Cancan at The Courtauld: Toulouse-Lautrec and Jane Avril

19 Jun

Those of you that know The Courtauld well, will know you need to be fit to reach the exhibition, unless, of course, you chicken out and take the lift.  Running up the stairs in stilettos is only for the ‘highly’ experienced!

Own photograph.

I always find the exhibition galleries at The Courtauld warm and calming, rather like this well-thought out and researched exhibition, examining the identity of the famous dancer, Jane Avril, looking at her both as a private individual and as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s muse.

Own photograph.

Most of us know of Jane Avril because of Lautrec.  Born to a courtesan mother, Jeanne Beaudon had a troubled and distraught childhood.  After running away from home, she was committed to a mental hospital with female hysteria.  Nervous mannerisms were always present in her frenzied dancing and her unique style became apparent at a hospital fancy dress ball, a bal des folles.  When she was discharged, at the age of 16, she headed straight to the Latin Quarter to follow her dancing dreams.  Although she danced at many venues, she is perhaps most famous for her time at the Moulin Rouge who first hired her in 1889; within a short period she became one of their headline dancers under her stage name, Jane Avril.  She met Lautrec in the early 1890s when they were both in their twenties.  In 1895, Avril replaced Louise Weber, Paris’s most famous dancer, and soon became a star.

Jane Avril at the Moulin Rouge.  Image via www.telegraph.co.uk

The exhibition starts with, and rotates around, Jane Avril in the Entrance to the Moulin Rouge (1892), a work from The Courtauld’s own collection.  The strength of the exhibition is that The Courtauld takes one of its own works, draws it to our attention and enhances our understanding by shaping the exhibition with prestigious loans from collections around the world.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Jane Avril in the Entrance to the Moulin Rouge, 1892.  Image via www.artandarchitecture.org.uk

One of the first pieces you’ll see is the most iconic pose captured by Lautrec: a gouache on paper of Jane Avril Dancing (1893).  This pose could have been based on a publicity photograph of the dancer but the vivacity and fluidity of Lautrec’s brushwork suggest parts were worked from life.  It is not just a study, it is a work in its own right.  We can feel Avril’s movement as she raises her leg, balancing on her heel (my heels are slightly higher than hers, so I won’t give this a go right now).  Although her quadrille naturaliste is a provocative dance, Avril’s action somehow lacks sexuality and there is a dark undertone; her facial expression is hard to read but she seems sad, far older than her years.  The pose recurs in the lithograph, from the same year, Jane Avril at the Jardin de Paris, lent by MoMA and exhibited to the right of the gouache.  A darker, more faded version of the poster appears in the second room of the exhibition, this time loaned from the V&A – I told you the extent of loans was impressive.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Jane Avril at the Jardin de Paris, 1893 (MoMA).  Own photograph.

The internal frame of the lithograph is created by the double bass of the orchestra.  I’d never read this poster as a sexualised work until I read Waldemar Januszczak’s review of the exhibition where he talks about the hand grasping the double bass as an image of male masturbation, the double bass as a penis and Avril as an object of desire.  And he has to be right – this clever reading certainly changes how we regard the work.  He was a very sexual being and his diminutive height never hampered Lautrec’s lively libido.  He is known to have bragged “I may only be a small coffee-pot, but I have a big spout.”

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Jane Avril at the Jardin de Paris, 1893 (V&A).  Own photograph.

The poster was an instant hit – its strong colours and eye-catching design guaranteed that people would stop to look.  The importance of a carefully-crafted publicity image was key to a celebrity status in the entertainment industry of Montmartre.  The sophistication of Avril’s image contrasted with the explicit styling of some of the other dancers.  Lautrec’s works were landmarks in the history of art and of advertising.

The exhibition has clear progression, revealing new stages of research about the lives of the artist and his muse.  A sense of their relationship and friendship is revealed through the sketches shown alongside his paintings and lithographs.  Lautrec not only created Avril’s commercial persona, he understood her as an individual.  He was closer to Avril than to any of his other Montmartre subjects and the two remained loyal friends until the artist’s death at the age of 36.  One photograph on display even shows Lautrec wearing Avril’s hat and scarf to a fancy dress party in 1892.  While the lithographs show her as an exotic cancan dancer, the painted portraits and sketches show her as solitary and withdrawn.  They were drawn together by their differences, both outsiders in the seedy world of Montmartre.

One such highly intimate sketch is Jane Avril: Back View (1892-3). Apparently before a sitting, the artist and model would eat together on the Boulevard de Clichy allowing Lautrec to study Avril’s expressions and gestures while at ease.  Maybe this was the product of such a meal.  Wherever it was executed, there is a relaxed intimacy. The tense raised shoulders and delicate hands seen here became signature traits of Lautrec’s depictions of Avril.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Jane Avril: Back View, 1892-3.  Own photograph.

Another work that caught my eye was Jane Avril (1899), made just a few weeks before Lautrec suffered a breakdown.  Though famous now, the design, showing Avril in a different light to most of his portrayals, was never used.  As she stands with parted lips, a serpent coils round her body stopping at her breasts.  Lacking the subtlety of the earlier poster, this is an unusually obviously sexualised image and was probably considered out of keeping with her established image.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Jane Avril, 1899.  Own photograph.

Although there is no evidence they were anything more than friends, it is clear that Lautrec was infatuated with Jane Avril.  Avril wasn’t your normal dancer – she was elegant yet solitary, confident and intelligent.  Her mixture of sensuality and detachment captured audiences and artist alike.

The second room includes works by the likes of Munch and Biais as well as newspaper articles, photographs and books, following Avril’s extraordinary life and career.  I would have liked to see some more Lautrec’s in room two and did feel that The Courtauld diluted its focus by including so many other pieces.

Photographs in the second room.  Own photograph.

Lautrec’s enduring friendship with Jane Avril was different to his seedy portrayals of other Montmartre dancers.  Alongside his striking portraits, The Courtauld has presented the exuberant Lautrec posters that we know and love as pieces of artwork rather than just the iconic PR tools that made Avril famous.  This is a good lunchtime visit before relaxing by the fountains in the courtyard of Somerset House and enjoying the sun (if it ever re-appears).

The Courtauld only has a small exhibition space to work with and for it to stand a chance of being effective, as it is here, it must tackle small subjects that allows it to focus on a narrow body of works.  This exhibition celebrates a unique working relationship and brings both the artist and his muse into the limelight.   Jane Avril headlines once again!

Toulouse-Lautrec and Jane Avril: Beyond the Moulin Rouge is at The Courtauld Gallery until 18th September 2011, www.courtauld.ac.uk.

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