It is not difficult to see why Toulouse Lautrec and Jane Avril became close friends. While their backgrounds were wildly different, privilege and wealth set against poverty and abuse, they both had to overcome serious physical ill health in order to be able to express their creativity. Toulouse Lautrec’s legs stopped growing after two childhood accidents and this led him to become an artistic observer, drawn to colour and life and movement in others, and Jane’s manic dance style may have had it’s genesis in the nervous disorder which at one point led to her being hospitalised. He could express his love of flamboyance and movement by observing her with great precision and getting down on paper or canvas what he was unable to do himself. They both knew what it was like to be different and they rose above it. As well as being personally satisfying their relationship was also professionally useful to them both. Toulouse Lautrec’s posters were powerful sellers of any show or venue. He featured Jane Avril in them regularly and this gave her publicity as well as generating more work for him when promoters realised that his images could sell tickets. A symbiosis if ever there was one.
Looking at the work in the Courtauld’s exhibition Toulouse Lautrec and Jane Avril. Beyond the Moulin Rouge it is also easy to see why the title was chosen. These are images which are very personal and direct, images of a real woman who may have been a star, known for her style and allure, but who was also a vulnerable woman. Look into her eyes. They are intense, world weary portraits of a woman who has seen and suffered a lot. They show someone who may have been able to summon up flamboyance and manic gaiety on stage but who was clearly all too aware of her own humanity and fraility. Late nineteenth century Parisians were fascinated by illness and she used her erratic dance style and her melancholy face to great effect in order to maximise her appeal. Her choreography was described as “epileptic” at the time, evoking an element of the freak show. In Toulouse Lautrec’s portraits you can see the effort it took her to do this, to keep on grabbing life by the scruff of the neck by a sheer effort of will and shaking it until she managed to find some fun. It was sometimes commented that he didn’t make her look enough like a star, but he was a supreme observer and he could only paint what he saw. At that time, back in the 1890’s Montmartre was not a tourist hot spot where foreign visitors wandered around safely having themselves sketched and looking for somewhere to eat. It was a dark and dangerous playground where you had to know how to look after yourself.
There are also lithographs of other stars of the time. A tiny portrait of Yvette Guillbert is barely there at all but it tells you everything that you need to know. She half spoke, half sang her bawdy repertoire, standing motionless, the first of a long tradition of dramatic French actor singers. Aristide Bruant glares out from a simple black and white drawing, daring us to have something to say about anything at all. You can imagine flattening yourself to the wall as he walks past. You can see a whole style of acting in the portrait of Sarah Bernhardt, and it isn’t subtle.
The star of this show is not, however, Jane Avril, strangely enough, it is an oil painting called Au Moulin Rouge. It has come all the way from Chicago and it is a masterpiece which Toulouse Lautrec painted between 1892 and 1895. It sets them both in context. This is not a nightclub. It is a nightmare. The blue face of May Milton, another star who was a close friend of Toulouse Lautrec, looms out at the side of the painting almost as if she is imploring us to let her out. It is a cool direct gaze that challenges the viewer, seeming to observe and judge. There are no smiles in the Moulin Rouge habituees who form the central group of drinkers, no jollity. They are still and resigned, drinking their time away, looking for a distraction, a release from everyday life. Another Moulin Rouge star, La Gouloue, adjusts her hair in the background forming a moment of grace and movement in the image, perhaps preparing to bring her waiting audience to life when they leave the table. We are never allowed to forget the element of performance- the lighting is dramatic and theatrical, especially on Jane Avril’s beautiful hair. Lautrec captures the spice of danger in the place and sets us among them, we are both watching and being watched.
It is a shame that Toulouse Lautrec’s images have been taken up and overused by the tourist industry of today. His vision was a lot darker and more dangerous than that. At the same time you can’t blame people for still being fascinated by the images which drew people towards them right from the moment they were first pasted to the walls of Montmartre.