Magazine article The Spectator

Lautrec's Dancing Muse

Magazine article The Spectator

Lautrec's Dancing Muse

Article excerpt

Toulouse-Lautrec and Jane Avril: Beyond the Moulin Rouge

Courtauld Gallery, Somerset House, WC2, until 18 September

The Camden Town Group Centenary Exhibition

Fine Art Society, 148 New Bond Street, W1, until 14 July

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901), diminutive aristocrat and radical artist, was roundly travestied in John Huston's 1952 film Moulin Rouge, and at once entered the popular imagination as an atrociously romanticised figure doomed for early death.

In fact, Lautrec was a tough and original artist, incisive and unsparing in his observation though also compassionate of the human comedy, a perfect painter of what then passed for modern life. His images of the extraordinary dancer Jane Avril summon up Montmartre in the 1890s, but this exhibition aims to go beyond that evocative and enjoyable designation. It examines the close friendship between artist and model, but most particularly it explores the background of the dancer, and the context in which she became such an admirable subject. There is much new research here, and the art historical seriousness of the project is undoubtedly the main reason that museums have been so willing to lend works. (Indeed, MoMa New York has lent its only Lautrec to the show. ) The result is a wide-ranging display which reacquaints us with the originality of the artist while opening up the period in which he worked.

The exhibition extends over two rooms at the top of the Courtauld, with an additional display of lithographs by Lautrec in Room 12 entitled 'Stars of the Stage' and dealing with other famous faces of the day such as Yvette Guilbert and Sarah Bernhardt. The main room contains a dozen or so images of startling potency, the agility of the painthandling perfectly matching the captured movement of a series of instants. As Robert Hughes has presciently noted, 'If the stream of life is divided into an infinity of fleeting moments, as it is by a culture based on photography, each looks like an actor's gesture, a pose - or a snapshot.' This is the effect of these paintings: impressive instantaneity, marvels of concision and economy, driven by piercing observation and a sure understanding of pictorial design.

Lautrec was a great poster designer, able to see through the endless possibilities and permutations of pose to the characteristic gesture (just this side of caricature) that defined personality. The use of thin paint made his paintings at times more like drawings, as the first image in the exhibition demonstrates. Here is Jane Avril, dancing on one leg, the other held high and kicking out, her clothes flowing and swirling through the expertly varied application of gouache. She was described by contemporaries as the 'tempestuous tulip' or an 'orchid in a frenzy', and as 'combining the motions of a jig and an eel'. By all accounts, her lanky, rapid movements and trance-like mien were disturbing and fascinating, and although she was considered an eccentric rather than a classic beauty, there was a strong undertow of sexuality to her performance which made it compelling.

A substantial part of this exhibition is devoted to Jane's story, and the discovery that she actually suffered from St Vitus' dance. Indeed she was admitted to the Salpetriere hospital for nervous diseases, where Professor Charcot preached the virtues of hypnotism and Sigmund Freud was a student, when she was 14. …

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