Robert Combas

Musée Toulouse-Lautrec

No one will ever know how Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec would have reacted to his posthumous encounter with painter Robert Combas, but a lot of people, including the Board of Directors at the Toulouse-Lautrec Museum in Albi, which hosted their joint exhibition, didn’t entirely approve. Though Toulouse-Lautrec was born and raised in Albi, he was hardly a favorite son during his lifetime; in 1895, one of his uncles apparently summoned local notables to an auto-da-fé of eight of his paintings with the declaration, “This filth shall not dishonor my residence.” Even after his death there was no rush to claim his work for the patrimony; it was only in 1923, owing largely to the efforts of his mother, that the town’s imposing medieval archbishopric was converted into the Musée Toulouse-Lautrec.

It was undoubtedly in an attempt to inject a little more life into these hallowed halls that Robert Combas—enfant terrible of France’s Figuration Libre movement of the 1980s—was invited to Albi last spring and given studio space inside the museum to pursue a dialogue with Toulouse-Lautrec. When it came to exhibiting the 35 typically raw and sexually explicit paintings Combas produced there, however, the Board of Directors balked at the idea of turning the permanent collection into a two-man show. What had begun as the “Combas Project” quickly became the “Combas Affair,” complete with polemics, petitions pro and con, daily press coverage, and the rumored resignation of the museum’s honorary curator. But despite the fear of creeping “American puritanism,” as the French call it, the show was ultimately mounted and this with the official and vociferous support of Albi’s mayor, who presides over the Board of Directors.

As for the encounter itself, the very presence of Combas’ offbeat colors and overcharged forms provided a pointed contrast to the dreary mise-en-scène of the permanent collection. But apart from this implicit critique of provincial museology, there was not much dialogue generated. Yes, Combas’ effort included plenty of facile allusions to Toulouse-Lautrec, including the kinds of caricatural portraits that turn up in the bathrooms of any art school—Henri à cheval fait le romantique (Henri on horseback playing the romantic), Petit Toulouse ne deviendra grand et rêve des jambes de Mlle Berthe (Little Toulouse won’t grow tall and dreams of the legs of Mlle Berthe)—and a veritable feast of female anatomy (particularly that of Combas’ companion, Geneviève Boteilla), intended, according to Combas, as a “wink” at Toulouse-Lautrec’s ladies of the dancehall and the night. But the agenda was strictly Combas: his sexual fantasies, his girlfriend, his graffitilike signature.

It is this “popular” approach that supposedly provides the link between Toulouse-Lautrec and Combas; for the exhibition’s curator Martine Buissart, they are “two popular artists who love to paint images of the people.” In fact, Combas happens to be a real son of the proletariat (his father worked in a warehouse and his mother was a cleaning woman), but Toulouse-Lautrec came from an aristocratic family and as much as he might have enjoyed painting “the people,” he certainly was never one of them. Indeed, what most offended his contemporaries was the fact that his images ultimately ennobled his subjects.

Combas the working-class hero picks up on this in one of his catchall captions (“Respect for the tarnished body of the prostitutes as if he were giving them a new virginity. TOULOUSE HAD RESPECT”), but it would be hard to argue the same for his own paintings. There is no respect; there is only fear, humiliation, anger, and above all, a terrible violence that makes itself felt in the literal deformation of human figures into drips, blobs, and outlines. Over the years, Combas has channeled much of that violence into battle scenes—cowboys and Indians, Vietnam, Afghanistan, the Trojan Wars—but at Albi, it has been displaced onto civilians, as it were, like Toulouse-Lautrec and Geneviève Boteilla. In the ’70s, these paintings might have been denounced as degrading to women (not to mention men, Blacks, and Arabs) and Combas would not necessarily have disagreed: “My paintings,” he says, “are often called grotesque, but it’s our world that’s grotesque.” Today, unfortunately, his work is all passed off as popular art, and no one seems to be listening to him except the censors.

Miriam Rosen