Jane Avril, 1899, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Rosenwald Collection
“Toulouse-Lautrec and Jane Avril” at theCourtauld Gallery.
Alfons Kaminsky – August 2011
“Astonishing exhibition at Courtauld Gallery“
“Toulouse-Lautrec and Jane Avril – Beyond the Moulin Rouge”, an astonishing exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery, unveils the relationship between the famous French painter and his muse.
The dancer Jane Avril (1868-1943), in fact, was a great source of inspiration for Toulouse– Lautrec. Born Jeanne Beaudon, she was one of the stars of the Moulin Rouge in the 1890s. Her notoriety was assured by a series of brilliant posters created by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901) which enhanced her delightful trend and out of the ordinary charm for which Jane Avril was acknowledged.
“Toulouse-Lautrec and Jane Avril: Beyond the Moulin Rouge” highlights the strong relationship between the two different artists: the member of one ofFrance’s oldest noble families, Toulouse-Lautrec, and the daughter of a courtesan, Jane Avril.
The Courtauld Gallery exhibition brings together a variety of paintings, posters and prints from international collections focused on the sparkling bohemianParis. For “Toulouse-Lautrec and Jane Avril: Beyond the Moulin Rouge” new researches ad hoc made show the connections between her eccentric movements described by one observer as an ‘orchid in a frenzy’, and contemporary medical theories of female hysteria. Her experiences helped defining her public personality and, as a performer, she was also known as ‘L’Etrange’ (the Strange One) and ‘Jane La Folle’ (Crazy Jane).
At the age of twenty she began to work for the Moulin Rouge as a professional dancer, adopting the stage name Jane Avril (suggested to her by an English lover). She was resolute to become a star in the flourishing world of the Montmartre dance-halls and cabarets, which featured such larger-than-life personalities as La Goulue (the Glutton), Grille d’Egout (Sewer-grate) and Nini les-Pattes-en-l’air (Nini Legs-aloft). The ability to generate publicity through a carefully crafted image was the key to success and celebrity in the entertainment industry of Montmartre. A racy portrait of the brazen La Goulue, lent to the exhibition by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, underscores the contrasting sophistication of Avril’s public image.
“Toulouse-Lautrec and Jane Avril: Beyond the Moulin Rouge” explores these different public and private images of Jane Avril. She became an icon of thebohemian Paris pictured by Toulouse – Lautrec as an environment of dancers, cabaret, singers, musicians, painters, writers and prostitutes.
Catalyst of this period and environment was the Moulin Rouge. Opened in 1889, it offered customers a nightly programme of performances by its scheduled stars. “Toulouse-Lautrec and Jane Avril – Beyond the Moulin Rouge” is epitomised by the remarkable ‘At the Moulin Rouge’ (1892-93) an exceptional loan from the Art Institute of Chicago. It is one of the Toulouse-Lautrec’s most celebrated paintings a homage to the venue but also an epic portrait of the artist circle of friends. Jane Avril is pictured from the rear and identifiable by her red hair. There are Édouard Dujardin, dancer La Macarona, photographer Paul Secau and Maurice Guibert. The woman in the right foreground is Mademoiselle Nelly C. Spotted in the background on the right the immoral La Goulue (The Glutton) and left the diminutive figure of Lautrec and Gabriel Tapié de Céleyran. The ghostly face of May Milton, one of several English performers, looms into the canvas from the right.
Jane Avril became the subject of some of Lautrec’s greatest posters, landmarks in the history of both art and advertising. One of the first was made to promote Avril’s appearance at the Jardin de Paris, to which a special bus ran every night after the Moulin Rouge closed at eleven. This large and dramatic poster shows Jane Avril in the provocative high kick of the cancan, framed by the hand of a musician grasping the neck of a double-bass. The radical composition reflects Lautrec’s admiration for Japanese prints.
In 1896 Jane Avril travelled to London to perform at the Palace Theatre as part of the troupe of Mademoiselle Eglantine. At her personal request Toulouse-Lautrec designed the poster “M.me Englantine troupe” for the performance which shows Avril at the end of the line of four cancan dancers. The exhibition reunites materials relating to this commission, including a preparatory drawing, Avril’s letter to Lautrec from London and the programme for the Palace Theatre. Avril admired England and critics speculated that aspects of her dance style and attire had English origins. She noted pointedly in her memoirs that ‘over there, one lives freely, without bothering others or making fun of them, as happens so often at home’. New research has uncovered further fascinating details about Lautrec and Avril’s connections with England, including the first British exhibition of works by Lautrec in 1894.
Toulouse-Lautrec’s death in 1901 marked the end of the golden age of Montmartre. Jane Avril went on to perform briefly as a stage actress before marrying and settling into bourgeois obscurity.
“Toulouse-Lautrec and Jane Avril” examines a friendship which has come to define the world of the Moulin Rouge. However, it also looks beyond Avril’s identity as a star of Lautrec’s posters to consider the complex personal histories and the cultural changes which lay behind this remarkable creative partnership.
The Courtauld Gallery exhibition reunites these portraits for the first time and also includes a rich documentary section exploring the intersection of Avril’s medical history and her public persona.
Showing from 16th June 2011 until 18th September 2011 at the Courtauld Gallery, Somerset House, Strand, London, WC2R 0RN.