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Turning Points: Jane Avril in Paris

By (October 1, 2015) No Comment

janeavril1893lithoIn 1884, an adolescent girl institutionalized at the Salpetrière Psychiatric Hospital in Paris attended a “mad ball” to celebrate Mardi Gras. She suffered from St. Vitus Dance, a neurological disease now called Sydenham’s chorea, that causes compulsive twitching. That night at the ball she began to dance — with strange disjointed movements and great passion. An audience formed and applauded. Much later the woman claimed that was the turning point in her life: when she realized that what had been called mental illness she could claim for herself as art. “Alas,” she wrote, “I was cured.”

The hospital had been a safe haven from an abusive mother, but when she left she was able to reinvent herself, changing her name from Jeanne Beaudon to Jane Avril. By 1889 she was a star dancer at the Moulin Rouge and soon afterwards a friend and model for the painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Her dancing — a variant of the new can-can — drew crowds, and her image — tall, thin, red-haired, pointy-nosed — sold posters. This was not the only “turning point” in Jane’s memoirs. There are other places too where she used phrases like “then my new life began.” Biographers use turning points as a way to organize a narrative, the “story” part of the life story, but these turning points inevitably close doors as well as open them.

In the only full-length biography of Jane Avril in English, published in 1954, Jose Shercliff draws on Jane’s short memoir (published in a newspaper in 1933) to construct a Cinderella story, though many of the facts are uncertain. Names, for example, are unreliable right from the start: Shercliff calls the girl Jeanne Richepin, the illegitimate child of a demi monde beauty named Elise Richepin and her aristocratic Italian lover the Marchese Luigi de Font, but subsequent sources confirm Jane’s birth name was Jeanne Beaudon. She was raised by working-class grandparents in the countryside until her mother ran out of protectors and demanded the child back, with the suggestion of setting her up as a prostitute. For Shercliff, who knew Jane personally at the end of her life, Jane’s convulsions and institutionalization rescued her from a life of poverty and depravity. Indeed, in her memoirs Jane refers to Salpetrière as a kind of “Eden,” which partly explains why she writes “Alas!” when she is cured. portrAccording to Shercliff, Jeanne went to the ball in a borrowed dress and was discharged the day after her dance performance. In her essay for the catalogue for the 2011 exhibition Toulouse-Lautrec and Jane Avril: Beyond the Moulin Rouge, Nancy Ireson confirms that this story was unlikely: Jane was discharged in June 1884, months after any possible Mardi Gras ball, and she didn’t start dancing professionally until the late 1880s. Still, one can see the appeal of the story as it neatly divides Jeanne’s/Jane’s life into a before and after, separating the private from the public, the madwoman from the dancer.

Several stories or turning points are converging here — and perhaps Jane’s life story is one of a serendipitous intersection with larger historical transitions to what we now call modernity. In addition to the turn-of-the-century transitions occurring around ideas of public and private or within arts like dance, there was another narrative unspooling at Salpetrière itself. As a teacher and pathologist at the hospital, Jean-Martin Charcot was considered a pioneer in his treatment of hysterics, mostly women, whom he treated through hypnotism. In 1885 the young Sigmund Freud spent several months at Salpetrière to study Charcot’s methods and published his first contribution to psychoanalysis, Studies in Hysteria with Josef Breuer in 1895, at the height of Jane’s career at the Moulin Rouge.

Both Charcot and Freud considered hysteria to be the result of emotional trauma rather than a medical condition. Ireson emphasizes that Jane always distinguished herself from the hysterical patients at Salpetrière, but chorea was also linked to emotional trauma and one can see how Jane’s background could support that hypothesis. For his new theories Charcot became a celebrity himself, inviting prominent Parisian artists and socialites to his clinic on Tuesdays to watch the hysterical women perform their symptoms and to watch him induce new symptoms or cures through hypnosis. Subsequent accounts of these events (including a 2012 feature film called Augustine about one of the patients) emphasize the erotics of gender and power in the developing field of psychiatry: were the doctors exploiting the powerless women? Were the women faking it for attention or authority?

