Courtauld puts Jane Avril centre stage in widely acclaimed Toulouse-Lautrec show

By Mark Sheerin | 21 July 2011
A poster advertising a group of dance performers titled Troupe de Mlle Eglantine
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Mademoiselle Elegantine’s Troupe, 1896© all rights reserved. Courtesy Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Exhibition: Toulouse-Lautrec and Jane Avril: Beyond the Moulin Rouge, The Courtauld Gallery, London, until September 18 2011

In the case of this two-room exhibition, less really is more. There are just a handful of paintings, a smattering of prints, some ephemera, some photos and that about wraps it up. And yet the sum total is more revealing than a front row seat in a performance of the can-can.

Of the few paintings, one is worth the trip alone. At the Moulin Rouge is a loan from the Art Institute of Chicago, and now the thrill of a night out with the in-crowd of fin de siècle Paris is on offer to visitors in London.

This low-lit interior scene demonstrates that some trivial pastimes never get old; one can still spot celebs and notice Toulouse-Lautrec himself in the background. Another gratifying detail is that we too have been spotted, by a passing performer to the right. But she looks so off colour and diabolical, you wonder quite where this evening on the tiles might lead.

At the centre of both this painting and the social circle it captures is dancer Jane Avril, so much part of the Moulin Rouge brand a painted portrait is thought to have hung in the foyer.

A painting of a woman in a dark coat walking past a street corner
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Jane Avril Leaving the Moulin Rouge, 1892© all rights reserved. Courtesy Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, CT. Bequest of George A. Gay
Thanks to posters such as the one for a performance at the Jardin de Paris, it is now hard to imagine Bohemian Paris without her pursed lips and jerky limbs. It’s a marketing hook, some 40 years older than the Guinness toucan, cropping up in a series of radical designs in which the composition is as fresh as the prints are faded.

But next door is an object even more remarkable with no claims on art or advertising. A tall, slim, antique book with alphabetical tabs is open to a list of names on which a former of Avril’s appears: Jeanne Beaudon. This is the register of psychiatric hospital the Salpêtrière.

This is not where post-impressionism’s most high profile muse ends up. It’s where her story merely began. Because no review of this show would be complete without pointing our Avril was a teenage patient at the infamous facility.

A convulsive neurological condition came to imprint itself on the distinct moves of the woman known as La Mélinite (a form of explosive). New research is also presented here which examines the links between hysteria and a dance style that capitvated a city.

Avril’s backstory with its resulting exhibits give the exhibition a powerful kick, so to speak. They resonate with the paintings and sketches of her off-duty moments. It has long been known that Toulouse-Lautrec hung around with some interesting characters, but his leading lady clearly had depth as well as colour.
  • Admission £6 (£4.50). Open 10am-6pm daily.
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