Monday, October 24, 2011

Picturing Montmartre: Toulouse Lautrec and Jane Avril at the Moulin Rouge at the Courtauld Institute ;Degas and the Ballet:Picturing Movement and the Royal Academy; Midnight in Paris(2011) dir.Woody Allen; French Cancan (1954) dir. Jean Renoir

A couple of exhibitions and films I've enjoyed recently featured the Parisian artists' quarter, Montmartre, in its glorious turn-of-the-century heighday.

Toulouse-Lautrec and Jane Avril at the Moulin Rouge was lavishly supplied with background information about the artist and his favourite muse. Jane Avril, not her real name, worked as a part-time prostitute before she entertained customers by dancing at the the Moulin Rouge. Toulouse Lautrec himself was an alcoholic and died young,from syphilis. A sense of decadence presided over the exhibits, reinforced by newspaper cuttings and articles that suggested Jane's gawky but frenzied dancing style and her emaciatied appearance was caused by infirmity. The paintings depicted a cast of grotesques, customers and entertainers alike.

There was relatively little information about Degas at the RA, and, for some visitors, too few of his paintings. He seems, going by the evidence, to have been not so much a stage-door Johnny as a backstage Peeping Tom with an eye for young girls in unusual poses. The emphasis in this exhibition was on early photography and its ability to capture movement, a quality that was to prove so useful to painters.

More prosaically, I once stayed in Montmartre on a home-swap holiday. Streets in the area consisted mainly of steps leading up to the great white dome of the Sacre Coeur, with a terrace in front that afforded a view of Paris stretching to the horizon.In the surrounding area, it was easy to imagine oneself back to a time when artists contributed to the Bohemian atmosphere of its cobbled streets and cafe-lined squares.

In a nearby 'place', artists had set up easels under the trees and drew portraits for tourists. Small shops had street displays of prints, with more inside including Monet's Waterlilies, Van Gogh's Sunflowers, plus tiny statuettes of Degas' Little Dancer of Fourteen Years.

Both exhibitions place the artists' work in the context of their time, a mileu explored to comic effect in Woody Allen's most recent film, Midnight in Paris.

Given a double dose of nostalgia and fantasy, it's no surprise that the protagonist, a would-be novelist played by Owen Wilson, is whisked back in time to meet habitues of the quartier who include Lautrec, Degas and Salvador Dali, as well as literary giants Hemingway and Gertrude Stein.

Bohemian decadence and nostalgia have their attractions, but for sheer charm I'd back Jean Renoir's film, French Cancan, which I saw at the BFI a few weeks ago. In the film, Jean Gabin plays the founder of Montmartre's most famous nightclub with a cool-eyed insouciance, but the real triumph is the studio recreation of Montmarte, whose streets and characters echo well-known artististic portrayals, and the final twenty-minutes of high-kicking exuberance, when the signature dance is performance before an enraptured audience in a packed Moulin Rouge

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