The Pick - Toulouse-Lautrec and Jane Avril: Beyond the Moulin Rouge

June 16, 2011

Toulouse-Lautrec and Jane Avril: Beyond the Moulin Rouge

The Courtauld Gallery, London

The Courtauld Gallery owns a striking painting by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec of the dancer Jane Avril. A familiar presence in his work, she appears in several of his nightclub posters, full of high kicks and frothy petticoats, which rank among the iconic images of the 1890s. He also portrayed her in a state of abandon in a spectacular black dress decorated with a coiling serpent.

Yet this particular Courtauld portrait offers a highly unexpected image of a minor star as she stands outside the Moulin Rouge, withdrawn, sad, perhaps sickly and old well beyond her years. So what was it about their relationship that inspired a critic in 1893 to say that "painter and model, together, have created a true art of our time, one through movement, one through representation"?

The Courtauld's new exhibition, which continues until 18 September, attempts to answer that question by bringing together virtually all Lautrec's works devoted to Avril, along with a good deal of background material.

She was born Jeanne Beaudon in 1868 and, after an abusive childhood, spent time in the infamous Salpetriere mental hospital. This was run by Freud's mentor Jean-Martin Charcot, who would often allow the public in to witness his latest therapeutic techniques. There was even an annual bal des folles, where inmates put on fancy dress and danced. When Avril joined in on one such occasion, she wrote in her memoirs, she found herself cured and discovered her livelihood.

Throughout her career, she had a reputation as odd, disturbing, an outsider and perhaps even a little mad. The English poet Arthur Symons referred to her air of "depraved virginity". A critic looking at one of Lautrec's lithographs noted her "adorably vicious body" and called her "the captivating flower of artistic corruption and of sickly grace".

Lautrec's stunted physique and fondness for portraying brothel scenes also, of course, made him something of an outsider, so perhaps she aroused in him a kind of fellow feeling. Along with some vivid sketches of her dancing and relaxing, he even used her on the cover of a literary magazine, where she is shown proofreading in a bright orange cloak and absurdly elaborate hat.

Paris in the 1890s is famous for both its wild nightclubs and its pioneering research into hysteria, but it must be unusual to try to make a connection between the two. Yet they are linked in the story of Jane Avril. By juxtaposing some lovely pictures with the highly disturbing "scientific" photographs of fits and contractions preserved in the Salpetriere archives, this exhibition uncovers a strange slice of both artistic and intellectual history.

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