- At the Moulin Rouge, 1892-95, from the Art Institute of Chicago.
Think Paris. Think fin-de-siècle. Think cabaret. Think sex, money and rock’n'roll. Think scandal. Think La Bohème with a new-age feel. Think venereal disease. Think glitz and glamour. Think Montmartre. Think artist finding his muse. Think ill-fated can-can dancer of intoxicating beauty. Think adding a young Ewan McGregor with a sideburn to the equation and we get, duh, Moulin Rouge.
Think not, however, this is what the latest exhibition at the Courtauld is about. If you’re expecting something like the drama of The Pre-Raphaelites and their models/wives BBC style, you’re also bound to be disappointed.
Last Tuesday, I had the pleasure of tagging along to the Private View and Curator’s Talk of Toulouse-Lautrec and Jane Avril: Beyond the Moulin Rouge, which opens today. The exhibition brings together paintings, sketches and exuberant posters featuring Jane Avril by Toulouse-Lautrec in celebration of the artistic partnership and incredible friendship between the two, recreating the swirling world of Paris’ nightlife in the 1890s, a world peopled with extraordinary characters.
Who is Jane Avril? Born Jeanne Beaudon, Jane Avril is no Violetta. She had a abusive childhood, spent 2 years in Salpêtrière under the care of Dr Charcot in her teens as she suffered from Choreia that gave her a special fluid leg movement – which ultimately formed her unique, elegant style of dancing that made her an instant star.
Perhaps it was the idea of illness in art that brought the two together. Toulouse-Lautrec himself suffered from inbreeding-induced genetic diseases (his aristocrat parents were cousins), and as an adult man, he was no more than 1.55m tall.
The range of artworks on display shows great versatility and Toulouse-Lautrec’s mastery over different media. His oil paintings at times draw on Seurat’s pointillism, whilst some of his portraits of Jane Avril resemble that of, and perhaps inspired, Kirchner’s Berlin ladies that came much later.
Still it seems to me that the curatorial focus of the exhibition is in favour of the contextual narratives rather than the artistic contents. Of course, saucy gossips and tabloid-style stories are good to work with as I have tried to demonstrate. Think memory, remembering and forgetting instead – all the characters in the wonderful narrative existed in a past that does not belong to us. Think nostalgia. This is perhaps what adds on to the sheerness of Toulouse-Lautrec’s appeal.
Toulouse-Lautrec and Jane Avril: Beyond the Moulin Rouge, the Courtauld, opens now til October