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Poster Art

Updated on January 29, 2011

A poster is a painted or printed sign or placard, most frequently of large dimensions, posted in a public place, a thoroughfare, a shopwindow, or along highways and railways. Its purpose is to sell a product, to announce an event, or to promote an idea or a service.

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History of Poster Art

Posters have been known to man since the days of ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome. Written on papyrus, engraved on tablets of bronze, on slabs or pillars of stone, painted on walls or on panels of wood, signs were posted in public places to convey information.

An Egyptian papyrus produced in 146 B.C. contains a detailed description of two slaves escaped from Alexandria and the promise of a reward for anyone who reported their whereabouts.

In ancient Greece posters were written on walls, painted white for this purpose, or on slabs of wood which had received a special preparation. These poster panels were put up vertically, joined at the edges, to form a square column. An inside mechanism gave the constructions, called axones, a slow and regular rotation and the reader could, without changing position, view the four faces. For the public games the axones listed the order of the contests and also the names of the competing athletes.

In Pompeii, especially erected and richly decorated walls, painted white and known as albums, carried inscriptions and announcements of public interest such as "The troupe of gladiators of Aulus Suettus Gerius will fight in Pompeii the last day of May." Theater and entertainment had a privileged place on the poster albums of ancient Rome. Not only did the name of a famous actor appear in very large letters, but a painted scene from the play would also show him to his best advantage. A certain Callades excelled in this kind of art. Anybody who attempted to destroy or to damage these posters incurred extremely severe punishment.

The poster made its reappearance, in various styles, only centuries later. Handwritten bills and placards were used by merchants to advertise their goods. Trade and shop signs, painted on both sides, were hung up, protruding into the street, to indicate the merchant's place of business. When these signs had become so numerous as to endanger pedestrians on the narrow streets and the shopkeepers and artisans were compelled by law to attach their signs flat against the wall, the poster had made its comeback.

In France, a royal proclamation, issued in 1539, officially restored the use of posters. It was addressed to the police of the city of Paris and ordered that all decrees be written on parchment, in large letters, and attached to panels posted in public places. But the invention of printing by Johann Gutenberg, around 1450, by increasing the number of those who could read, had created freedom of thought, and had soon been recognized as a potent means of propagating ideas. Measures of repression were adopted against the growing number of clandestine posters, which often were directed against the royal authorities, and in 1633 the posting of bills and announcements without permission was forbidden. Again, as in earlier days, theater and entertainment made by far the widest use of posters. Itinerant players, acrobats, and showpeople announced their performances, hawkers and peddlers offered their wares, books and beer, umbrellas and parasols were advertised, military personnel was recruited by illustrated posters printed from woodcuts, often colored with stencils. These simple images were often of striking originality and the artists of the day, who for the most part remained anonymous and often combined such work with the production of playing cards and stationery and the publishing of books and pamphlets, showed skill and excellent taste.

In 1796, another invention brought about a radical change. In that year, in Solenhofen, Germany, Aloys Senefelder invented and developed the process of lithography. He discovered that he could obtain a print from a drawing made with a greasy ink or chalk on the polished surface of a slab of limestone. Soon many artists in Germany, England, and France grasped the significance of the new process and acquired an astonishing mastery of it. Lithography became a widely used means of book illustration, and in 1830 the booksellers of Paris, many of whom combined this trade with publishing, began turning out large quantities of popular illustrated books in serial form. To advertise these books they hit upon the idea of using one of the illustrations, usually the cover, as a poster. Enlarged, it was printed on a separate sheet and hung in the bookseller's window or posted on the outside of his shop. Hundreds of these posters were in use when a new process, color lithography, previously employed only for printing works of value, made its debut in the illustrated poster. Although more expensive, this process proved fatal to the black print.

The beginning of color lithography also marked the beginning of the poster as we know it today. The first poster artist to win fame and recognition was Jules Cheret, often called the "father of the poster." Born in Paris in 1836, he served his apprenticeship as a lithographer in England and there became well acquainted with the new process and the disciplines it imposed. Like many young artists of the day, Cheret was profoundly affected and influenced by the Japanese color prints which had made their appearance in Europe. The new technique in painting—drawing in outline, flattening of surfaces—was precisely the technique suitable for posters printed in color lithography. Interested in the theater, he produced, after his return to France in 1867, a poster for a new play called La Biche au Bois, in which a young actress named Sarah Bernhardt was to appear.

