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A Brief History of the Poster

A Brief History of the Poster 

The Birth of the Lithographic Poster 

Although lithography was invented in 1798, it was at first too slow and expensive for poster production. Most posters were wood or metal engravings with little color or design.
This all changed with Cheret's "3 stone lithographic process" in the 1880s, a breakthrough which allowed artists to achieve every color in the rainbow with as little as three stones - usually red, yellow and blue - printed in careful registration.

Although the process was difficult, the result was a remarkable intensity of color and texture, with sublime transparencies and nuances impossible in other media (even to this day). The ability to combine word and image in such an attractive and economical format finally allowed the lithographic poster to usher in the modern age of advertising. An extremely gifted artist as well, Cheret created more than 1000 posters over a 30 year career.

Palais de Glace Original Poster by Jules Cheret     Moulin Rouge Original Poster by Jules Cheret     Taverne Olympia Original Poster by Jules Cheret

The Belle Epoque and Art Nouveau

In 1891, Toulouse-Lautrec's extraordinary first poster, Moulin Rouge, elevated the status of the poster to fine art and touched off a poster craze. During the 1890s, called the Belle Epoque in France, poster exhibitions, magazines and dealers proliferated; the pioneering Parisian dealer Sagot listed 2200 different posters in his catalog!

Just three years later, Alphonse Mucha, a Czech working in Paris, created the first masterpiece of Art Nouveau poster design. Bearing multiple influences including the Pre-Raphaelites, the Arts and Crafts Movement, and Byzantine art, this flowering, ornate style became the major international decorative art movement up until World War I.

In each country, the poster was used to celebrate the society's unique cultural institutions. In France, the cafe and cabaret was omnipresent; in Italy the opera and fashion; in Spain the bullfight and festivals; in Germany trade fairs and magazines, in Britain and America literary journals, bicycles and the circus.

Despite cross-pollination, distinctive national styles also became apparent - Dutch posters were marked by restraint and orderliness; Italian posters by their drama and grand scale; German posters for their directness and medievalism.

Moulin Rouge Original Poster by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec     E.A. Mele & Ci - Mode Novita Original Poster by Leopoldo Metlicovitz     Chat Noir Original Poster by Theophile-Alexandre Steinlen 

The New Century and Early Modernism

By 1900, Art Nouveau had lost much of its dynamism through sheer imitation and repetition. The death of Toulouse-Lautrec in 1901 and the abandonment of poster art by Mucha and Cheret (who both turned to painting) left a void that was filled by a young Italian caricaturist named Leonetto Cappiello, who arrived in Paris in 1898.

Strongly influenced by Cheret and Toulouse-Lautrec, Cappiello rejected the fussy detail of Art Nouveau. Instead he focused on creating one simple image, often humorous or bizarre, which would immediately capture the viewer's attention and imagination on a busy boulevard. This ability to create a brand identity established Cappiello as the father of modern advertising. His style would dominate Parisian poster art until Cassandre's first Art Deco poster in 1923. 

Meanwhile, artists working in Scotland's Glasgow School, Austria's Vienna Secession, and Germany's Deutscher Werkbund also were transforming Art Nouveau's organic approach. These schools rejected curvilinear ornamentation in favor of a rectilinear and geometric structure based on functionalism.

A key outgrowth of these modernist efforts was the German Plakatstil, or Poster Style, which was begun in 1905 by Lucian Bernhard in Berlin and in Munich by Ludwig Hohlwein. Minimalized naturalism and emphasis on flat colors and shapes made their work the next step towards creating an abstract, more modern visual language.

Menthe Pastille Original Poster by Leonetto Cappiello     Die Flache Original Brochure by Bertold Loeffler     Direct China Cotton Importers Original Poster by Ludwig Hohlwein

World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution

World War I meant a new role for the poster: propaganda. Indeed, the war ushered in the biggest advertising campaign to date, critical to the wartime communication needs of every combatant: from raising money, recruiting soldiers and boosting volunteer efforts, to spurring production and provoking outrage at enemy atrocities. Utilizing modern Madison Avenue techniques, America alone produced about 2,500 striking poster designs and approximately 20 million posters - nearly 1 for every 4 citizens - in little more than 2 years.

