Toulouse-Lautrec single-handedly legitimized the nascent poster field with his brilliant first poster, Moulin Rouge: La Goulue in 1891. He would create only 31 posters before his death a decade later at 37, and virtually all of them are highly sought after. One of his early works, this enigmatic poster for a small cabaret in Paris called the Divan Japonais, is a masterpiece by any standard.
As always, Lautrec's treatment of the subject is unorthodox. He focused not on the famous performer, Yvette Guilbert, who appears headless and only recognized through her trademark elbow length black gloves and gaunt figure. Some have thought that Lautrec was playing a joke on his singer friend who had criticized his previous portrait of her, but it is undoubtedly an important compositional and thematic component of the poster as well.
Instead Lautrec focuses on the mysterious interplay of two members of the audience, his close friend and famous can-can dancer Jane Avril, and her friend and art critic Eduoard Dujardin. The two show little interest in the performance, the beguiling Avril appearing slightly aloof, and certainly the locus of a sexual tension that is vigorously accentuated by the oversized heads of the double bass in the orchestra and the cane of Dujardin. The sharply angled composition, so reminiscent of Japanese woodblock prints, intensifies this steamy drama in the cabaret. It also heightens the parallels between the two performers, both motionless, one in the audience and one on stage, who are the center of so much hidden energy in the hall. A tour de force.
This is a stunningly beautiful impression of Lautrec's most complex and clever work, with excellent color and large margins.