The ensuing years saw more than 1,000 posters by Cheret. Bright and colorful, evocative and alluring, they were wonderfully suited for the light and airy amusements of the day. In retrospect, however, Cheret's colored magic cannot rival the series of about 20 masterpieces produced by Toulouse-Lautrec. Two posters, one a lithograph by Honore Daumier, L'Entrepot d'Ivry, done in 1862 to advertise coal, and another by Edouard Manet, done in 1869 to announce a new book, were monochromes. Other distinguished artists such as Henri Ibels, Pierre Bonnard, and Theophile Alexandre Steinlen did not consider poster design beneath their talents and by the close of the 19th century the new art had come to its full stature.

From France the poster traveled to Germany, to England, and across the continent of Europe. From England it went to the United States, and later to Canada.

In England, a poster by Frederick Walker for a play, The Woman in White, made a sensation in 1871. It was, however, produced by woodcut and printed in monochrome. The famous "Bubbles" advertisement by Sir John Millais was not designed as a poster; it was a painting purchased by the proprietors of Pears' soap, reproduced in color lithography and used as a poster in 1884.

Among the artists who led the way in England were Aubrey Beardsley, Dudley Hardy, and the "Beggarstaff Brothers." These two young painters, William Nicholson and James Pryde, had returned to London after studying in Paris. Working together under the name of the Beggarstaff Brothers, they not only created a new style but they also evolved a new working method which was destined to become of the greatest importance for the subsequent development of poster technique. Instead of painting their poster they cut out the design in colored paper and fixed it to the background. This made it possible to move the different elements of the design until the composition and balance seemed perfect.

While Paris and London remained the centers of poster art, other countries were to follow closely, and some remarkable work was done in Germany and Austria. Lucian Bernhard, Ludwig Hohlwein, and T. T, Heine in Germany, Julius Klinger in Austria were among the leading artists whose posters reached highest standards. Whether these artists applied the Beggarstaff technique or not, it is apparent that it was the work of the two English artists and not the work of Cheret which laid the foundation of the German poster movement and inspired most of the German poster art of this period.

In the United States, where traveling museums, freak shows, and peddlers of patent medicines had made use of posters as early as 1830, and where Phineas T. Barnum's mammoth circus posters had already become a familiar feature of the street, the modern poster, printed in color lithography, was immediately adopted. Magazine, newspaper, and book publishers were the first, in the 1890's, to grasp the value of the new advertising medium, while many businessmen still considered advertising unbecoming and extravagant. But with the beginning of mass production mass sales had to be stimulated, and large-scale poster advertising became widely used. Louis Rhead, Will Bradley, Edward Penfield, Will Carqueville, Ethel Reed, and others were the poster artists of the day.

Employed chiefly in connection with amusement and commerce until 1914, the poster took on a new significance and became fully recognized as a most powerful means of propaganda after the outbreak of World War I. In all the countries engaged in the war, governments and organizations used the poster to appeal to the patriotism of the civilian population, and a number bf memorable posters of grave and solemn character were produced both in England and France.

After the war, the attention of all those interested or involved in poster advertising turned once more to Paris. There, a young artist, Adolphe Mouron, who had chosen the trade name of A. M. Cassandre, had revolutionized the aspect, philosophy, and technique of French poster art. The response of the general public to his posters had been overwhelming, proving, often against the conservative views of his sponsors, that his ideas of how a poster should be conceived were right. His technique, applied to his particular needs, derived often from new trends in photography and cinema and from the contemporary movements in painting associated with Giorgio di Chirico, Pablo Picasso, and others.

Cassandre was the first to discern the optical difference between a painting and a poster, and to formulate the essentials of modern poster design and advertising. While spectators go to contemplate a painting in the quiet concentration of an art gallery or a museum, a poster, displayed in the street, in bright daylight, has to compete with its surroundings. To catch the attention of people who did not go there to see it, it must present an unaccustomed aspect, it must break the visual habit of the passerby, arouse his interest or his curiosity, and it must enable the fast-moving observer to see at a glance what it is about. Cassandre's ideas and principles are still valid today and are now applied to poster advertising everywhere ; his techniques have contributed their full share to the high standards prevailing in European poster art.

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