L’AFFICHOMANIA : THE PASSION FOR FRENCH POSTERS
By Jeannine Falino
Reviewed by Jim Burns
I recently saw an exhibition of Alphonse Mucha’s work at the
There were other producers of posters, and several of them are
alongside Mucha and Lautrec in this handsome book that accompanies
an exhibition at the
Jeannine Falino, its curator, says that the “Golden Age” of French poster art was during the period from the 1880s through to the late-1890s. There were some practical reasons for this. In 1881 a law was passed which opened up the freedom of the Press, including the unlimited production of posters, prints, etc. Around the same time, Jules Chéret had made advances in the use of colour lithography. The result was that “colour-printed posters were exhibited in that most public of galleries – the street – where they began to blur the boundaries between fine and popular art”. Someone described them as “frescoes, if not of the poor, at least of the crowd”.
It’s interesting to note that, almost from their first appearances, the posters were collected. There had been posters before, of course, but they were mostly in basic colours and simply stated the appropriate information they were designed to disseminate. With Chéret’s posters, and those of his contemporaries like Mucha, Eugène Grasset, Theodore Steinlen, and Lautrec, the artistic value of them was immediately recognised. There are stories of them being stripped from the walls and hoardings almost as soon as they were posted there. Special kiosks were built to display them. Dealers began to sell posters, catalogues were printed, and there were exhibitions of poster art.
There are a couple of illustrations which point to the profusion of
posters in the
Chéret has been described as the “king of the poster,” and the writer J.K. Huysmans is said to have “preferred his originality and energy to the stifling and unimaginative academic painting of the state-sponsored Salon of the Society of French Artists”. He had been trained as a lithographer and was skilled at the use of colour techniques. As for influences, he referred back to painters such as Watteau and Fragonard, with their “idealised qualities of pleasure, leisure, and reverie”. The attractive and always-happy young women portrayed on Chéret’s posters became popularly known as chérettes. And he “strove to integrate subject and text”, which according to Jeannine Falino, “was an improvement on traditional poster design where text was not visually connected to the image”.
Eugène Grasset, from the examples of his posters, was nowhere near as flamboyant as Chéret, and appears to have been influenced by the English arts and craft movement. His women are appealing, but seem more-mature than Chéret’s, and there are no displays of bare shoulders and plunging necklines. One poster, advertising bicycles, offers only a hint of the actual machine and it’s the woman holding the handlebar who essentially attracts attention. This might be seen as using sex to sell a product, but it doesn’t really come across in that way. She is too demure. The accompanying note refers to her as “smartly dressed and self possessed”, and I was put in mind of the contrast afforded by a poster, also advertising bicycles, in the aforementioned Liverpool exhibition, where the curves of the handlebar might have some relationship to the curve of the cleavage seen because of the low-cut dress the woman is wearing.
I have to admit to a personal prejudice in favour of
Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen, perhaps because he loved cats, but
also because of his links to bohemian
A more-direct social comment was made in Steinlen’s advertisement for the novel, La Traite Des Blanche (The White Slave Trade), which shows a self-satisfied pimp with three prostitutes, one of whom has collapsed crying, another who appears to be howling in misery, and a third who might have accepted her fate. This third figure had bare breasts in Steinlen’s original design, but the censor intervened and the published version shows her covered up.
One of Steinlen’s most-famous posters advertised Le Chat Noir, the “bohemian outpost for the avant-garde”. It’s suggested that he used this illustration to also poke fun at Mucha’s “penchant for placing haloes around the heads of his female subjects”, the large black cat in Steinlen’s image having what appears to be one around its head. Like Mucha and Grasset, he also helped publicise bicycles, and for his poster introduced some humour, with the lady riding her machine into a gaggle of startled geese.
The swirling long locks of hair so characteristic of many of Mucha’s
women, as seen on his posters, are what may persuade people to
almost-immediately identify his work, and relate it to their ideas
In 1894, La Plume, a Parisian literary magazine, started The Salon des Cent, an annual exhibition that continued until 1900 and was meant to show the work of one hundred poster artists. Mucha did the poster for the 1897 exhibition, with a somewhat pensive-looking lady holding what she is working on and peering at the viewer. The reference to the number of artists producing posters give an indication of how widespread their use was. Not all of the artists were necessarily active all of the time in poster production. In a book I recently found in a second-hand bookshop, Paris 1900: The Art of the Poster by Herman Schardt (Bracken Books, London, 1987), there were examples of posters by Pierre Bonnard, Maurice Denis, and the Spanish painter, Ramon Casas, but none of these artists went beyond creating a handful of examples of the genre. Another bookshop-find was Alain Weill’s large The Art Nouveau Poster (Francis Lincoln Ltd., London, 2015), which gives Paris a central place in its survey, but goes outside it to take in Austria, Great Britain, the United States, and other countries.
One of Henri Toulouse-Lautrec’s classic images is his striking
poster of Aristide Bruant, a singer of “realist songs,” who “gave
eloquent voice to the downtrodden who were living on the margins of
city life”. He hurled insults at the well-to-do people who slummed
But Lautrec specialised in posters which portrayed entertainers like
May Milton (an English performer with a limited range who quickly
disappeared from sight), La Goulue, and Jane Avril, a particular
favourite of his. There was an excellent exhibition,
Toulouse-Lautrec and Jane
Avril: Beyond the Moulin Rouge, at the Courtauld Gallery,
Jane Avril was herself interested in posters for their own sake, and
not just because they advertised her performances. One of Lautrec’s
illustrations shows her at the printer’s shop, examining a poster,
while the man works at his machine in the background. Lautrec could,
of course, come up with a darker picture of life in Montmartre, when
he showed what life was like in the brothels he frequented, but
those illustrations were never likely to appear on public posters
Posters didn’t suddenly disappear after 1900 or so, but they began to decline in importance as new technologies and popular interests (the cinema was starting to attract attention) came into play,, and the relevance and importance of posters began to diminish. Artists moved on to different things. Mucha, always a Czech patriot, was increasingly involved with producing work “aimed at elevating awareness and admiration for Slavic culture”. Grasset devoted his time to teaching. Chéret concentrated on murals. And Lautrec had died.
is a beautifully-produced and fascinating book that works in its own
right to provide a picture of aspects of
These are questions for a social historian, and shouldn’t be allowed to distract from an appreciation of the skills of the artists concerned, and the sheer attractiveness of what they produced.