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Lautrec’s Lady Gaga Gyrates, Vorticists Explode: Martin Gayford

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''Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound''
''Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound'' (1914) by sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, who died at age 23 in the trenches of World War I. The phallic portrayal of Pound is in the ''Vorticists'' exhibition at London's Tate Britain. Source: Tate Britain via Bloomberg

July 4 (Bloomberg) -- When it comes to popular culture, decadence is almost always in fashion.

That’s why, perhaps, there’s an oddly contemporary undercurrent to the exhibition, “Toulouse-Lautrec and Jane Avril: Beyond the Moulin Rouge” (through Sept. 18), at the Courtauld Gallery in London.

Writing about Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s poster for a nightspot of the time, the “Divan Japonais,” in which Avril was prominently featured, a contemporary critic named Frantz Jourdain described her “sharp stare, provocative lips, and long, thin adorable vicious body.”

“How stylish she is,” he went on, “this exquisite creature, nervous and neurotic, the captivating flower of artistic corruption and sickly grace.” He almost could have been talking about Lady Gaga. Descriptions of Avril’s unconventional dancing, reputedly derived from her experiences as a patient in a Parisian psychiatric hospital, bring Michael Jackson to mind.

The most contemporary thing about Avril (1868-1943) is that she was made famous by image-making -- literally -- and publicity. She was a star of Parisian night life in the 1890s, just before the age of cinema and recording. Her strange personality and waif-like allure live on in representations of her by Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901). Indeed, to the extent that she was not self-invented, she was the creation of the artist.

At any rate, Avril credited one of his posters, possibly the “Divan Japonais,” as the key to her success. This little exhibition, one of the tightly focused mini-shows the Courtauld does so well, brings together many of Toulouse-Lautrec’s paintings, drawings and advertisements featuring her, including one of his finest works, “At the Moulin Rouge” (c. 1892-95) from the Art Institute of Chicago.

You leave thinking that if Avril was partly his invention, Toulouse-Lautrec also depended on her or her milieu. It’s hard to imagine his art apart from the subject matter, the sleazy glamour of Montmartre in its heyday.

Vorticist Blast

“Blast First (from politeness) England!” the Vorticists inveighed in their magazine, which was titled “Blast.” Their movement was launched on the eve of World War I and sadly their metaphorical blasting soon was replaced by genuine explosives. Some were killed, the rest traumatized into stepping back from the cutting edge. Vorticism was over long before the armistice.

An exhibition at Tate Britain, “The Vorticists” (until Sept. 4) takes a fresh look at this tragically short-lived movement, the first true manifestation of modernism in Britain. It’s nicely presented, medium-sized and not too packed with exhibits. But then there actually isn’t all that much Vorticism. Indeed, by some counts, there’s less than is on show here.

Bomberg’s Mud

The greatest avant-garde painting done in Britain in the early 20th century was “The Mud Bath” (1914) by David Bomberg. It sings off the wall here, as it did two years ago in the Tate’s Futurism show. Bomberg, a superb painter in any idiom, thought he was a Cubist, not a Vorticist.

The other star is the sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska (1891-1915). After he was killed in the war, a friend denied Gaudier-Brzeska was a Vorticist.

In practice, Vorticism was driven by the pugnacious personality of Percy Wyndham Lewis (1882-1957).

Sadly, much of his early dynamic almost abstract work has been destroyed. What remains suggests that he had talent yet lacked one vital ingredient: humanity. These fledgling modernists didn’t know what the modern world had in store for them.

Information: http://www.courtauld.ac.uk/gallery; http://www.tate.org.uk/britain

(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer on the story: Martin Gayford in London at martin.gayford@googlemail.com or http://twitter.com/#!/martingayford.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Beech at mbeech@bloomberg.net.

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