A CLUB IN MONTMARTRE
by Mike Resnick
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Even if the life of the artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec doesn't seem the most obvious for a novel for juveniles, Mike Resnick manages to present Toulouse-Lautrec's life and artistic methods in a manner which boils it down for the age group targetted by Watson-Guptill for their Art Encounters books.
Born into an aristocratic family, a set of injuries in childhood stunted the growth of Toulouse-Lautrec's legs. Rather than live with his protective mother and seen as a waste by his father, Toulouse-Lautrec made a home for himself among the outcasts of the demimonde of the Montmartre neighborhood of Paris, surrounded by nightclubs, prostitutes, and other improper denizens of late nineteenth century Paris. In order to avoid dealing with many of the more unsavory aspects of this time, Resnick's viewpoint character is a naive young girl, Dany, who helps Toulouse-Lautrec one night as he stumbles home from an evening out.
Toulouse-Lautrec works to protect Dany from the more unsavory elements of his life while at the same time ensuring that she is able to make a living that will allow her to rise above the worst of Montmartre. To this end, he gets her a job as a dresser at the newly opened Moulin Rouge even as he warns her that she can do better than the glamour of being a dancer there.
As with the other works in the Art Encounter series, A Club in Montmartre focuses on a single work of art by the artist, in this case "Ball at the Moulin Rouge," which appears on the cover of the book so the reader can readily access it to see what Resnick is describing. His explanations make the figures in the poster come to life in a way that the simple painting can't, because while Toulouse-Lautrec can show what Louise "La Goulue" Weber looked like or give a feeling for the way Valentin Desosse held himself, the artist couldn't include their histories and more than a century after they danced at the Moulin Rouge, they no longer have the fame they once did.
As a means of explaining Toulouse-Lautrec's art, Resnick also has Dany pose as the model for the artist's famous poster of the Moulin Rouge, "Ball at the Moulin Rouge" and gives her art lessons, much as the artist gave lessons to his model Suzanne Valadon in real life. This allows Resnick to explain the composition and use of color in Toulouse-Lautrec's work. As the artwork being described was meant as a poster, Resnick is also able to discuss the limitations of the reproduction technology as well as the manner in which art is created based on its end usage.
A Club in Montmartre is an excellent introduction to the work of Toulouse-Lautrec, who is too often seen as a caricature in pop culture because of his stature and his fondness for debauchery. By playing down the latter and focusing on his work as an artist, Resnick is able to bring a seriousness to him which works well as an introduction to his work.
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