Small shows, big ideas: from Jane Avril to Vorticism

Travelling between exhibitions often requires a certain amount of mental and physical agility. Two shows now on in London will take you from the dance halls of Montmartre to the streets of Edwardian London. Both shows are small in scale but big in ideas, with the prize going to the Courtauld Gallery’s Toulouse -Lautrec exhibition. Who needs blockbusters when you can have small exhibitions like – ‘Toulouse-Lautrec and Jane Avril Beyond the Moulin Rouge.’ It focuses on paintings, drawings, prints and biographical information that feature the famous Can Can dancer Jane Avril at the Moulin Rouge. It tells of how she became a dancer to overcome her affliction to St Vitas Dance and how Toulouse-Lautrec‘s poster of her pasted on the advertising sites along the boulevards and streets of Paris would propel her to fame. Good art is a serious business and there is nothing frivolous in Lautrec’s drawings and paintings of Jane with her white face and red hair. Show business is not all glamour and Lautrec depicts this in his cast of characters as they sit around at the dance halls tables in the painting ‘At the Moulin Rouge’. The Art Institute of Chicago has lent this picture to the Courtauld and it is the star of the show. The red head we see is Jane Avril and Lautrec painted her both in her off stage persona and most famously in a spirited dance marvellously executed in oil paint on cardboard The quality of the drawing is what strikes you first and it is here used realistically to celebrate movement, character and the joy of life.

Across town at Tate Britain is the Vorticists exhibition subtitled Manifesto for a Modern World. Vorticism was an avant garde art movement that originated in England before the First World War . The artists involved met at their favourite restaurant the L’hotel de tour Eiffel in London’s Fitzrovia. Before entering the exhibition we see the assembled cast of characters in William Roberts painting of the group. Centre stage, next to a copy of Blast, the magazine that contained the group manifesto, is their leader Percy Wyndam Lewis. However it is Jacob Epstein‘s reconstructed ‘Rock Drill’ that opens the show and is the Star exhibit. Although not an official Vorticist he showed with the group in its first exhibition alongside David Bomberg and Henri Gaudier- Brzeska. Lesser known members of the group include among others Jessica Dismorr, Helen Saunders and Dorothy Shakespear who together with Cuthbert Hamilton and Malcolm Arburthnot were never destined to have major reputations. Their exhibitions brought the excitement of modern abstract art to a bemused public. On the literary side Ezra Pound was a driving force and other writers such as Ford Maddox Ford and T.S. Elliot can be found in the pages of BLAST. Included also among the painters and sculptors, is the photographer Alvin Langdon Coburn and it is his Vortographs which are a delight to see. Photographed through optical devices, these portraits fracture the image and give a visual equivalent to the work done by the painters. Looking at his photographs is a reminder of how experimental art was in the first two decades of the last century.

Vorticists at the L’hotel de la Tour Eiffel

Now two exhibitions in the 21st century remind us of the characters and participants of those times. Their thoughts and actions may have now passed into art history but in these revivals they still have the power to excite and entertain.

James Cowan


  1. Peter Haveland 23 August 2011 at 12:06 pm

    Vorticism, along with Italian Futurism, was one of the very few 20thC avant guarde movements with its ideology to the extreme right, Windam-Lewis’ book ‘Hitler’ portrayed him as a man of peace fro example, Pound was a fascist, and Elliot is said to have had leanings in that direction. The magazine ‘Blast’ was certainly full of extreme right ideology and of course Marinetti who wrote the Futurist Manifesto, also wrote ‘The Fascist Cookbook’ and was a staunch supporter of Mussolini. This raises the question as to why, given that ideas of the extreme right Fascism, Nazism etc. held such sway in Italy, Germany, Greece, Spain, some of the other Balkan countries, Austria, Finland etc and most if not all countries had Fascist parties, the artistic avant guarde was almost totally of the left and mostly of the extreme left? Both Communism and Fascism claim to be workers revolutionary movements, both espouse forms of dictatorship in the pursuit of democracy for workers so why the preference in the arts for Communism rather than Fascism?

  2. Sylthane 23 August 2011 at 2:14 pm

    Forgetting the politics for a moment, the art is extremely interesting. Particularly Gaudier Brzeska, if anyone has the chance a visit to Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge has some of his work and is well worth a visit. He was interested not only in reducing sculpture to a refined elemental state but was keen to explore the release of potential energy and movement just before it happened, which I think is a fascinating idea.

  3. Richard Liley 24 August 2011 at 9:14 am

    Jane Avril suffered from a rare nervous condition known as St Vitus Dance which is why she was so fascinating for Toulouse-Lautrec. She was only really happy when she was dancing and Lautrec recorded her jerky and frenzied movements. They had a bond that was cemented by their mutual struggle with social acceptance and disability.


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