The coverage of the recent death of Lucian Freud has highlighted the intensity of relationship that can exist between artist and subject. His last model described him as both a consummate professional and a dear friend, emphasising the connection that can be established during hours of casual chat on the job. Of course, this level of empathy cannot always exist, but where it does the fruit it bears can far outweigh the artistic output alone. Pre-dating Freud, a prime example of this is the bond between Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Jane Avril, whose artistic and personal relationship is currently under scrutiny at the Courtauld.
Jane Avril was a dancer at the Moulin Rouge during the 1890s, part of the vibrant music-hall scene that attracted many artists who considered themselves to be observers of modern life. Avril was attractive and talented, but it was her legendary history of mental and physical affliction and her resultant jerky dancing that made her famous. Avril claimed that it was a dance at the mental institution, in which she spent two years, that cured her illness, and her audiences were attracted by the similarities between her dancing and the spasms of the hysterical women who were being well-documented by doctors at the time.
Toulouse-Lautrec’s show posters and portraits played a major part in Avril’s fame, and similarly made his own name more socially recognisable. He depicted her as a frenetic, dynamic dancer who used her angularity to its best advantage. Avril was captivating on stage, but Toulouse-Lautrec depicted her in less spectacular moments too – walking to work, talking with the clientele, wrapped up against the Parisian cold. She looks older than her years – she was in her early twenties when these images were created – and far from the charismatic persona displayed at the Moulin Rouge. There is an infinite sadness in these images of Avril, and you can imagine the burdens she carries as she trudges through these dark works. In a way it is soothing to think that she found her release on stage.
It is unusual to see works that show the flipside of the glamour of the 1890s Parisian music hall environment. You imagine that the intensity of colour and atmosphere attracted performers with big personalities, exotic pasts and glorious presents. Jane Avril was all of this on stage but although she was made famous by the sinuous lines of Toulouse-Lautrec’s posters and her own spasmed dance, seeing her captured as her off-duty self opens up a broader view of the hardships of cabaret life.
-- Alex Field
All images courtesy The Courtauld Institute
Images: Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901), Jane Avril, 1899, Colour lithograph, 56 x 38 cm, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Rosenwald Collection, 1953; Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901) Divan Japonais, 1893, Colour lithograph, 80.8 x 61.9 cm, Victoria and Albert Museum, London