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Jack Rennert
From the Print Edition:
Groucho Marx, Spring 93

(continued from page 1)

When you enter the world of posters, it matters little how much you know about art; the cast of characters is quite different, anyway. True, there are a few acknowledged world-class painters who have drifted occasionally into the realm of commercial graphic design; you might run across names like Picasso, Cocteau, Miro, Van Dongen, Kokoschka or Warhol, bur often it was not their most representative or important work.

One notable exception is the great Toulouse-Lautrec, who fearlessly crossed the line between fine art and commercial lithography, previously considered by many an unbreachable barrier, and scored equally well on both sides. In fact, his posters are regarded as the apotheosis of poster design, and priced higher than those of any other artist. His "Moulin Rouge" holds the record for the highest price ever paid for a poster at auction. At a sale held by PAI in New York in 1990, the poster sold for $220,000. But even Toulouse Lautrec created only some 30 posters--compared with hundreds of paintings, drawings and lithographs.

For the most part, however, the artists who created the best posters, and the most numerous, spent their whole careers in applied arts. The big names among poster aficionados are virtually unknown among other types of art lovers: names like Mucha, Steinlen, Pal, Cassandre, Colin, Cappiello in France; Baumberger and Cardinaux in Switzerland; Dudovich and Metlicovitz in Italy; Hohlwein, Erdt, and Schnackenberg in Germany; Beardsley and Hardy in Britain; Penfield, Bradley and Leyendecker in the United States.

These artists were graphic designers first and foremost; some did it because it was easier to make a living that way than to gamble on acceptance by a fickle public. Some, like Cassandre, actually began as fine artists but realized that poster art was more democratic and instead of being seen by a few thousand people at art museums, could be viewed by millions daily on busy street corners.

Until the mid-1800s, the only printed matter found on walls, fences, bulletin boards and kiosks of great cities were letterpress or wood block announcements, official notices and, occasionally, messages from merchants, theatrical troupes, etc. In the United States, some of these announcements began to acquire a little color when the country was finally settled from coast to coast, during the era of the traveling minstrel. Later, vaudeville shows began, culminating with the great circuses that competed for the public's attention. Early American show posters are without a doubt the best in the world--and America's sole, unique contribution to poster art--but there is nary a signature on any of them. It's the printers who got what credit there was: Strobridge in Cincinnati, Thomas & Wyle in New York, Calhoun in Hartford, and Morgan in Cleveland.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the situation was entirely different. From the start, poster designers signed their work just like any other artists, and they received well-deserved credit. France gave the world the man who lifted posters from their humble status and called attention to them as artwork: Jules Chéret. As a printer's apprentice, Chéret noticed the drabness of printed public notices. He submitted a daringly innovative design to a major celebrity of his day, composer Jacques Offenbach, knowing that if such an exalted personality would approve the poster for his latest operetta, the public would go along. The composer was flattered and had the poster printed. From then on, there was no stopping Chéret. In a short time, he became the best known posterist in Paris. His airy posters with flimsily clad damsels frolicking merrily through all sorts of commercial messages brightened every corner of the city.

Others got into the act. The biggest boost came in 1891 from the incomparable Toulouse-Lautrec, who provided a new direction in perfect counterpoint to Chéret's frothy conceits with his mordant, often downright cynical, approach. Next on the scene was Alphonse Mucha, with his 1895 poster of the best known actress of the day, Sarah Bernhardt. Where Chéret stood for carefree gaiety and Toulouse-Lautrec for satirical bite, Mucha introduced pious reverence. His approach led to posters in the highly decorative style which became known as Art Nouveau. It was the first distinctive art style to become popularized mostly via applied arts.

With so much beauty staring at them from every wall, people responded predictably. The mid-1890s became an era of a shortlived but very intense poster craze (affichomanie was the term coined for it in France). Within the space of a very few months, several books appeared on posters; poster magazines sprang up in major cities throughout the world; art galleries started displaying posters, and print dealers sold them. Poster exhibitions were everywhere--the biggest one, arranged by a private collector in Reims in 1896, had well over 1,600 items on view.

The demand for posters became so acute that printers routinely set aside a portion of the press run, sometimes without advertising copy, so that dealers could sell the posters as art for the home. As the next logical step, some of the most popular artists were asked to create designs that were meant as art for the home to begin with--the so-called "decorative panels," often coming in matched sets of two or four. To complete the circle, the advertisers then demanded that these designs be made available to them, and published them with their sales copy as posters!

But as quickly as it came, the poster craze ran its course. By 1900, most of the magazines had folded, print dealers stopped stocking posters, and the public largely stopped bribing bill-posters to get their valuable cargo. Great posters were still created, but as an art form collectible posters slumbered until their recent revival.

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