The lessons of brilliant American advertising in WWI posters were not lost on the Bolsheviks, who turned to poster art to help win their civil war against the Whites. Lenin and his followers proved to be the pioneering masters of modern propaganda, and the poster became a weapon of choice throughout the century in both hot and cold wars everywhere.

Join the Air Service and Serve in France Original Poster by Paul J. Verrees     I Want You Original Poster by James Montgomery Flagg     Be On Guard Original Poster by Dimitri Moor 

Between the World Wars: Modernism and Art Deco

After World War I, Art Nouveau's organic inspiration became irrelevant in an increasingly industrial society; the modern art movements Cubism, Futurism, Expressionism and Dada became chief influences.  At the same time, the first graphic design courses were launched in France, Germany and Switzerland, a key moment in the transition from illustration to graphic design in advertising. (Ernst Keller's course at the Design School of Zurich in 1918 would have a long term impact as it included artists who created the International Typographic Style after World War II).

This key shift was quickly felt in the Soviet Union, where Constructivist art arose to help create the new revolutionary, technological society. The Constructivists developed an "agitational" style of poster composition, marked by strong diagonals, photomontage and jarring color. The Constructivists' aggressive stance, as  seen in the work of El Lissitsky, Rodchenko, Klutsis and the Stenberg Brothers, would have a major impact on Western poster design, primarily through the Bauhaus and de Stijl.

By the mid-Twenties, these often disparate modernist approaches would coalesce into a major new international decorative movement called Art Deco. In this machine age style, power and speed became the primary themes. Shapes were simplified and streamlined, and curved letterforms were replaced by sleek, angular ones that would reflect the jazz age. Ever eclectic, strains of Art Deco would also manage to incorporate the exotic arts of Persia, Egypt and Africa. 

The term Art Deco is derived from the "Decorative Arts" Exposition of 1925 in Paris, which proved to be a spectacular showcase for the style. In Paris, the caricature style of Cappiello gave way to the geometric, intellectual images of A.M. Cassandre, who popularized air brush techniques that lent a machine - like surface to his images. His towering posters of the Normandie, Statendam and Atlantique ocean liners became icons of the Industrial Age. Art Deco, like Art Nouveau before it, spread quickly throughout Europe and to the U.S.

Statendam Original Poster by A.M. Cassandre     Death Loop Original Poster by the Stenberg Brothers     Exposition Internationale Arts Decoratifs Original Poster by Charles Loupot 

World War II and the End of Stone Lithography

The poster again played a large communication role in World War II, but this time it shared the spotlight with other media, mainly radio and print. By this time, most posters were printed using the mass production technique of photo offset, which resulted in the familiar dot pattern seen in newspapers and magazines. The use of photography in posters, begun in the Soviet Union in the Twenties, now became as common as illustration. After the war, the poster declined further in most countries as television became an additional competitor.

The last gasp of the lithographic poster occurred in Switzerland, where the government heavily promoted the printing industry and poster excellence. Appealing to the Swiss sense of precision, the Sachplakat, or Object Poster Style, developed in the Twenties but blossomed during WWII and the early Fifties in the Basel area. Its artists delighted in making everyday objects into giant icons, utilizing spectacular Swiss printing to create wonderful trompe l'oeil effects. With roots going back to the Plakatstil of Lucian Bernhard and the Surrealist movement, visual elegance was often matched by gentle humor.

Radio Paillard Original Poster by Peter Birkhauser     Permastyff Original Poster by Peter Birkhauser     Eptinger (Bubbles) Original Poster by Herbert Leupin

You Buy 'Em We'll Fly 'Em! Original Poster by Wilkinson     Keep 'Em Rolling! Original Poster by Leo Lionni     Van je vrienden moet je t'hebben! (With friends like these, who needs enemies!) Original Poster by Artist Unknown 

Post-World War II and Mid-Century Modernism 

Despite the looming tensions of the Cold War, the end of World War II ushered in a baby boom and a new consumer society with the arrival of television, jet travel and global brands fueling the way. 

Advertising methods shifted to adapt to the times. A veritable "poster boom" occurred in the early 1950s, driving forward two distinct styles, one consumer and one corporate. The first, which we have labeled the '50s Style, was brightly colored and whimsical, while the second, called the International Typographic Style, was more rational and orderly.

