El Dorado Music Hall, 1894
Moulin Rouge (from Maitres de l'Affiche) , 1898
Lefevre Utile, 1910
Chat Noir Ce Soir, 1898
Pur Champagne, 1902
Emprunt National Societe Generale, 1918
On ne Passe Pas (They Shall Not Pass!), 1918
Nord Express, 1927
Bellenger. Favor (Girl with Lipstick), 1952
Monsavon, c. 1949
Villemot, Bernard. Perrier, 1977
Vive l'Affiche! The Great French Poster Tradition
It is hard to imagine the cities of the world without posters. Yet it wasn't until the mid 1860s that Jules Cheret developed the color lithography technique which would transform Paris into the "picture gallery of the street." As Charles Hiatt wrote in 1895:
"Paris, without its Cherets, would be without one of its most pronounced characteristics...Cheret's posters greet one joyously as one passes every hoarding, smile at one from the walls of every cafe, arrest one before the windows of every kiosk."
Cheret's theatrical and airy poster style recalled Tiepolo and Watteau, representing a late but highly visible example of the Rococo Revival in France. His charming maidens became so pervasive that the Parisians nicknamed them "Cherettes."
Cheret's innovations led to a law in 1881 which created official posting places, and an entire poster industry was created. Every French poster required a tax stamp to indicate that a fee had been paid for the right to post it. Based on square footage, the tax led to the adoption of standard sizes. Advertisers worked with artists, printers and posting companies to create, post and maintain the French poster on the street.
In 1884, the first French poster exhibition was held in Paris; in 1886 the first book on posters was written; and in 1890 Cheret was immortalized in the first one-man poster show (he created more than 1000 posters).
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The French Poster Craze of the Belle Epoque
The 1890s, known as the Belle Epoque, were the heyday of the French poster. Pierre Bonnard, Edouard Vuillard, and Toulouse-Lautrec all produced highly original masterpieces which transformed the status of the poster. Toulouse-Lautrec's first poster, Moulin Rouge, revealed the graphic influence of Japanese woodblock prints, and created an instant sensation in 1891. (The complete, three-sheet version of this poster in fine condition would sell for more than $500,000 today.)
In 1894, Alphonse Mucha, a Czech working in Paris, created the first masterpiece of Art Nouveau poster design. The flowery, ornate style was born literally overnight when Mucha was pressed to produce a poster for Sarah Bernhardt, the diva who had taken Paris by storm. Bearing the influence of the Pre-Raphaelites, the Arts and Crafts Movement, and Byzantine art, this style was to dominate the Parisian scene for the next ten years and to become the major international decorative art movement up until World War I.
By 1895, the French poster craze was in full bloom. Great artists had legitimized the new commercial art, small literary magazines were publishing images by poster artists and several dealers had arisen to sell extra copies of the best posters. (The pioneering dealer Sagot listed 2200 posters in his sales catalog early in the decade). In 1896 Cheret himself seized on this commercial opportunity by creating the Masters of the Poster series, miniature lithographs of the 240 best posters from around the world. Four were printed each month for five years and delivered to subscribers.
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French Posters - 1900 to World War I
Several developments led to the decline of the French poster craze early in the new century. A first was the abandonment of poster art by Chéret, who turned to painting after 1900. Toulouse-Lautrec died in 1901, having created barely more than 30 posters. Three years later, Mucha left Paris for the United States and then Czechoslovakia. But equally important was the decline of Art Nouveau. Although it would linger on until World War I, much of its creative vitality was spent after years of experimentation and imitation.
The French poster was revived by the arrival of a young Italian, Leonetto Cappiello. His caricature drawings became the favorite of Parisian celebrities, and by 1905 he began to create a more simple and direct poster style than his Art Nouveau predecessors. Cappiello understood that posters must make their point instantly on the busy boulevards, so he focused his message on a single, humorous metaphor to surprise and delight the viewer. This formula, so simple in concept but so difficult in practice, made Cappiello the undisputed master for more than two decades.
At the start of the new century there were other new design directions. The roots of a new international style later dubbed Art Deco would be planted by French fashion illustrators. They were profoundly impacted by the arrival of Diaghilev and the Russian Ballet in Paris, whose performances of Cleopatra in 1909 and Scheherazade in 1910 opened a new world of Near Eastern exoticism. Their impact, along with the avant-garde art of Matisse and the Fauves, Picasso and the Cubists, and even the Italian Futurists working in Paris, would become more apparent after World War I.
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French Posters during World War I
The French poster played a key role in World War I, where it was the most important vehicle for mass communication. The French, like all combatants, used the poster widely to direct the war effort at home, including recruiting, conservation, security, production and finance. The brutality of the war rendered the dreamy and soft Art Nouveau style irrelevant, and most French posters were executed in a direct and simple illustrative manner, easily appreciated by the masses. Some of the best posters were created by Sem and Steinlen.
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French Posters Between the Wars
World War I destroyed the innocent optimism of the new century. Anxiety about the destructive power of modern technology gave rise to the art movements of Dada and Surrealism in the years following World War I. In the graphic arts, Art Nouveau's organic inspiration was replaced by Art Deco's machine aesthetic: often impersonal and sometimes menacing. Power and speed became primary themes. Shapes were simplified and streamlined, and curved letterforms were replaced by sleek, angular ones. Only with the first posters from A.M. Cassandre in 1923 was the reign of Cappiello finally ended. Strongly influenced by the Cubists Leger and Corbusier, Cassandre's posters for the Normandie, Étoile du Nord and Nord Express delighted the public with their aggressive perspective and bold geometry.
The Jazz Age saw an outpouring of innovation in French poster design. Cassandre collaborated with Charles Loupot at the Alliance Graphique, and Paul Colin opened a graphic design school after discovering Josephine Baker and producing the Bal Negre. Art Deco, like Art Nouveau before it, spread quickly to the rest of Europe and America.
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French Posters After World War II
After World War II the French poster declined in importance as radio and other media became dominant. The economics of labor-intensive lithography also became prohibitive, and advertisers switched to offset printing and silkscreening, techniques which could not produce the rich tones and textures of lithography. The proliferation of photography also diminished the quality of most poster designs. Nevertheless, the Art Deco tradition was carried on in France into the 1980's by Bernard Villemot, who created wonderful campaigns for Bally, Air France, Orangina and Perrier.
Villemot was rivaled by Raymond Savignac, a disciple of Cassandre at the Alliance Graphique. Savignac began in the '30s with a clean, intellectual style of Art Deco that reflected his training. In the post-war years his posters turned to humor and whimsy to get their point across, and in quality can be compared to the work of Leupin in Switzerland.
The '60s featured many great protest posters from the Paris student uprisings, and the '70s and '80s saw the rise of Post Modernism, a playful and somewhat chaotic style which continues today. The collective known as Grapus created many fine works in this genre until their dissolution in 1991.
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