Toulouse-Lautrec and Jane Avril: Beyond the Moulin Rouge by Polly Allen
Toulouse-Lautrec: Jane Avril 1893
You’ll no doubt recognise her from the legendary posters, her legs flying high and her head thrown backwards; with her distinctive style of dancing and flaming hair, Jane Avril was a star of the Moulin Rouge. Inevitably she caught the attention of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, who would often be found sketching and painting the girls of this vibrant and notorious nightspot, and the Courtauld is now showing just how much of an impact she made.
This exhibition charts Toulouse-Lautrec’s fascination with Avril, who began life as the daughter of a courtesan, and we see her status rise as he continually chooses her, rather than the more important dancers such as La Goulue (the Glutton), to be the centre of attention in his artwork. In At the Moulin Rouge we see La Goulue relegated to the background as she fusses with her hair, whilst our heroine is holding her own in a circle of men. Avril was often seen as sophisticated and powerful, with arresting routines that she choreographed herself, whereas La Goulue’s name is merely indicative of her sexually suggestive behaviour and lack of subtlety. Toulouse-Lautrec’s art helped to establish Avril’s public persona and make her stand out in the Parisian dancehalls.
From brief studies in gouache to large oil paintings and lithographs, there is a plethora of different types of imagery on show. The more intimate studies, focusing on the back of Avril’s neck and with her head turned away, are highly sensitive and tend to use a colour palette of blues and purples (Seated Woman From Behind: Study for ‘At the Moulin Rouge’, 1892). Brushstrokes are layered and obvious as he attempts to get to grips with the shape of her body for the short time that she is sitting down in images such as Jane Avril: Back View. Avril feels more feminine and down-to-earth in these paintings and it’s almost as if you could reach out and tap her on the shoulder. In contrast, the finished pieces are brassy and full of red and black, with flat panels of colour in a precise and confident hand. Here is the Jane Avril of the stage, flashy and energetic, engaging the art lover as well as the audience. She clearly captivated Toulouse-Lautrec, who was once photographed wearing her hat and feather boa, an image that has been displayed at this exhibition and serves as a fabulously quirky piece of portraiture.
What this exhibition does not betray is the traumatic childhood that Jane Avril experienced. Born Jeanne Beaudon, she suffered abuse at the hands of her mother and spent two years at the Salpêtrière Hospital where she was diagnosed with a movement disorder. Here she developed her own dancing style that fellow patient Blanche Wittman likened to ‘a butterfly that has escaped from heaven’. In the Toulouse-Lautrec lithographs (particularly Jane Avril, 1899) we get a sense of Avril’s blossoming at finding her vocation, which could be compared to a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis. With a snake design on her dress, hugging her feminine curves, this image shows her daring nature and adds to the showmanship of the piece. But Avril could also blend in when she needed to; in the Troupe de Mlle Eglantine (1896) we see her amongst three other similarly attired dancers in a display of unity. Only her cocked leg and out-turned foot indicate that she is different to the rest and perhaps deserving of a second look. Eventually Avril married and lived a very repressed domestic life which does not seem to tally with her exuberant personality and distinctive sense of style in these pieces. This is not a woman to be easily forgotten.
Aside from analysing the artist’s friendship with Avril, Beyond the Moulin Rouge also introduces us to Toulouse-Lautrec’s other lithographic work, which includes portraits of the singer Yvette Guilbert and the actress Sarah Bernhardt. These pieces feel notably separate from the rest of the exhibition, both physically and thematically, and they tend to include sweeping lines and exaggerated facial expressions. There is a lot less movement in these images when compared with the energetic buzz of the Jane Avril paintings, as well as a smaller scale to work on. Yet it’s an important addition to the collection, helping to form a fuller picture of Toulouse-Lautrec’s obsession with muses from the world of the arts. There is also a large quantity of secondary material to be explored here, including a Moulin Rouge program and various newspaper clippings, but you can easily find yourself vying for space with fellow visitors to the Courtauld as there is a limited amount of space here.
Essentially this exhibition will give you an excellent insight into the real Moulin Rouge social circle, and it is a fitting tribute to Jane Avril. Anyone with an interest in theatre or portraiture will find the Courtauld show to be a must-see, and it certainly does deliver with strong imagery and some eye-opening preparatory gouache paintings. The gallery shop has even got in on the act, with some very flamboyant merchandise available, and you get the feeling that Avril would have approved of this capitalisation on her success. This examination of what may have seemed like her ‘fifteen minutes of fame’ has proven that she will continue to be known and loved for years to come, thanks to the work of Toulouse-Lautrec.