By Jeannine Falino

Richard H. Driehaus Museum (distributed by The University of Chicago Press). 127 pages. $32.50. ISBN 978-0-578-16802-9

Reviewed by Jim Burns

I recently saw an exhibition of Alphonse Mucha’s work at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool, England, and admired his skill at combining commercial requirements with artistic accomplishments. In their way, Mucha’s posters are possibly the most representative in terms of being identified with Paris of a certain period in the minds of many people. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec probably demands attention when it comes to Montmartre and the bohemian world of the Moulin Rouge and its performers, but Mucha commanded the fashionable scene with his famous posters for Sarah Bernhardt, and those concerned to advertise cigarettes, drinks, and other commodities.

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 Richard H. Driehaus Museum in Chicago  (February 11,2017 to January 7, 2018). Driehaus, a businessman and philanthropist, is an avid collector of posters and has built up a fine collection which provides the basis for the exhibition.

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 Paris of the period in question. A painting by Jean Béraud simply entitled The Kiosk shows a smartly-dressed woman looking at posters on a kiosk while a well turned-out man is likewise peering at them. The other painting, Posters on a Wall and a Man mending Metal Pots by Louis-Robert Carrier-Belleuse, has a bourgeois couple inspecting posters on a wall, some of which are peeling away. There may be some implied social commentary in this painting. Not everyone welcomed the idea of posters being displayed everywhere and they probably did become tattered and torn and unsightly. It may also be correct to assert that showing the working-class man busy at his job, while the couple have time to indulge in checking on what the posters are advertising, indicates that they were essentially there to sell things that the low-paid couldn’t afford. But perhaps I’m reading too much into the painting?

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 Montmartre and its radical inclinations. The Montmartre Museum in Paris has examples of his work, and some years ago, visiting an exhibition in Giverny, I made a short detour to Vernon to look at several paintings by American Impressionists, and to my delight found that the gallery there was also showing a Steinlen exhibition. He was clearly more politically aware than the others, and had a “more compassionate realistic style”. There is a Steinlen poster, La Rue, done to advertise the work of a printer, which shows a cross-section of Parisian society, ranging from workers to obviously-affluent bourgeoisie. It isn’t overtly political, but the placing of the different characters might indicate some sort of confrontational situation, albeit not a violent one.

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 about Paris around 1900. Described as “One of Mucha’s best-known images, the Job poster is a beloved symbol of art nouveau”. Job was a brand of cigarette paper, and the inference was that smoking was a “sensual experience”.  It’s interesting that the one woman in the book who actually designed posters as opposed to being shown on them, was Jane Arché, whose Hors Concours also used a sophisticated woman to highlight the pleasures of smoking and the quality of Job cigarette papers.

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 it in Montmartre, and they, no doubt, lapped it up, knowing full well that their lives and property would be protected by the police, and the army, if necessary. It wasn’t all that many years since the Commune had been savagely repressed and thousands of working-class men and women shot.

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, London,in 2011  There is an amusing difference to be noted between Lautrec’s version of Yvette Guilbert and the way she is shown on a poster by Chéret. In the latter she is slender, graceful, and quite pretty, but Lautrec didn’t see her that way. There is a story that she once said to him,” For the love of heaven, don’t make me so appallingly ugly! Just a little less so!”.

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 around Paris.

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.

L’Affichomania is a beautifully-produced and fascinating book that works in its own right to provide a picture of aspects of Paris during the Belle Époque. It isn’t the whole picture, of course, and some might argue that the posters largely appealed to the affluent or the bohemians, and that the working-class population of Paris, certain individuals apart, probably took little notice of them from an artistic point of view, and could only dream about most of  what they publicised or promoted. I’m not sure about this, and it would be useful to have some information about where the posters were placed. Advertising of any kind is usually aimed at people who can afford to purchase the products on offer.

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.