Interestingly, though, Jane herself did not necessarily side with her fellow female patients: Shercliff writes, “The very rumor that Charcot was on his way to visit them was enough to set them off. But to Jeanne, who knew their dissimulation, it seemed a pitiful farce.” It must have been thrilling theater, as André Brouillet’s famous painting A Clinical Lesson at Salpetrière reveals—the déshabillé of the female patients, the suggestive fainting and convulsions, the all-male audience —almost seem a direct predecessor of the risqué Moulin Rouge performances. Freud kept a reproduction of the painting, completed in 1887 a few years after his visit, and it still occupies the wall above the couch in his office in London.

fainDrawing on Avril’s memoirs, Shercliff traces the transformation of Jeanne to Jane through a love affair with a young doctor, an attempted suicide, and a dramatic rescue by warm-hearted prostitutes who took her in (although Shercliff emphasizes that Jane had an essential purity that belied her sexual experiences). She also mentions Jane working as a horseback rider or circus acrobat at the Hippodrome in Paris and as a cashier at the Universal Exposition in Paris in 1889. Both would have made good transitions into the expanding forms of popular culture where people of different social classes could intermingle.

In contrast to the narrative of one dramatic turning point, Jane’s memoir chronicles a gradual shift from dancing for pleasure to dancing professionally. Jane frequented amateur public dances like the Bal Bullier, a weekly event in gardens in the bohemian Latin Quarter. There she met members of society and artists as well as members of the Paris demi monde: like the circus or the exposition, these dance halls with low admission fees were a sort of transitional space between public street entertainments and the private cabarets and clubs that were appearing further north in Montmartre. But the behavior in these spaces was still socially and explicitly defined: Jane later wrote that at the Bal de Elysée Montmartre there was a “Father Prude” who stood watch to break apart same-sex couples dancing together.

When the Moulin Rouge opened in the fall of 1889 it provided a relatively new form of entertainment in a relatively new kind of public space. It was, in that sense, a turning point too—between a sort of salon culture like Charcot’s clinic, where a charismatic individual attracted a circle of admiring supporters who funded his work, and a club, where a charismatic entrepreneur curated entertainments for a paying public audience (for example, the famous Charles Zidler, played with gusto by Jim Broadbent in Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 film Moulin Rouge). When Jane began dancing at the Moulin Rouge, soon after it opened, she was no longer an amateur dancing for her own pleasure at the public gardens but a paid performer with an “act” of her own. She took an English lover, a friend and later biographer of Oscar Wilde, and became “Jane Avril.” She was also called “Jane la folle” or “l’étrange,” both versions of the nickname “crazy Jane” that evokes her background and exists as an English term too.

janeavrilThe common denominator was the twitching or convulsive movements of her body. The recently popularized can-can dance entailed frantic leg kicking — and other new forms of movement, like Loie Fuller’s serpentine dance, began to free dance from patterns of prescribed steps. One of Lautrec’s friends, Paul Leclerc, emphasized Jane’s freedom of movement in describing one of her performances: “In the midst of the crowd, there was a stir, and a line of people started to form: Jane Avril was dancing, twirling, gracefully, lightly, a little madly; pale, skinny, thoroughbred, she twirled and reversed, weightless, fed on flowers.” In the transition from formal dance to modern dance, as in the transition from private salons to popular culture, Jane’s experience of mental illness became a paradoxical asset, enabling her physically to break with earlier forms. In other words, her “strangeness” may have at first confined her in an institution, but it ultimately allowed her some freedoms in a rapidly changing culture. In her essay for the Courtauld exhibit, “Dancing in the Asile: Jane Avril and Chorea,” Ireson argues that Jane carefully calibrated her association with mental illness, embracing her originality while disdaining the faked “acrobatics” of the women at Salpetrière.

Lautrecjaneavrildancing1892Jane was certainly an exception: the female inmates who “performed” for Charcot and his visitors were never named, though a few became close enough to celebrities themselves to have their names recorded, like Blanche Wittman (who appears in the Brouillet painting mentioned above). But, arguably, fin-de-siècle Paris demonstrates another turning point in creating more opportunities for artists and performers to make names for themselves. While most of Lautrec’s portraits of Jane show her as a dancer, one stands out as an exception: in an 1893 lithograph that was used as a cover for the journal L’Estampe originale he represented Jane examining a proof in a printmaking shop. Ireson notes that her figure fills one side of the image while the other is symmetrically dominated by the printing press itself and its master printer. In sharp contrast to Jane as model or mental patient, here Jane is an artist herself and a professional.

These overlapping identities were confusing to her contemporaries too. In 1893 art critic Arsène Alexandre wrote an essay on Jane entitled “She Who Dances” (translated from the French and published in the 2011 exhibit catalogue) that concludes that “a woman who knows perfectly how to find and to announce her unique character with the right formula and the right clothes is a true work of art.” In other words, the art does not represent her; it is her. To quote a poem by another contemporary, William Butler Yeats, “how can we know the dancer from the dance?” The question seems particularly problematic when the dancer or model is a woman. Femininity itself becomes a “formula,” or form. Jane was always both a “unique” individual and a “stereotype” (a term, like cliché, associated with French printing presses).

