In two rooms on the top floor of the Courtauld Gallery lies a small, but perfectly formed, treat of an exhibition. So often shows based upon a concept, rather than a straightforward display of an artist’s work, are found wanting. Whether it be the initial conception or the means by which an idea is pursued and presented, such displays tend to appear haphazard and confused; lacking a strong direction or comment. Not the case here. The lead roles in this exhibition – the dancer Jane Avril and artist Toulouse-Lautrec – are successfully supported by the rest of the cast.

Each poster piece produced by Lautrec is striking for the strength and simplicity of its composition. Lautrec, along with such contemporaries as Van Gogh and Gauguin, was influenced by the considerable influx of Japanese art passing into Parisian artistic currency in the latter nineteenth century. Thus, modelling and detail are sacrificed for bold simplification that grabs the retina in an instant – perfect for a poster. Jane Avril in the Jardin de Paris (1893) is the stand-out example of this technique. Blocked out in black, the shape formed from the lines of Avril’s angular and widely splayed legs is mirrored in the arch of the double bass, behind which we have the best view in the house.

…the notion of Parisian artistic society being a vibrant and seedy social world…

The raucous scenes that capture Avril mid-dance are what Lautrec is known for, and aesthetically they are the most memorable featured here. Jane Avril at the Jardin de Paris and Divan Japonais are superbly exciting images. A very different mood is apparent in portrayals of Avril off the stage. In Jane Avril Leaving the Moulin Rouge (1892), our star appears vulnerable and anonymous, her angular form drowned in a shapeless blue overcoat as Paris, disinterested, moves around her. Indeed, regardless of her pose, Avril’s face in each of the Lautrec images conveys a consistent and disturbing melancholy – evidence of the depth of her relationship with Lautrec.

Records of Avril’s stay in the Salpêtrière Hospital and medical sketches of hysterical fits indulge our curiosity in the troubled mental world she inhabited. Paintings such as At the Moulin Rouge (1892-95) conform to the notion, created by the likes of Degas, of Parisian artistic society being an exclusive, vibrant and seedy social world. Bills, photographs and newspaper cuttings ground this stereotype in reality. The tight-knit nature of the Parisian artistic community at the turn of the century is alluded to in the works of  Bourdelle and Picasso, both of whom present Jane Avril in one form or another.

The Coutauld may have missed a trick by keeping separate the areas of ‘art’ and ‘context’ in this exhibition. However this does little to detract from a superb exhibition that satisfies its premise: providing an insight into the relationship of Toulouse-Lautrec and Jane Avril.

The Exhibition continues until 18 September.

Admission £6/free for full-time students.

4 Stars 

 

See a preview. It’s not your ears, it’s in Spanish!

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