Archive for the ‘19th Century Painting’ Category

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Toulouse-Lautrec and Jane Avril: Affliction and Infatuation

July 22, 2011

The Courtauld Gallery in London is renowned for hosting some of the most exquisite and concise exhibitions in the country. To cite an example from 2010, Michelangelo’s Dream consisted of a collection of the Renaissance artist’s drawings re-united for the first time in an exhibition labelled ‘breathtaking’ by The Independent and ‘a curatorial and scholarly triumph’ by The Daily Telegraph. This is not to suggest that every exhibition the Courtauld deigns to put before the public is as gratifying and groundbreaking, but there exists a general consensus, supported no doubt by the Courtauld Institute of Art’s academic strengths, that the Gallery’s shows possess an erudite clarity that is sometimes lost in the behemoth exhibitions of its larger rivals. Its latest exhibition Toulouse-Lautrec and Jane Avril: Beyond the Moulin Rouge continues this impressive tradition.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, a Post-Impressionist artist who resided in Paris, is perhaps known as much for his mythologized life as for his art. His growth stunted as a child, Toulouse-Lautrec suffered health problems throughout his life, the result of his forbears’ aristocratic inbreeding. Endowed, it is rumoured, with an engorged penis, he found solace from his underdeveloped legs in the sexual decadence of 19th century Paris, in the prostitutes and clubs and amongst the can-can dancers that frequent his works. One such dancer, the Moulin Rouge’s Jane Avril, immediately captured Toulouse-Lautrec’s attention. In Avril he discovered a muse and confidant whose own disability was the source of the unusual and flamboyant dance style that made her famous. The Courtauld Gallery’s exhibition is a succinct and touching exploration of their relationship; a celebration of Jane Avril through the eye of an accomplished artist.

Jane Avril in the Entrance to the Moulin Rouge, 1892. The Courtauld Gallery, London

In Jane Avril in the Entrance to the Moulin Rouge (1892) we see her depicted away from the glamour of the stage. Relatively ordinary in appearance save for a mildly quirky yellow bag and floral hat, Avril seems almost world-weary. It is a poignant engagement with her humanity that reveals a more complex relationship between artist and muse than the straightforward voyeurism one might expect from a man as infamously promiscuous as Toulouse-Lautrec.

Comprised almost solely of vertical brushstrokes, the painterly technique of Jane Avril in the Entrance to the Moulin Rouge echoes a sophisticated pencil drawing. Indeed, Toulouse-Lautrec’s actual sketches, executed in haste whilst Avril performed, are the most enchanting and exciting of his works in the exhibition. Jane Avril Dancing (1891-92) is a particularly exquisite example.

Avril’s affliction, Sydenham’s Chorea or, as it is historically known, St Vitus Dance, is characterised by uncoordinated jerking movements. During her confinement to the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris she discovered a love for dance that released her from the tribulations of her condition. Whether Avril’s jerking limbs inspired her choreography or whether her highly individual style was the direct result of convulsions is unclear; what is certain is that St Vitus Dance was integral to Avril’s eccentric dance style. It captivated Toulouse-Lautrec and a host of bourgeois, Parisian men, earned her the nickname La Mélinite after an explosive compound and propelled her to the heights of the Moulin Rouge. Her unique movement is brought to life with ardent vigour in Toulouse-Lautrec’s sketches. Jane Avril Dancing documents her jutting hips and angular movement – note the peculiarly rendered left foot, in-turned and awkwardly positioned. The physical irregularity of Avril’s choreography is captured perfectly by the artist’s swift, sharp brushstrokes creating a dramatic sense of dynamism.

Troupe de Mlle Églantine, 1896. Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Her idiosyncrasies are discernible too in Toulouse-Lautrec’s posters. Troupe de Mlle Églantine (1896) was commissioned for the Mademoiselles Églantine tour of England and shows Avril (far left), ever the individualist, out of sync with the dancing of her compatriots.

Jane Avril at the Jardin de Paris, 1893

Divan Japonais, 1893. Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Toulouse-Lautrec’s posters are perhaps the most famous representations of his relationship with Avril: works such as the promotional lithographs Jane Avril at the Jardin de Paris (1893) and Divan Japonais (1893). The most powerful pieces in the exhibition however, are those that offer an insight beyond the glamour; the revelation of two afflicted souls united by artistic passions that, in their own way, serve to distract from the trials of their lives. This poignancy is the real success of this exhibition.

Toulouse-Lautrec and Jane Avril: Beyond the Moulin Rouge runs at The Courtauld Gallery until September 18, 2011. It does incur an admission fee.

For more information and to book tickets click here.

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