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by Marie J. Kuda

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The artist Henri deToulouse-Lautrec ( 1864-1901 ) would have loved Nicole Kidman—he was very partial to redheads and painted dozens of them—laundresses, milliners, prostitutes, stage and circus stars. The fictional Lautrec in the new film Moulin Rouge is much talked about because of the difficulty John Leguzamo has portraying the artist whose legs were genetically deformed because his parents were first cousins. In the 1950s I saw an earlier film titled Moulin Rouge, a bio-pic of Toulouse-Lautrec with Jose Ferrer in that role. Weren't any lesbians in that film. Wonder if there are any in this one—anyway, there were plenty in the real Moulin Rouge and in Lautrec's art.

Lautrec, a descendant of the Counts of Toulouse and an outsider to his class, recorded the nocturnal haunts of Parisian Montmartre. An habitue of the dance halls and bordellos, Lautrec recorded with the impassivity of a camera the intimate relationships of the brothel girls and dancers, in the privacy of their bedrooms as well as at their places of employment.

Dancers at the Moulin Rouge were known by nicknames—La Goulue, Nini Patten-en-l'Air, Mome Fromage. Much like the names for drag dancers today in the Ballet Russe de Trocadero or even our Chi Town Squares—Patty O' Furniture. The Glutton or Greedy Gal, Nini Shoes in the Air, and the Urchin Cheese kicked their heels in the Can-Can or Quadrille. La Goulue, whose name was Louise Weber, was frequently painted by Toulouse-Lautrec.

Lesbian art historian Tee Corinne suggests that a painting "La Goulue entrant au Moulin Rouge" which shows the dancer linked arm in arm with two other women has been misidentified. Naomi Mauer notes the women are Weber's sister and a friend. Corinne suggests that one woman was her lover, La Mome Fromage, quoting a note by, Lautrec's chronicler Jean Adhemar, that after they met at the Elysee-Monmartre they "went through life together, hardly ever leaving each other."

In another famous Lautrec painting, a rather well endowed woman in a tailored outfit with stiff collar is seated in a theatre box next to a smallish woman in a frou-frou outfit who looks up at her adoringly. In the next box a rather fleshy gentleman in a top hat stares engrossed at the stage. The subjects in this work called "Le Grande Loge" have been identified as Mme. Armande Brazier the one-eyed proprietor of a lesbian bar called Le Hanneton and her lover. The man in the next box, Tom was a coachman for the Rothchildes. This was Lautrec's satiric jibe at the grande dames in opera boxes. A post card of this work was available at the Art Institute of Chicago after the Lautrec exhibit in 1979; I delighted in sending it to friends in the know.

Le Hanneton ( the Giddy Goose ) , Le Rat Morte ( the Dead Rat ) , and La Souris ( the Mouse ) were all lesbian establishments within a stones throw of the Place Pigalle, mere blocks from the Moulin Rouge. Lautrec sketched Mme. Palmyre's dog Bouboule for a menu cover and a lithograph advertising her restaurant, La Souris. The author Colette also wrote about La Souris, and her biographer, Robert Phelps, noted that models, actresses, and street urchins waltzed together there after meals of cabbage soup or beef stew. Art historian Tee Corinne notes that a Lautrec print set in La Souris called "Conversation" shows two women in high-necked dresses being served by a third.

Naomi Mauer, who did some of the catalog notes for a Lautrec exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1979, identified a number of other known lesbians and their lovers in his work. The clowness Cha-U-Kao and her partner are the subjects of a number of sketches in his series "Elles" portrayed in scenes from lovemaking to coffee in bed the morning after. A drag figure in starched shirt and tails has been identified as Mary Hamilton. "At the Laundress'" with an intimate exchange between two women in the background, Mauer suggests, is reminiscent of a lesbian scene in Emile Zola's novel "L'Assommmoir." Probably best known, however, are the scenes of brothel girls of the rue des Moulins relaxing—in particular "L'abandon" ( sometimes called, Two Friends ) . Lautrec also did a series of paintings on boards of lesbian lovemaking featuring a prostitute named Rolande, whom Mauer notes he used as subject in at least a dozen other works.

Pictures of Cha-U-Kao, women dancing at the Moulin de la Galette, colored lithographs from the series "Elles" are all to be seen in the collections of the Art Institute of Chicago. Contemporaneous illustrations by Pierre Bonnard for Paul Verlaine's poems about lesbians are also in the print collection.

Lautrec, like sculptor Auguste Rodin ( 1840-1917 ) , was inspired to do series of "les femmes damnees" after reading Baudelaire's "Les Fleur du Mal." Rodin did a series of illustrations for the book using lesbian models referred to him by the painter Degas. The overtly lesbian "femmes damnees" theme is also incorporated into his major sculptural work "the Gates of Hell," casts of which I saw at the Rodin Museum in Philadelphia in the early 1980s.

There are dozens of other stories of lesbian and bi-sexual women who frequented the Moulin Rouge. Lianne de Poughy, one of the last of the great courtesans, ( who had an "affair amoureuse" with legendary expatriate amazon Natalie Clifford Barney ) met the Prince she eventually married when mistakenly given his box at the Moulin Rouge. She threatened to disrobe if he made her move. In a later era, when Black jazz replaced the quadrille and can-cans, Josephine Baker would star there in a Revue Negre. Baker and American actress Libby Holman had an affair ( Holman was also friend and confidante of gay actor Montgomery Clift ) . Ah well, like the love affair in Titanic, Kidman and Ewan McGregor will no doubt provide glitzy glue for the stories of this fabled venue. But perhaps I am too harsh for one who has not yet seen the film. Friends have praised Moulin Rouge—one even compares it to opera.

Copyright 2001 by Marie J. Kuda, e-mail

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