Dancer to the music of time: Portraits of Jane Avril

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Toulouse-Lautrec's portraits of Jane Avril evoke far more than just memories of the Moulin Rouge, says Adrian Hamilton

If ever there was an exhibition just waiting to be researched and displayed, it was the Courtauld Gallery's show of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec's portrayals of the dancer Jane Avril.

Most shows of work by this wonderful artist – and it has been some 20 years since a solo exhibition was held in Britain – present him primarily as the celebrant of the Belle Epoque and its world of cafés, nightclubs and dance halls. He was that, of course. But he was so much more, as this exhibition shows in moving detail.

Jane Avril was almost anorexically thin. Given to jerky movements and sudden contortions (she was nicknamed "La Mélinite", after an explosive), she was fond of fashion and a favourite in intellectual circles. She also became the subject of a succession of portraits, prints, posters and studies by Toulouse-Lautrec.

By any standards, they made an odd pair. He was the scion of one of the noblest families in the south-west of France, who had both legs shortened by riding accidents in his youth. She was the daughter of a courtesan who had run away from home at 13, been treated for what was then called St Vitus' Dance in a mental asylum, and then carved out a career with an English name and a style of ecstatic dance that was all her own.

They do not appear to have been lovers and it would also be wrong to describe Avril as Toulouse-Lautrec's "muse". Their relationship was more equal and professional than that. It was a mutual sense of being different from others, made singular by their defects, that drew them together.

Toulouse-Lautrec was fascinated by the world of performance and entertainment, from the brothels in which he spent time sketching to the dance halls where he got to know and promote the chief dancers. He has been accused of chauvinism and worse for doing so but although he may have used the services of some of the prostitutes, it was not that which drew him to the women of this world.

What he had – because of his own physical oddity, or because it was in his nature anyway – was a deep interest and profound understanding of the whole business of the way people, male and female, present themselves to the world. There is no artist who so completely understands that dress, make-up and gesture are part of an armoury which a woman dons, in order to give herself a front with which to face the world.

Avril was a perfect model for this, but she was also in her way a fellow spirit. Her life had been a harsh one – she came from an abusive home and spent a couple of years in a hospital for the mentally ill before being taken up as the mistress of an Englishman, who gave her the name Jane Avril. She made a determined pursuit of stardom through cabaret. She felt, as Toulouse-Lautrec did, that she was an outsider, needing to air an extravagant personality and to cut a dash in the world.

The Courtauld exhibition is built around the gallery's own Toulouse-Lautrec picture, Jane Avril at the entrance of the Moulin Rouge. It is a painting, in dark colours, of a performer arriving to work, elegantly dressed, with a great flowered hat and a yellow bag, her eyes concentrated inwards and her pale face taut with the job at hand. It is almost impossible to think that this is a girl in her early twenties, let alone someone earning her money by so flamboyant a task as cabaret dancing.

But then, Avril wasn't an extrovert or a naturally voluptuous dancer. She was a creature of her own creation. Time and again Lautrec captures, with infinite care in the brushwork around the eyes, the look of a woman who has lived, a woman who knows the world and who is determined to keep herself a space above it.

The curator of the show, Nancy Ireson, has been extremely fortunate – and persuasive – in being able to borrow a dozen paintings and prints from museums in the US and France that were clearly intrigued by the project. The Courtauld's Avril portrait is placed at one end of a wall that has at its other end Leaving the Moulin Rouge, from Hartford in Connecticut and from the same period. Alongside it is a truly extraordinary picture of Avril from Williamstown, this time face on, her cape filled in sketchily, her hat again on the extravagant side but her face almost regal, as her eyes glance aside, to evade intrusion.

Over by the famous lithograph of Jane Avril at the Jardin de Paris, which helped make her reputation, there is a dazzling gouache study for the poster – a brilliant portrayal of movement and purpose that is now in private hands – and an oil sketch of Avril dancing that is done in rapid-fire blue strokes which illustrate exactly the peculiar, twisted actions that made up her dance.

The centrepiece of the wall of portraits, however, is the large-scale At the Moulin Rouge. With Avril seated with her back to the viewer, Toulouse-Lautrec appears in the background, with his giraffe-like cousin; to the right in the foreground is Avril's great friend, the English dancer May Milton, who may or may not have been her lover.

As a composition, it is devastating. The wooden balcony in the left hand corner forces a diagonal which throws the party of Avril and others into counterpoint, only for the eye to be pulled down by the figure of Milton. Avril is (again) separate but apart from the table group, looking down while they look up at each other in their conversation. The red of Avril's hair leads, via her white skin and the white of the table, straight to the heavily made-up face of the performer La Macaron and then on to the dancer La Goulue (the "Glutton"), who is adjusting her hair, until finally the eye is fixed by the harshly-lit face of Milton. All life, the picture seems to say, is a matter of presentation, of artifice and performance. This is where Toulouse-Lautrec is most modern – not in style, but in understanding.

Toulouse-Lautrec died in 1901, at the age of 36. Avril lived on until 1943, her marriage blighted by the discovery that her husband was a transvestite, and stayed in the performing world. The Courtauld has gone to great efforts to track down information on her, and in a room adjoining the main gallery there is assembled a plethora of facts and photos, including an Edvard Munch-designed playbill for the first French performance of Ibsen's Peer Gynt, in which she is named in the cast list, and a series of playful pen-and-ink drawings, by Picasso, of her dancing in her later years.

Avril was not the only woman to catch Toulouse-Lautrec's interest, of course. Go to the Musée Toulouse-Lautrec in Albi and see his extraordinary study of Yvette Guilbert, and his sketches of the prostitutes at Rue des Moulins, or view in this exhibition the portrait La Goulue at the Moulin Rouge to see how performers of all sorts intrigued him. But Avril did bring out a special sympathy and an enduring fascination in the artist. Note the different spirits as well as guises that he captures in the various portraits.

By concentrating on this particular relationship, the Courtauld exhibition brings out exactly the combination of brilliance and human understanding which made Toulouse-Lautrec such a great portrayer of the performer and the mask we all present to the world. Along with the Courtauld's exhibition of Cezanne's Card Players last winter and the current show of Egon Schiele's women at the Richard Nagy Gallery in Old Bond Street, this is one of the best small exhibitions of the year.

Toulouse-Lautrec and Jane Avril: Beyond the Moulin Rouge, The Courtauld Gallery, London (020 7872 0220; www.courtauld.ac.uk) to 18 September

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
    Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

    Why are we addicted to theme parks?

    Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
    Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

    Iran is opening up again to tourists

    After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
    10 best PS4 games

    10 best PS4 games

    Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
    Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

    Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

    Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
    Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

    ‘Can we really just turn away?’

    Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

    ... and not just because of Isis vandalism
    Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

    Girl on a Plane

    An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent