Somewhat overwhelmed by feelings of childish excitement (which were well hidden or so I hoped!) I was, for a couple of hours transported to Montmartre, Paris in the 1890s at the height of the "Belle Epoque." (Beautiful Age).
In reality I had entered Rooms 14 and 15 located on the Second Floor of the Courtauld Gallery, London. As I entered I found that I was surrounded by 'old friends' paintings such as Jane Avril Dancing (1891-2), Jane Avril Dancing (1893), Jane Avril leaving the Moulin Rouge (1892), Jane Avril in the Entrance to the Moulin Rouge (1892), At the Moulin Rouge (1892-3), Jane Avril (A portrait 1891-2) and lithographs namely Jane Avril at the Jardin de Paris (1893), Divan Japanais (1893), Jane Avril (1899) and Mademoiselle Eglantine's Troupe (1896). This isn't true of course, they couldn't pass for old friends but after several trips to Paris and having read countless books on the subject the paintings and lithographs all seemed familiar to me when in fact I was gazing at them for the very first time. How fresh and new they all seemed.
Jane Avril who in the paintings is depicted in many varying poses, alone, distant, lost in thought, vulnerable, perhaps tired after her exertions on the dance floor of the Moulin Rouge, enjoying a drink and conversation at the end of an evening or more likely into the early hours of the following morning. How truly wonderful to see and inspect the work so close up to see the tone and facial features in a way that never truly reproduces in book form.
I will leave it to others better qualified than I to pass judgment or make comment on the quality of Lautrec's work, his use of brushstrokes, use of colour and light, his interpretation of those he painted and indeed, his subject matter. For me though he was a master of his craft who transcended the accepted form of art by presenting to the world his most marvellous lithographs, full of colour, life and movement the purpose of which was to promote and advertise artists (of which Jane is undoubtedly one) and venues in which they performed. Being accepted as a genuine form of art is it any wonder that when they were pasted around Montmartre that in some cases they disappeared taken from places by those who craved ownership of them? It's as well I wasn't there at that time as I would have taken a few rolled them up and tucked them under my arm and exhibited them in a gallery of my own
There are 7 cases on display in Room 15 all containing items which are wonderful and give a taste of the life Jane experienced before her fame grew and after her association with Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec ended following his untimely death in 1901.
But my favourite beyond doubt had to be Case 4 which contains old black and white photos of Jane in varying poses that I had never seen before. She is the personification of Parisian style but with her own (as ever) input. She is photographed in performance mode and just simply modelling often gazing away from the camera to make you wonder just what it is she is contemplating. She is simply beautiful, perhaps not in the conventional way but then that works for me. Fortunately all the photographs have been reproduced in the catalogue that accompanies the exhibition and which I wouldn't be without.
I left eventually and reluctantly in the knowledge that I would never see some of the works again as they make their way to their respective homes after the exhibition ends, but I feel privileged to have seen the works together under one roof perhaps, in truth, as they should be seen. A fine and fitting tribute to the relationship that existed between the artist and the dancer!
What are you waiting for - go and see it! - Craig