“Just look at the heads of his ordinary characters, categorize them, scrutinize them and tell me if this is not indeed an astonishing human menagerie!” – Octave Uzanne, Le Monde Moderne, 1899
Rare signed-and-numbered copy. “For Lautrec the theatre was to be found in the boxes as much as on stage. One of his best known inventions, La Loge au Mascaron Doré (The Box with the Gilded Mask) was a programme for Marcel Luguet’s play Le Missionnaire (The Missionary), which had its première at the Théâtre Libre on 24 April 1894. With its economical use of colour, this is one of Lautrec’s greatest achievements in the field of small scale colour lithography” (Adriani, p. 110).
“Universally considered his most brilliant and successful design” (Wagner, p. 22). The Wine Spectator introduces Toulouse-Lautrec’s world-famous lithograph this way: “Jane Avril on stage doing her specialty, which, according to contemporaries, was essentially a cancan that she made exotic by making a pretense of prudery – the ‘ depraved virgin’ image aimed at arousing the prurience in the predominantly male audience. The sexual innuendo was captured by the artist by contrasting the dancer’s slender legs with the robust, phallic neck of the bass viol in the foreground – a masterly stroke that not only heightens our perception but also creates an unusual perspective: we see the performer as an orchestra member would, and this allows Toulouse-Lautrec to show, as if inadvertently, how tired and somewhat downcast she looks close-up, not at all in keeping with the gaiety of the dance that is perceived by the audience. It is clear, as Maindron has pointed out, that she is dancing entirely for the viewer’s pleasure, not hers, which makes it a highly poignant image. Seemingly without trying, Toulouse-Lautrec not only creates a great poster but makes a personal statement: Only a person who really cares about his subject as a human being would portray her with such startling candor” (Wine Spectator, 41).
Toulouse-Lautrec, like Degas, used many of the techniques and tropes of photography in his art. The photographer Paul Sescau, a friend of Lautrec’s, was the first to photograph Lautrec’s own artistic works. So when Lautrec was invited to create a poster for Sescau’s photographic studio, all kinds of double meanings amd in-jokes were bound to come into play. “The woman’s (possibly Jane Avril) contracted and shrinking attitude, suggesting that she is fleeing from the camera, is an ironic comment probably intended for Sescau, who ‘used his studio mainly for seduction’” (Wagner, p. 26). The phallicly dangling shadowcloth between the photographer’s legs, the phallic projection of the camera itself, and the multitudes of question marks adorning the woman’s dress complete the picture.
A colored programme for the comedy L’Argent (Money) by Émile Fabre is distinctly un-comedic – the gentleman leading the woman out the door, the woman’s eyes narrowed to a slit, both rising from a table with a half-finished glass of wine and lingering caráfe… “Henriot and Arquillière (as Monsieur and Madame Reynard) are only coloured shapes” (Adriani, p. 186). Both show us their formless backs in an image far more reminiscent of a Degas or even an Edvard Munch, and create a beautiful composition out of basic forms in an ascerbic comment of society and manners. “L’addition, s’il vous plait.”
“The Montmartre chansonnier turned restaurateur, Aristide Bruant, was a strong, imposing personality, and in the several posters of him Toulouse-Lautrec conveys this by letting him dominate the picture completely, with virtually nothing else to distract our attention, and with Bruant’s characteristic red scarf, hat and walking stick adding impact to the image … this design was seen by Bruant as a masterpiece, but the manager of the Ambassadeurs rejected it as too brutally frank and unflattering; the only way the performer could get it accepted was by warning the manager that he would not appear on stage unless there was a copy on either side of the proscenium, and unless the whole of Paris was plastered with further copies” (Wine Spectator, 46). The same image would be recycled by Lautrec two years later when Bruant appeared at the Eldorado (see PAI-LV, 517).