Tag Archives: Jane Avril

A Gallop around Glasgow – Part I

7 Jan

No journey of mine seems to be without a little drama and trying to get to Glasgow in early January in gale force winds should not be attempted by the fainthearted.  When my alarm went off at 5.30am, I had a feeling this wouldn’t be my smoothest journey.

Although Virgin Trains are great at replying on twitter, they’re not so good at communicating to those actually on their trains.  We didn’t even manage to leave Euston before having to change trains – Train One was apparently defective and unfixable.  Not a good start. Train Number Two abandoned us at Preston (a friend has since commented that just the thought of me stuck at Preston made him laugh) where due to re-platforming we were able to experience the delights of every station platform.  I think they were trying to keep us warm by moving us around so frequently!  Train Number Three, however, was a winner and, although late, nearly jeopardising my schedule, it delivered us safe and sound.

After a wonderful, oversized pizza at the Firebird, we headed to the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum – the raison d’être for this whole trip.  My learned companion is studying for an MA in Egyptology and her thesis focuses on Sekhmet statues.  Rather ironically, the two here are on loan from the British Museum.  After the academic necessities were completed, we went to explore the museum.  There is no denying that Kelvingrove has an amazing and broad collection but the curation struck me as rather messy.  The rooms are thematic though, often, without coherent logic; dead-ends confront you and, without rhyme or reason, random objects crop up at regular intervals.  Kelvingrove is also very child-orientated in its forms of display; they clearly know their punters but this method often excludes a more mature audience.

Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum. Own photograph.

I was pleasantly surprised to come across Dalí’s Christ of St John of the Cross – a controversial painting from 1951.  It is displayed alongside a remarkable ink study that was given, by the artist, to the then director of the Glasgow Art Gallery.  The drawing highlights Dalí’s daring in working towards the extreme angle of Christ’s body.

Salvador Dalí, Study of Christ of St John of the Cross, 1952. Own photograph.

The room of French art includes a Van Gogh alongside works by Pissarro, Seurat, Millet and Monet (I guess the room is looking at art painted in France rather than at French artists) but offers a more traditional gallery experience with a coherent layout and more structured feel.  Following this is a room of Fragile Art – I didn’t know what to expect but it seems this is a rather strange term being coined for works on paper.  There are some great things at Kelvingrove, if you have the patience to look, but the mess deterred us and, instead, we left and walked through the courtyards of the splendid University of Glasgow.  With only time to admire its architecture, we hurried past the Hunterian Museum – one of the leading university museums in the UK, showing the vast and varied private collection of its founder, Dr William Hunter (older brother to John who founded London’s Hunterian) – to Mackintosh House.

The Hunterian Museum. Own photograph.

 Glasgow is famous for two Mackintoshes – the inventor of the waterproof raincoat, Charles Mackintosh, and the unrelated artist, designer and architect, Charles Rennie Mackintosh.  Mackintosh House comprises the reassembled interiors of the house lived in by the Mackintoshes from 1906-14 (what was 6 Florentine Terrace, approximately 100 metres away).  Although the house was demolished in the 1960s, the original features and designs were preserved and great pains have been taken to ensure the sequence of rooms exactly reflects its forerunner.  Its recreation was no easy task and, although not everything about this house pretends to be accurate, the reproduction is as faithful as possible.  It was decided not to replicate the sandstone façade of the original house and, instead, the key features (the front door and principal windows) are encased in rough cast concrete.

Mackintosh House. Own photograph.

Particularly striking is the studio-drawing room on the first floor.  The geometry, unity and clarity of this L-shaped interior is stunning.  Flooded with light, the rear section was, fittingly, used as a studio where each of the three walls was filled with a major object as its centrepiece – a gesso panel by his wife, Margaret Macdonald, a white bookcase and the dark-stained writing cabinet.  This is more for display than practical use and it lacks much of the additional support required to act as a functional everyday object but there can be no debate about the beauty of its design.  I would say this room was Mackintosh at his best but every time I see one of his works I am blown away and have a new favourite.  To my mind, there can be no debate about the perfection of everything he did.

The studio-drawing room at Mackintosh House.  Image courtesy of The Hunterian, University of Glasgow 2012 and via www.glasgow.ac.uk/hunterian.  

