Toulouse-Lautrec's Troupers Perform at the Courtauld Gallery

Article excerpt

SINCE Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901) was a gregarious man, it is fitting that we can now see him among his closest companions at the Moulin Rouge in his group portrait of 1892-93, lent by the Art Institute of Chicago to the Courlauld's new exhibition, Toulouse-Lautrec and Jane Avril: Beyond the Moulin Rouge.

That is not all: the Courtauld Gallery has added a number of related pictures from its permanent collection; among them Lautrec's sketch of Jane Avril, the famous dancer, entering the Moulin Rouge (c.1892), which is matched with a study of her leaving the Moulin Rouge from the Wadsworth Atheneum in Connecticut. One is struck by the difference that costume and greasepaint made to her. Outside a music-hall she looked like a petite-bourgeoise dressed for church, with a taste for spectacular hats yet otherwise dowdily respectable: decent working-class, with some plebeian dignity. Inside the music-hall she presented her hopscotch semi-can-can, revealing her knees (lithograph by Lautrec of Jane Avril at the Jardin de Paris. 1893), and on one occasion in about 1892 was photographed "doing the splits'. She dances with a serpent around her, herself serpentine, in Lautrec's lithograph of 1899, but that was probably an exaggeration. She may have reminded Lautrec of the race-horses owned by his father Alphonse-Charles, Comte de Toulouse-Lautrcc-Montfa. Those too were bony, light, swiftly moving and with long faces puckered into crimson muzzles. She was one of Lautrec's most faithful copines, who outlived him by over forty years; dying in 1943, a year before her rival and friend Yvette Guilbert. Jane Avril's sometimes frenzied dancing had been attributed to St Vitus's Dance (as Sydenham's chorea, which is an after-effect of rheumatic fever, was then called) and she spent a long time in hospital because of that diagnosis; but Sydenham's chorea lasts only a few months. Her childhood had been devastatingly harsh. It is likely that her movements, if involuntary at all, were psychosomatic. If indeed her talent was promoted by a nervous disorder, one is, with pity, reminded of the song in Purcelfs Indian Queen: T am my Self my own Fever and Pain'.

Opposite Jane Avril at one of the marble tables of the Moulin Rouge sits Yvette Guilbert, her long nose uplifted as if scenting the vermilion smear of her floribunda lips. When heavily painted for her presence on the stage as disease and singer, her face, with its tilted nose and eyebrows, resembled that of Marcel Marceau. Lautrec's sketch of Yvette Guilbert's long black gloves, cast aside on some steps, are shaped like herself in their skinny sprawl (Albi, Musee Toulouse-Lautrec). Her songs are also personal adjuncts, specially written for her by such versifiers as Maurice Donnay. Such wit as they contained she made the most of. She was herself an accomplished writer, as may be seen from her memoirs, in particular La Chanson de ma vie (Paris 1927).

Yvette Guilbert may be seen in the surroundings of her choice, her sitting-room, in a photograph of about 1895 from a fashion magazine (reproduced in J. Frey, Toulouse-Lautrec: a Life, London 1994, p. 309). She has thrown herself back in fatigued abandon on the many cushions of a small Directoire-style sofa. Tall potted palms brush the stucco ceiling. To one side a Hellenistic statuette is supported on a spindle-legsed Louis XV table. Between the two windows, their curtains neatly tied back, and the two massive jardinieres a white cabinet rises, intricate but severely tidy. This is not the sitting-room of a lax person. In the taste of the time, it is elegant. When Lautrec first called on her, the door was answered by a footman, a surprising addition to a nightclub singer's menage. She lived with her mother. The 'footman' may have been a general manservant and gardener who safeguarded the house and did odd jobs there; or Yvette Guilbert may have been the genuinely talented but stage-struck mistress of a household. The affluent style of her boudoir suggests Balzacian Plassy or even the Bois de Boulogne rather than the Faubourg Montmartre. …