Edited by Jürgen Döring and Tulga Beyerle

Prestel. 383 pages. £45. ISBN 978-3-7913-5985-4

Reviewed by Jim Burns

On my wall, near where I’m writing this review, is a large calendar. As with so many of its kind these days the monthly illustrations are set around a specific theme, in this case Art Nouveau Posters. They’re colourful and attractive, and conjure up the period when they were first displayed to draw attention to a particular product (cigarette papers, corsets), or a personality (LoÏe Fuller, Germaine Gallois) from the Parisian theatre world. There is also one, by the American designer Edward Penfield, for the cover of a Poster Calendar for 1897.

The fact that a calendar featuring posters had commercial potential by that date is indicative of how popular posters were. In Paris they had already become collectors’ items. Shops were established to sell them, exhibitions were held to display their variety and invention. And there were stories of people prowling the streets at night to strip posters from walls almost as soon as they were put up. Posters perhaps hadn’t achieved status as an art form, even if some practitioners of the fine arts were involved in preparing them for advertising purposes. Toulouse-Lautrec is an obvious candidate with so many splendid examples, including his classic poster-portrait of Aristide Bruant. The cultural establishment remained aloof about them. They were often looked on as “the poor man’s art” due to their being viewed outside galleries by people who had little or no money to purchase a painting. It didn’t cost anything to stand and stare at them in the streets. And if a poster or two could be obtained for little or no expense, they could be used for decoration in the home. I have a couple on my walls.

The original point of posters was to provide information. In their simplest form they notified the public of forthcoming events and new rules and regulations. They might be better described as notices. Some were meant to promote a product. There is an illustration of a lithograph from 1842 which showed the uses and effects of Martin’s Beer. It’s an early example of poster advertising and is noticeably limited in terms of colour. It was only later that techniques developed sufficiently for lithographs to be produced in a variety of colours. A scene of people clustered around an advertising column in Berlin in 1855 appears to suggest that most of the items displayed employed words rather than picture to impart their messages, whatever they were.

As lithographic techniques advanced and the quality of production, particularly in the application of colour, improved, so did the uses of posters. The Paris of the 1890s became noted for them. The term Art Nouveau was associated with the style, and Alphonse Mucha with its typical idealised female figures – “the personification of lithography” -  and the “elaborate decorative circular” designs that marked so many of his paintings. Those designs, which sometimes seemed to be like a halo, may have been lampooned by Alexandre Steinlen in his memorable 1896 poster for the Cabaret Chat Noir. Steinlen favoured cats and his charming 1894 poster advertising sterilised milk showed a little girl sipping it from a bowl while three cats cluster around and look appealingly at her. Steinlen wasn’t touched by the Art Nouveau fashion as much as some other artists, and his 1900 poster advertising the socialist magazine, Le Petit Sou, while eye-catching has little decoration about it. It’s a harsh, near-realistic scene of social protest.

That term “eye catching” is precisely what posters, at least those primarily designed for public display, were meant to be. According to Leonetto Cappiello, “a poster should be a dab of colour on a wall that captivates passers-by already from a distance”. His 1912 “I smoke only Le Nil”, which has a rampaging elephant seemingly trumpeting “its preference for a certain cigarette paper” immediately fulfils that requirement. A later poster practitioner, A.M. Cassandre, active in the 1920s and 1930s, and regarded “as the most important poster artist of the 20th century, stated that “Unlike a painting, a poster tends towards a collective, applied art, and strives to eradicate individual peculiarities, along with the traits of the artist, in particular his handwriting. A poster is a mass-produced product designed to fulfil material needs and commercial functions”. What appears to be a disclaimer in both  Capiello’s and Cassandre’s statements about their status, or otherwise, as artists, might be viewed as contrasting with earlier poster painters like Mucha, Toulouse-Lautrec, and the great Jules Chéret,  who would certainly have thought of themselves as fulfilling the role of an artist. And what of Bonnard, who did some poster work? How much did he distinguish it from his gallery paintings? Did he think of himself as less than an artist when designing a poster?

Not all posters were destined to be of use as advertisements for commercial products. The First World War employed them for recruitment purposes, as with the famous James Montgomery Flagg one of a forceful Uncle Sam pointing a finger and a large I WANT YOU FOR U.S. ARMY emphasising that it was part of a patriotic drive in 1917. America had joined the Allies confronting Germany and its supporters. The major combatants all used posters for propaganda, with, it seems, the British and French often focusing on the alleged brutality of the Germans.

