Capturing “Le Mélinite”


Jane Avril at the Jardin de Paris, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, 1893

From The Smart Set:

In May of 1894, a young anarchist named Emile Henry travelled from his small apartment in Montmartre to the fashionable boulevards near the Gare Saint-Lazare in Paris. Unemployed and angry, he entered the elegant Café Terminus with a bomb under his coat. Inside, he lit the fuse and threw the explosive into the middle of the café. It blasted through the conversations and drinks of the patrons, killing one and severely injuring nearly two dozen others. While Belle Époque Paris had experienced a number of anarchists’ bombings, this attack was unprecedented, as it targeted civilians and not the police or government officials. Henry was wrestled to the ground, quickly tried, and sentenced to the guillotine. According to historian Mary McAuliffe, author of Dawn of the Belle Époque, Henry was unapologetic about the bombing. When the judge reprimanded him for harming innocent people, Henry retorted, “There are no innocent bourgeois.”

There was another explosion in France that spring. It came in the form of dancer Jane Avril, whose nickname “Le Mélinite” (after a form of dynamite) was less about anarchism and more about the energetic and unique dancing the unfashionably thin Avril performed at the Moulin Rouge. The small but well-curated show “Toulouse-Lautrec and Jane Avril: Beyond the Moulin Rouge” at London’s Courtauld Gallery offers a new window on our often romanticized view of the Belle Époque and the iconic Moulin Rouge. While the red-headed Avril may conjure images of Nicole Kidman from the 2001 film Moulin Rouge, the similarities are slim. This Moulin Rouge is not about romance, but about the survival of an artist and dancer amidst the spectacle of bourgeois entertainment.

The show presents us first with Toulouse-Lautrec’s images of Avril in both painting and posters, revealing a public and private display of the dancer. The two met in the early 1890s when Avril was one of the new dancers at the Moulin Rouge. Part dance hall, part circus, the Montmartre venue with the fake red windmill featured the risqué stage performances of girls in tightly bodiced dresses and thickly draped skirts that would be hiked up in the energetic dances for patrons’ pleasures. It also hosted donkey races, acrobatic performances, exotic Turkish dancers, and Middle Eastern music. In the rear garden, a three-story replica of an elephant hosted dances inside its hollowed belly.

Jane Avril Dancing, Henri de Toulouse Lautrec, 1892

“Tiny Dancer”, James Polchin, The Smart Set