Friday, 5 August 2011

Toulouse-Lautrec and Jane Avril, Courtauld

Somerset House has, in the past decade, reinvented itself as a buzzing London venue. I was there fairly recently to see the latter half of the Ai Weiwei exhibition curated by the Lisson Gallery. On this special evening for the Courtauld Gallery, which occupies the north side of the building, there were a number of queues of those waiting to get into the Film4 Screen series, where films are shown in the courtyard.

The Courtauld has obviously understood the appeal of creating an 'event' evening to help promote its exhibitions. I found myself amongst a number of voluntarily costumed punters coming to see the Toulouse-Lautrec and Jane Avril: Beyond The Moulin Rouge show, drawn by the novelty of fin-de-siècle Parisian dressing up (as well as the waived entrance fee for having done so). In addition the Courtauld had thrown in a brief talk on a number of the canvases in the modest exhibition and a short display of Can-Can dancing.

Perks aside, this exhibition is a real winner. Showing highly familiar poster prints such as the one above alongside the sketches for them and other contemporaneous canvases threw the former in to absinthe-perfumed relief. The hauteur of the world-weary Avril emerges from the familiar stylising of the prints especially in conjunction with the canvases of her outside the clubs in the street, sloping along. Lautrec is also shown to emply painterly techniques du jour with raw, decorative colourising in the style of Bonnard and even Vuillard (if not Seurat). Indeed it's the colour of the paintings which brings one back to the prints, rather than their casual, florid lines.

In addition to the rich room of Lautrec/Avril pieces, there is a second room of other contemporaneous work: different artists tackling the same district of Paris as well as an interesting Munch frontispiece for a similar event elsewhere. What I found most extraordinary was wandering furhter afield in the Courtauld. One forgets that this gallery has a simply unrivalled collection of Impresionist masterpieces, groundbreaking and beautiful artworks that surround the Lautrec exhibition like more well-heeled Arrondissements. If there had been no dancing or dressing-up this would still be a very special exhibition.

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