Posters done in the '50s Style used vivid colors and playful motifs to appeal to a broad audience. Artists like Herbert Leupin and Donald Brun in Switzerland, Paul Rand in the US, and Raymond Savignac in France exemplify the style's lighthearted qualities. The '50s Style was applied to consumer services as well as products. Ever present were marvelous airline campaigns by David Klein, Stan Galli and others which sought to attract travelers to destinations like Disneyland, New York, Las Vegas, and Paris.

The International Typographic Style, or Swiss Style, was also perfectly suited to the increasingly globally connected world.  Highly structured, systematic designs granted order and clarity to everything from highways and airports to product instruction manuals.

Influenced by the Bauhaus and Tshichhold's New Typography, this style developed in Switzerland in the late '50s and '60s. It employed basic typographic elements with strict graphic rules and often replaced illustration with stark, "modern" photography. The concert posters of Josef Muller-Brockmann represent the classical apotheosis of this style - cool, elegant and systematically abstract. On the same level was Erik Nitsche's "Atoms for Peace" series of spectacular posters for the first International Conference on the Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy.

New York Fly TWA (jet) Original Poster by David Klein     Favor Original Poster by Pierre Bellenger     Acqua- Eptinger Minerale Original Poster by Herbert Leupin

Jacobsen / Poliakoff - Kunsthalle Basel Original Poster by Armin Hofmann     Der Film Original Poster by Josef Muller-Brockmann     General Dynamics - Atoms for Peace Original Poster by Erik Nitsche 

The Sixties and the Art of Rebellion

The orderliness of the Fifties would yield to a more chaotic and revolutionary tenor by the mid-Sixties. A new illustration style, one which borrowed freely from Surrealism, Pop Art and Expressionism, was more relaxed and intuitive and the first wave of a Post-Modernist sensibility. A famous example was Milton Glaser's 1967 Bob Dylan record album insert. Glaser crystallized the musician's countercultural message by portraying his long hair as a rainbow of richly flowing waves. Glaser's Push Pin Studio was matched in creativity by a dynamic school of poster art in Poland from the '50s through the '80s. The Polish School became known for a sardonic and gut wrenching variety of Surrealism in promoting the State-controlled theatre and cultural organizations.

The excesses of the drug culture and political alienation led to a brief but spectacular Psychedelic Poster craze in the U.S., which recalled the floral excesses of Art Nouveau, the pulsating afterimages of Op-Art, and the bizarre juxtapositions of Surrealism. And the French May Day protests generated a school of propaganda poster that harked back to the Soviet poster and cartoon art.

Jefferson Airplane at the Fillmore Auditorium Original Poster by Wes Wilson     Dylan Original Poster by Milton Glaser     Notre Lutte Continue Original Poster by Atelier Populaire       

The Seventies and Eighties - Post Modernism

The International Style spread beyond Switzerland rapidly and became the leading graphic design style worldwide in the Seventies. By the early Eighties, the style began to give way to the Post Modernists, who sought to break the formal and dogmatic rules of the Swiss Style. A young teacher in Basel named Wolfgang Weingart led the palace revolt which ushered in today's predominant graphic style loosely known as Post Modern design. Weingart experimented with the offset printing process to produce posters that appeared complex and chaotic, playful and spontaneous - all in stark contrast to his elders' teachings. Weingart's liberation of typography was an important foundation for several new styles, from Memphis and Retro, to the advances now being made in computer graphics.

Klubschule Migros Ecole Original Poster by Rosemarie Tissi     Sam Rivers Quartet Original Poster by Niklaus Troxler     Das Schweizer Plakat Original Poster by Wolfgang Weingart 

The Poster Today

The role and appearance of the poster has changed continuously over the past century to meet the changing needs of society. Although its role is less central than it was 100 years ago, the poster will evolve further as the computer and the worldwide web revolutionize the way we communicate in the 21st century. 

The Diva is Dismissed Original Poster by Paula Scher     Universal Original Poster by Cornel Windlin     Paul Newman - Filmpodium Original Poster by Ralph Schraivogel

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