Propaganda became a major theme in poster production. The Nazis used it to demonise both Bolsheviks and Jews in the 1930s, with startling images of grotesque Red Army men looming over terrified German women, and warped-looking Jews leering at viewers. The inference seemed be that Bolsheviks were often Jews and Jews often Bolsheviks. There was a similar use of stereotypical figures on some Republican posters from the Spanish Civil War. The workers, and the fighters from the International Brigades, were shown as sturdy and heroic, Franco’s forces as much less so.

That was one side of the poster art of the 1930s, and another was the promotion of travel. Trains, planes, ships, and cars were favourite motifs. all implying speed and the pleasures of relaxing in far-flung places. A 1935 poster by Cassandre placed the liner Normandie in the centre of the layout, with its bow appearing to loom over the viewer. Information relating to the owners of the ship and the route it takes is located below the bow so that the eye travels down to it. A relatively simple but effective advertisement. Roger Perot’s 1933 poster for Delaheye has a fast-moving car hurtling towards us, and Cassandre’s Nord Express focuses on the forward movement of a sleek train.

There are not many posters advocating air travel, probably because it was a luxury in the 1930s and largely limited to the well-off. Nor is there a lot about the encouragement from posters to travel by train within one’s own country. But it’s unfair to pinpoint limitations, because no one book can take in all aspects of posters. Still, the interested reader might like to look elsewhere for some of the posters for various rail companies operating service in the 1930s to English resorts in Cornwall and along the South Coast. I recall an exhibition of them at the Dulwich Gallery in London some years ago. They were sometimes by painters practising in the fine arts, and who found it useful to earn a little money from commercial work. It’s of value to contemplate the relationship of posters to fine art works.  A painting like Stanhope Forbes’s On Paul Hill, which hangs in the Penlee Gallery in Penzance, might not look any different if it was used as a rail poster advocating a visit to the location concerned. Would the addition of a few words impose a different meaning on the painting and distract from its consideration as a work of art?

One of the things that struck me as I looked at the dozens of illustrations was that sometimes simplicity worked best. This is not to imply that the colourful, more detailed posters were less than interesting. I’m a great admirer of Mucha and others like him. But it is occasionally evident that a good effect has been achieved with a minimum of fuss. Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s 1895 poster for the Glasgow Institute of Fine Arts might be seen as within the Art Nouveau framework, but its lines are relatively straightforward, its colours simplified, and the overall design tidy. Charles Loupot reduces the layout of the 1929 Le Cafè Martin advertisement to a single cup of coffee against a creamy background with the café title and address beneath it. Herbert Leupin’s 1953 Coca-Cola layout is based on the spidery outlines of a chair, music stand, and trumpet, with a realistic-looking bottle and the slogan, “Pause: Drink Coca-Cola”. It works well, and seems very much of its period, with the musical link, and especially the trumpet, possibly pointing towards the cool sounds of jazz that were popular at the time. David Stone Martin, who did the art work for numerous jazz albums of the 1950s, sometimes used the bare-outline style of illustration, though his work was varied and he would easily move into other areas to suit the nature of the music or performer concerned. 

Art Deco dominated a lot of 1920s poster design, and we’re told, “was much more widespread and commercially successful than avant-garde graphic design”.  Although it’s sometimes difficult to determine where Art Deco separates itself from avant-garde work, it may be that commercial outlets, as opposed to artistic ones, preferred a less aggressive format for advertising their products. But it’s not easy to know just where to draw a line, if one needs to be drawn, between different groups or movements. They easily spill over into each other, and it seems obvious to me that individual artists would call on various styles to produce a successful poster.

Advertising has never been slow to take inspiration from whatever source it finds useful. The reverse might well be true, with artists using aspects of commercial art to finalise fine art productions. Look at Andy Warhol’s work, for example, where everyday products are displayed in a manner not much different from how they appear in a supermarket. Or there is Roy Lichtenstein, famous for items like “Crying Girl”, an announcement for an exhibition at the Leo Castelli Gallery in 1963 when Pop Art was riding high on the cultural scene, and the inspiration came from comic books and magazines.

