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July 22, 2011

Toulouse-Lautrec and Jane Avril at the Courtauld Gallery

by Val Reynolds
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Jane Avril, 1899, colour lithograph, 56x38 cm

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Jane Avril, 1899, colour lithograph, 56x38 cm

For me, small is most definitely beautiful when it comes to art exhibitions. That’s not to say that I give the blockbusters of the National Gallery or the Tates a wide berth; on the contrary, the current exhibition of the art of Joan Miro at Tate Modern is one of the best days out in a gallery I’ve had for a long time. But perhaps that’s the point; it really needs a day out to do it justice, and it’s not helped by the fact that once you’ve bought your ticket you’re not allowed to leave for a breather and come back again. There really ought to be more thought given to this as the art would be appreciated all the more if it didn’t have to be swallowed in one gulp.

But back to the Courtauld, set in a wing of Somerset House. The temporary exhibitions are hung on the top floor and occupy a mere two rooms. Consequently, the number of artworks is limited but as befits such a prestigious institution, they are most judiciously chosen.

Original sketch for the Jardin de Paris poster

Original sketch for the Jardin de Paris poster next image

A few months ago I was bewitched by various depictions of Cezanne’s Card Players, and now it’s the turn of Toulouse-Lautrec to capture my imagination and the spirit of the Belle Epoque with his compositions of his friend Jane Avril.

Jean Avril at the Jardin de Paris 1893, colour lithograph

Jean Avril at the Jardin de Paris 1893, colour lithograph

I, like so many of my student friend in the sixties, had various posters of Jane Avril and other dancers from Paris’s Moulin Rouge adorning my walls. So I was expecting the work to be familiar and indeed it was. Some of you may also remember the Athena representations of Jane Avril and also of Mlle Eglantine’s troupe.

But the exhibition is more than just an evocation of the familiar. It shows up the strong bond between artist and subject, a fact borne out by the accompanying notes which tell of their friendship and also hint at the closeness which developed because they both had to endure a physical disability. The painter had dysfunctional legs, a condition that his family took a long time to come to terms with. Jane Avril, it is believed, suffered from St Vitus’ Dance, as it was called then, which caused involuntary movements of the limbs; she found that dancing could keep this under control and so took up the profession.

At the Moulin Rouge 1892-3, oil on canvas

At the Moulin Rouge 1892-3, oil on canvas

The real fascination of the exhibition lies in those works that are not of her as a professional but instead show her, in sketches and in fully painted works, as a rather solemn, gaunt young woman away from the stage. And the viewer is also struck by the striking modernity of Toulouse-Lautrec’s fin-de-siecle oeuvre, particularly in the effect achieved by simple lines and brush-strokes.

In the smaller of the two rooms are works by contemporary artists and more information about the professional and private life of Jane Avril.  This complements Toulouse-Lautrec’s work well and helps make the whole exhibition easier to appreciate and enjoy.  It runs until 18 September 2011 and the entrance ticket also includes the permanent works in the gallery, which include some stunning impressionist greats.  It all makes for a delectable treat.

Opening hours: Daily 10am to 6 pm, last admission 5.30 pm
Admission Adult £6, concessions £4.50, free admission Mondays 10 am to 2 pm except public holidays, at all times for under 18s, full time UK students and unwaged. Information on Gallery Talks and Study Day see www.courtauld.ac.uk

See our review of blockbuster exhibition in 2006 Degas, Sickert and Toulouse-Lautrec
Jeannette NelsonArts Critic  A bit of a culture vulture, Jeannette enjoys art exhibitions, cinema and classical music, but her main interest is the theatre. For several years she ran theatre discussion groups for which her MA in Modern Drama together with teaching skills stood her in good stead. She prefers to concentrate on the many off West End and fringe productions as well as that real treasure of the London theatre scene, the National.

Photography Pintail Media

Section of At the Moulin Rouge 1892-3, oil on canvas

Section of At the Moulin Rouge 1892-3, oil on canvasDetail of At the Moulin Rouge 1892-3, oil on canvas

Detail of At the Moulin Rouge 1892-3, oil on canvas

Detail of At the Moulin Rouge 1892-3, oil on canvas

Bourdelle, Porcelain mask cast from bronze of Jane Avril 1861-1929

Bourdelle, Porcelain mask cast from bronze of Jane Avril 1861-1929

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