When looking back on any year, it’s very easy to concentrate on what a rubbish year it’s been. And this year is no exception, what with economic gloom, a projected double-dip recession, euro-zone gloom, riots and unemployment gloom. Lot’s of gloom basically. But for that reason alone, I, ever the optimist, try to look back on the highlights of the year. And these tend to consist of two main categories – holidays (of which, sadly, there are not enough to fill a review such as this) and art exhibitions (of which there have been plenty). I am lucky enough to have attended the lion’s share of the exhibitions which London, and further afield, had to offer in 2011, and therefore, in a season when all the papers seem to be doing “roundups” of the year, I thought I’d share my thoughts on the best (and worst) exhibitions I’ve seen this year.
No.5 | Toulouse-Lautrec and Jane Avril: Beyond the Moulin Rouge – Courtauld Institute of Art, London
This small exhibition at London’s superb Courtauld Institute at Somerset House was no less brilliant by virtue of its size. Taking up space in only two of the Courtauld’s many galleries, the show was an intimate but atmospheric examination of the Absinthe-tinted shadowy underworld of the Paris cabaret-scene so emblematically captured in the works of post-impressionist master, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. It is thanks to him that seminal movie moments such as Baz Luhrman’s Moulin Rouge have been able to capture the essence of 1890’s debauched Pigalle social scene, filled with wonderful personalities such as La Goulue (the Glutton), Grille d’Egout (Sewer-grate) and Nini les-Pattes-en-l’air (Nini legs-aloft) as well as other characterful prostitutes, drunks and dancers. One such dancer who became synonymous with the Paris dancehall spectacle was Jane Avril, one of the stars of the Moulin Rouge, who undoubtedly played the role of muse to Lautrec’s portrayals of that same infamous nightclub. Such was her prominence in his work that her flame-red hair and exotic dance moves became symbols of the Moulin Rouge spectacle, as her fame was assured by a series of dazzlingly inventive posters in which she was the central attraction. However, her influence on Lautrec went further, and this exhibition features a number of stirring, more emotional portraits of Jane Avril which show the dancer off the stage, in private moments of introspection.
Such was the importance of this artistic coupling between aristocratic Lautrec and courtesan-born Avril (née Jeanne Beaudon) that the Courtauld placed the relationship at the centre of its show, including photographs of both the Artist and the dancer, and examination of the peculiar “St. Vitus’ Dance” disease which gave Avril her unique, disjointed dancing style, and an attempt to explore Avril’s persona, both in public and in private. This core objective was explored effectively by the Courtauld, but for me, the real winner of the show was simply the basic exposure it gave to this wonderful atmospheric Parisian world of the 1890s. Therefore for me, the star of the show has to be this piece leant by the Institute of Chicago, At the Moulin Rouge, a scene which perfectly depicts the atmosphere of the dancehall, complete with a self-portrait of Lautrec himself, the emblematic red hair of Avril, and the looming ghostly green face of May Milton, one of the performers, imbued with even more Absinthe-green hallucinogenic mystery than the melancholic daze induced by the green fairy in Manet’s masterpiece, L’Absinthe.