The second floor was shut which meant we missed seeing the bedroom but we saw enough to be captivated and eager for the Mackintosh on day two of my itinerary.

The dining room at Mackintosh House.  Image courtesy of The Hunterian, University of Glasgow 2012 and via www.glasgow.ac.uk/hunterian.  

Mackintosh House is found within The Hunterian Art Gallery, the rest of which is also brilliant and made up for my disappointment at our first stop.  As well as housing a small, superb collection of 18th century portraits (where I happily went back to my roots), two aspects particularly struck me.  One focused on the art of the poster with works from the gallery’s print collection, focusing on posters as important social-historic documents.  Including works by Mackintosh (of course) and Lautrec’s Jane Avril, which I’ve recently seen at The Courtauld, the posters all successfully combine simplified forms, bold colours and dramatic viewpoints.

Posters at the Hunterian Art Gallery. Own photograph.

The other aspect was the works by James McNeil Whistler; I had no idea that the University of Glasgow houses one of the world’s pre-eminent collections of Whistler’s works having been bequeathed the entire estate by his heir, Rosalind Birnie Philip.  The gallery’s airy layout is perfect for his seascapes; painted ‘en plein air’, these are small-scale, portable panels to which Whistler directly applied paint.  The near-abstracted detail is jewel-like.

The Hunterian Art Gallery.  Image courtesy of The Hunterian, University of Glasgow 2012 and via www.glasgow.ac.uk/hunterian.  

The other fascinating find was his cartoon for The Fighting Peacocks – a full-size, highly-expressive drawing for the principal mural in the Peacock Room.  Pricked for transfer, the work shows Whistler’s retaliation to a quarrel.  Having overstepped his brief by decorating the entire room, Frederick Leyland refused to pay beyond the price agreed for the smaller commission.  The confrontational peacocks symbolise Whistler as art and Leyland as money, with coins scattered at his feet.

James McNeil Whistler, Cartoon of Rich and Poor Peacocks, 1876.  Image via www.huntsearch.gla.ac.uk

Thursday evening is late night at GoMA (Glasgow’s Modern Art Gallery) and so I was able to squeeze in another visit before dinner.  Downstairs, You, Me, Something Else considers the definition of sculpture today, looking at the progression of sculpture and how it has radically changed over time.  The room is intended to act as a 21st century sculpture court with objects suspended from the ceiling, leaning against columns, lying on the floor or, presented in a more traditional style, on plinths.  The media is varied but the artists are united by a common concern for physical experience and material form.  Unfortunately (or fortunately if you’re an architectural fan), the architecture dominates much of the works but Andrew Miller’s Shaded, a tower of lampshades and fluorescent lights, stood out for me as the most effective work in this show.

You, Me, Something Else at GoMA. Own photograph.

After a long day in heels, we were starting to feel tired so took the lift to the top of the gallery and worked our way down.  Upstairs is an exhibition celebrating Glasgow Museum’s recent purchases of international contemporary art, understandably prioritising Scottish artists and those who studied at the Glasgow School of Art.  The main piece is a work by Martin Boyce, comprising daybeds, a bin, a wall-mounted mobile, ventilation grills and fluorescent ‘light-trees’, that aims to evoke a cinematic moment in a fictitious night-time urban environment.   As always with Boyce, the references are wide-ranging and complex, making you consider the work on many different levels.

Martin Boyce, Our Love is Like the Earth, the Sun, the Trees, the Birth, 2003. Own photograph.

Continuing down the stairs, we came across Atelier Public, a public artists’ studio to be used by gallery visitors, and an exhibition of works by Alasdair Gray – not really to my taste but he is obviously a talented draughtsman.

We were shattered and our bodies had gone into art-overload.  After dinner at Stravaigin, we collapsed at Saint Jude’s on Bath Street in our divine penthouse suite, re-energising ourselves in readiness for day two of this Glasgow adventure.

Saint Jude’s. Own photograph.

All these galleries have a regularly changing exhibition programme: Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum and GoMA, www.glasgowlife.org.uk/museums; The Hunterian, http://www.gla.ac.uk/hunterian/.

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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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