rent sisters intrigued him even more. He sketched blowsy inmates of bordellos with their stays undone, and nightclub singers who trolled for cash-carrying customers. He haunted cabarets, such as the Moulin Rouge and Le Mirliton, where the singer Aristide Bruant insulted slumming aristocrats and teased his public with double entendres.

Bruant, like Toulouse-Lautrec, was a son of wealth who discovered his element among labourers, thieves and filles de joie. He admired Toulouse-Lautrec and commissioned several posters. The most famous, “Aristide Bruant in His Cabaret” (1893), steers clear of realism and towards lively elegance. Toulouse-Lautrec honed his spare style from the Japanese woodblock prints flooding the market in those years. With his promiscuous intertwining of avant-garde techniques, populist entertainment and mass printing, the artist broadcast his own fluid identity: an aristocrat who slipped effortlessly from châteaux to shabby beer halls, circuses to salons.

Owing, perhaps, to his unusually intense bond with his mother, Toulouse-Lautrec’s finest work invoked his complex and largely sympathetic relations with women. “Elles”, a portfolio of 12 lithographs, forms the vibrant core of MoMA’s exhibition. Like his hero Degas, he liked to get behind the scenes, especially to record prostitutes’ daily rituals of washing, dressing and preparing for the night’s trade. Toulouse-Lautrec studied Degas’ elegant bathers, ballet dancers and performers at the café concerts but he did not dwell on the supple spine or the beautifully awkward form. Instead, he fixed his intensity on the emotional language of the body and its accoutrements.

“Woman with Tray, Breakfast” (1896), for instance, is a touching and chastely intimate scene set in a world of pornographic transactions. A rumpled lass lies propped up in an unmade bed watching a sad-eyed older woman carry away the remains of a just-consumed meal. These lithographs have the spontaneity of quick pencil sketches, and they capture those insouciant moments just before the curtain goes up and life returns to its habitual fakery. The fleshy female with thin arms and drooping breasts, reaching for the nape of her own neck with a washcloth; the heavyset, almost masculine figure draped in a toga-like sheet and gazing (despairingly?) into a handheld mirror; the half-completed woman trying to subdue her thick hair with a puny comb – these are actors in a sexual spectacle, their unguarded moments all the more poignant because the pageant they are preparing for is so desperate and dark.

‘The Paris of Toulouse-Lautrec: Prints and Posters’, Museum of Modern Art, New York, until March 22, moma.org

Slideshow images: The Museum of Modern Art, New York

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