In an article on Jane Avril and the lithograph, Catherine Pedley-Hinson argues that the earliest posters advertising cabaret shows used female models only as symbols of sexuality and leisure. In other words, the posters didn’t represent specific women, even when using a specific model, but used femininity itself as a lure for customers. In contrast, Lautrec’s posters for the cabaret shows at the Moulin Rouge or Jardin Japonais suddenly promoted specific women, who were named within the frame—as Jane often was in his many posters and paintings of her throughout the 1890s. With titles like “Jane at the Entrance of the Moulin Rouge” or “Jane Leaving the Moulin Rouge,” Lautrec’s images of Jane emphasized transitions or turning points, especially the one between public and private life. This reflected the culture’s fascination with the boundaries between physical and mental spaces: for example, in an 1881 novel by Jules Claretie set in Salpetrière and quoted in Ireson’s essay the part of the hospital devoted to nervous conditions was located “to the left, before opening the door to madness.”

festThese thresholds between conditions or identities demanded new names, and most of the performers at these clubs chose stage names that evoked their acts (like “La Goulue,” which means the glutton or “Le Désosseé,” which means boneless). Lautrec was an innovator in both art and advertising—adapting flat bold colors and composition to billboards appearing briefly on street corners — and Jane might be seen as something of a turning point in his career as well. Some of his most recognizable work bears her name and distinctive face so it is difficult to tell whether he made her name or she made his. The exchange definitely worked in both directions though, and served to transgress other boundaries that were in flux at the time: Lautrec photographed himself wearing her clothing to attend a “women’s ball.” For both Jane and Lautrec their bodies were key to their identities as individuals and artists. Just as Jane’s history of mental illness inflected her dancing, Lautrec’s medical history inflected his artistic interest in those on the fringe of respectable society. Having broken his legs several times as an adolescent, his growth was stunted and he walked with a limp. A friend of his, quoted by Ireson, called Lautrec “a midget, a miniscule being, a gnome, a dwarf à la Ribera, a sort of jester, drunken and vicious, living alongside pimps and prostitutes,” but was quick to point out that these qualities also served him well as “advertising” for his art. For both Jane and Lautrec it was, and still is, hard to distinguish the mental from the physical, the life from the art.

It’s tempting to make these cultural changes seem progressive, even more so when they are historical than when they are biographical. We want history to advance, though an individual life may rise and fall. Jane’s story, like those of Lautrec, Oscar Wilde, the inmates of Salpetrière, and many performers of the Moulin Rouge, did not end particularly happily. She bore an illegitimate child, struggled to earn a living as a dancer, married a fellow artist who eventually abandoned her, and died broke and relatively forgotten in 1943. Her memoirs were written in an effort to earn much needed funds and they organized her life around that pivotal moment at the “mad ball.” But there were other possible turning points: Ireson, who so carefully documents Jane’s life before and after Salpetrière, says Jane “started a new life” when she joined a brothel after leaving her medical student lover.

AvrilJaneTo focus on turning points, to look at the hinge, often relates or juxtaposes two different contexts (such as medical/psychological or mental illness/art). This can add complexity to an otherwise oversimplified representation of a life or a place or an era. As a device, turning points can organize a story sequentially into before and after. Such devices have had their critics: one can easily see how focusing on Charcot or Freud as the “pioneers” of new movements can produce a patriarchal or overly individualistic reading of history. Likewise, even terms like “fin-de-siècle” or “turn-of-the-century” have their own embedded understandings of how we understand time in relation to calendars and countries. For biographers and scholars of popular culture the challenge is how to represent overlapping narratives like Jeanne/Jane’s and how to reveal the turning points within them as consciously chosen, whether by our subjects, other biographers, or ourselves. Turning points create a narrative— so the question becomes whose? Here I’ve tried to create a narrative with more than one turning point and from more than one point of view, but without a single defining moment a narrative may lack cohesion, or a satisfactory resolution. Jane ended her memoirs by rethinking the relationship between dance and madness in her life: “Perhaps [dancing] is one of many forms of what is called madness. If so, for me it was always sweet and comforting. It helped me live and I remain its enchanted slave….” She concludes her life story at a narrative crossroads — of art and madness, body and mind, life and death, poised with the tip of one toe on the ground.

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Victoria Olsen teaches expository writing at New York University. She is the author of a biography of Victorian photographer Julia Margaret Cameron and of other essays for Open Letters Monthly including “Looking for Laura,” on Virginia Woolf’s half-sister Laura Stephen, and “Hot and Cold,” a review of Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby.