RA Magazine Summer 2011
Issue Number: 111
Life is a cabaret
Montmartre’s most famous muse was immortalised in the striking posters of Toulouse-Lautrec, yet his paintings of Jane Avril reveal a sombre side. Ann Dumas looks at how the artist portrayed her across a range of media.
More than any other artist, Toulouse-Lautrec recorded the seedy glamour of fin-de-siècle Montmartre, capturing its singers, dancers, pimps and prostitutes with both wit and compassion. Lautrec’s relationships with most of this cast of characters seem to have been superficial, but his enduring friendship with the cabaret dancer Jane Avril was different. This fascinating relationship, which reveals much about the artist’s character, will be fully explored for the first time in the Courtauld Gallery’s ‘Toulouse-Lautrec and Jane Avril: Beyond the Moulin Rouge’. The exhibition is curated by Nancy Ireson, a specialist in French art of the period.
Toulouse-Lautrec, 'Jane Avril' 1899. The Courtauld Gallery, London Nearly all of Lautrec’s paintings, posters and prints inspired by his muse are brought together here, revealing the artist’s range in different techniques and his capacity to cross the boundaries between ‘high’ and ‘low’ art. It is the latest in a series of exemplary exhibitions based on a masterpiece in the Courtauld’s outstanding collection. The Royal Academy is fortunate to benefit from a special relationship with the Courtauld Gallery, which has lent generously to many of the Academy’s exhibitions, including, in recent years, ‘Cranach’ and ‘The Real Van Gogh: the Artist and his Letters’, while Degas’ Two Dancers on the Stage, 1874, will be one of the stars of ‘Degas and the Ballet: Picturing Movement’ that opens at the RA in September.
The point of departure for the Courtauld exhibition is its own Jane Avril in the Entrance to the Moulin Rouge, (c.1892, above right). In this oil and pastel work Avril seems older than her 24 years. Tall, thin and grave as a medieval effigy, her pale, angular features and trademark red hair caught in the gaslight glow, she is elegantly attired in a boa and elaborate hat. In contrast to his lithographic poster images of Avril, in these painted portraits Lautrec portrays her as a solitary, withdrawn even melancholy figure and we sense his personal rapport with this aspect of her character. This sense of detachment perhaps contributed to the bond between artist and dancer. Although their backgrounds were very different, both of them were outsiders who found in the low-life world of Montmartre the freedom to invent a distinctive identity based on difference and eccentricity.
Descended from the Counts of Toulouse, Henri Marie Raymond de Toulouse-Lautrec-Monfa grew up an aristocrat, but accidents in his youth and possibly a congenital disorder left him with abnormally short legs. His stunted physique ill fitted him for the social milieu into which he was born. Instead he found his place in the demi-monde of Montmartre, to which his artistic talent gave him access. Jane Avril’s life story, recorded in her memoirs, reads like a novel by the Goncourt brothers. Born Jeanne Beaudon, the daughter of a courtesan and supposedly an aristocratic client, she rose to international fame but her life ended in oblivion in 1943 when she was 75. At 13, she fled from her abusive mother, later was briefly a bareback rider at the Hippodrome and, because of a nervous disorder (a form of what used to be called St Vitus’s dance), she was admitted for 18 months to the Salpêtrière Hospital for women, where she was treated by the pioneer psychiatrist Dr. Jean-Martin Charcot. It was at one of the annual bal des folles (costumed parties for the hospital inmates) that she discovered her talent for dancing, an experience she later claimed cured her of her affliction.
Avril’s spell at the Salpêtrière seems to have clung to her reputation as a dancer. On stage, frantically twirling her long, black-stockinged legs, she had a hysterical, almost unhinged quality. Contemporaries dubbed her ‘Jane La Folle’ (Mad Jane), ‘L’Etrange’ (the Strange One) or ‘La Mélinite’ (the name of an explosive). This febrile energy, combined with her expression of ethereal refinement, gave her performance an ‘air of depraved virginity’, as the writer Arthur Symons described it, while Lautrec’s friend Paul Leclercq recalled him shouting out in admiration as Avril ‘danced, turned, gracious, light, a little mad, pale, thin, fine… weightless, fed on flowers’.
In his poster, Jane Avril at the Jardin de Paris (1893), which she commissioned and which launched both their careers, Lautrec brilliantly promoted her stage persona, depicting her energetic figure in a simplified pattern of orange and black. In another poster of her from 1899 (opposite) he has distilled her lithe form in an elegant black silhouette. With his trenchant line, astringent colour and unerring sense of design, inspired in part by the bold, flattened forms of Japanese prints, Lautrec brought the art of the poster to new heights, creating arresting images which, posted on the city’s kiosks, would instantly catch the eye of passers-by.
Lautrec’s frequent depictions of Avril suggest that he was in a way infatuated with her. There is no evidence that they were lovers but their deep friendship lasted until the artist’s death from alcoholism at the age of 36 in 1901. Despite the vicissitudes of their lives, for a few years in the 1890s they were a remarkable double act. As one observer in 1893 put it: ‘Painter and model together have created a true art of our time, one through movement, one through representation’.
Toulouse-Lautrec and Jane Avril: Beyond the Moulin Rouge The Courtauld Gallery, London, 020 7848 2538, www.courtauld.ac.uk, 16 June–18 Sep
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