Disrupted Morphology: Progress, Electricity, and Medicine in Toulouse-Lautrec

September 27, 2021 -
5:00pm to 6:00pm

Alexandra Courtois de Vicose
Visiting Assistant Professor of Art History
​Kenyon College

Abstract: In the nineteenth century, artificial lighting and its effects became a central preoccupation for avant-garde chroniclers of modern spectacle. Lautrec’s stark lighting effects in his paintings are difficult to ignore. Scholars have consequently engaged with his particular mode of illumination, but never alongside his own medical encounter with the mysterious energy that was electricity. After years of leg ailments, Lautrec received electrotherapy treatments which contorted his muscles in attempts to reduce intermittent paralysis, cramps, and stunted growth.

Alexandra Courtois argues that the artist’s experience of electricity was much more visceral. Her presentation contextualizes Lautrec’s large painting “At the Moulin Rouge,” as well as smaller oils and print series, tracing moments of inconsistency, ambiguity, and the emergence of recurring pictorial strategies. Lautrec’s stark lighting from below has been discussed in terms of caricature, deformation, and purposeful distortion towards the “ugly.” The presentation examines the notion of deformation through electricity, both physiognomic deformation of his subjects caused by the foot lighting in sites of performance, and the muscular convulsions Lautrec endured through electrotherapy to correct anticipated deformation of his own body. Taking into account the treatment Lautrec underwent as a child opens new avenues of interpretation for one of his most canonical works.

Offered via Zoom. Registration required here.

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Presented in conjunction with Kaliane Ung’s course Ailing Bodies: Narratives of Health and Illness

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