I’m inclined at this point to raise the question of what might be called direct appropriation of a work  for advertising purposes. A classic example might be “Bubbles”, a painting by Sir John Everett Millais which, when exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1886 had the title, “A Child’s World”, and pictured a small boy blowing bubbles. It eventually came into the possession of someone connected to the Pear’s Soap Company who had the bright notion of using the painting to advertise its product. A similar idea was used when George Dunlap Leslie’s “This is the way we wash the clothes”, another Royal Academy painting, was slightly adjusted to advertise Sunlight Soap. Millais’ reputation suffered because of the way his work was tied in with the world of commerce. But, again, did the placing of a few words on each canvas immediately invalidate the paintings as works of art?  

There was something of a return to Art Nouveau on the West Coast of the USA in the 1960s and this, with the sort of Psychedelic Art that could be found wherever the so-called “underground” was in evidence, seemed to be symptomatic of the era of hippies, drugs, rock music, and general hedonism. But if the “Summer of Love” was supposed to sum up the atmosphere of the period it wasn’t always that way. The 1960s were years of protest, and posters were produced to represent it. The events of May 1968 in Paris saw the streets sprouting them in a chaotic way, with often seemingly simple messages such as “Be young and shut up”, and a large shadow of De Gaulle holding a hand over a young man’s mouth. Opinions might vary as to how much of a challenge to authority 1968 in Paris really was, but there’s no denying the seriousness of the situation in Vietnam. An offset print of a photo of the bodies of men, women, and children slaughtered by American soldiers bore the words: “Question: “And babies? Answer: And babies”.  It made a shocking 1970 poster which can still disturb the viewer. And 1968 saw Russian tanks rumbling into Prague, and quickly-formulated posters protesting against the invasion appeared in the streets.

Posters behind the Iron Curtain were, on the whole, not likely to challenge the role of the Communist Party. Examples of Russian posters from the time of the Revolution and the establishment of the Soviet state, demonstrated that they could be used to good advantage to attack the enemy, and to urge workers to throw their weight behind drives to increase productivity. What I do find particularly interesting about posters from Iron Curtain countries are those that came from Poland. They are well-represented, and their inventiveness is striking. They were not political, nor necessarily designed for propaganda purposes. A Poster School had been established in Warsaw in the 1950s and “a lively, narrative poster scene developed, in which the personal style of individual poster artists played a decisive role”. It’s pointed out that posters were often produced for sale, rather than for practical use in advertising.

The digital revolution affected the design and production of posters: “Designers were fascinated by the possibilities of digital image editing at an early stage”. April Greiman seized on the opportunities to create posters for institutes and conferences that could feature “more extensive amounts of texts, and sometimes entire conference programmes and timetables”. There are both advantages and disadvantages with digitalisation: “Compositions are becoming more detailed; there has been an increase in collage-like designs, and there is a mix of different techniques such as illustrations, photographs, cartoons, and handwriting….....Image ideas travel round the world at the speed of light, and so national styles are increasingly losing their identity…….designers are no longer able to maintain control over their designs…….Large marketing companies and agencies have long since taken over the marketing of consumer goods or even political parties…….Individual design has been pushed back into the cultural sector, if it has not withdrawn completely into exhibitions or competitions”.

It’s relevant to note that later examples of posters sometimes do not have an individual artist’s name attached to them but rather the name of an agency. If a name does occur, it’s that of an “art director” who presumably presides over a team of designers busy at their computers. It seems a long way from Mucha and Toulouse-Lautrec and dozens of others who across the years laboured to finish posters that could combine a commercial message with some artistic invention. Is what those working in the digital world do any different? A poster from the Wieden & Kennedy Agency advertising New York City basketball seems to me to have genuine imaginative qualities. I suspect there are still plenty of people who will question whether art produced for commercial purposes can ever be compared to that which is defined as fine art. But it could be that, as much fine art has moved into abstraction, conceptual art, and related fields, the general public has drifted away from the galleries and, if they need art in their lives, might prefer to find it in in the posters they see in the streets and shops, and the advertisements on TV and at the cinema.

There is so much to absorb in The Poster, and I’m conscious of having only referred to a small selection of the work emanating from the story of the historical development of posters, and the techniques that made them possible. I should add that there are some useful explanations of those techniques. And I was constantly coming across stand-out items like Saul Bass’s poster design for the film, The Man with the Golden Arm, an image that has stayed in my mind since I first saw it in the 1950s. Superbly illustrated, and with accompanying texts that are notable for their clarity, The Poster is a wonderful guide to an art form that has its own intentions and achievements.

Published in conjunction with the exhibition The Poster: 200 Years of Art and History, held at the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe, Hamburg, 28th February to 20th September, 2020.