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Poster art

The breakthrough of the poster as a means of mass communication took place around 1880. The best known printing technique, stone lithography, had developed so that it had become relatively easy to print large numbers in a good quality. Furthermore the cost of labour was relatively low, making this labour intensive technique affordable. The rising standard of living fueled the demand for goods, which was met by an industry applying rationalized production processes. Posters became the first mass medium which could reach a wide audience at a low cost. The streets of Paris, Berlin and Milan changed into the 'gallery of the streets'. The dominance of the poster would stay until the Second World War, after which radio and television took over.

Jules Cheret is generally considered as 'the father of the poster'. His images of gay Parisiennes in long colourful dresses, with wasp waistlines and large hats are synonymous for a period we now call Belle Epoque. A period full of optimism, inspired by technological advancements (automobile, electricity). Steinlen showed us the other side with social-critical images of poverty and exploitation.

The first poster by Henri de Touluose-Lautrec for the Moulin Rouge (1891) caused a sensation when it appeared in the streets of Paris. It gave the poster the status of art. With a great feel for psychology he portrayed the prostitutes and artists in Montmartre's dance halls. Even as early as 1895 posters were being collected. The series 'les Maitres de l'affiche', a monthly publication with 4  small-sized posters, were being bought readily. The 'Affichomanie' from the 1890s is one explanation for the fact considerable numbers have survived. The first books of reference were published in 1896 (Das moderne Plakat, Les affiches illustrés) and later Oesterreichische Plakatkunst (1916) and Die Deutsche Werbegraphik (1926), lavishly illustrated books which in turn have become prized posessions for collectors.

From 1895 onwards Art Nouveau (Jugendstil in Germany, Nieuwe Kunst in the Netherlands) became the dominant graphic style. Typically images of women drawn with bold outlines, placed in a natural setting. Alphonse Mucha is by far the best known of all Art Nouveau artists. He gained instant fame when he designed a theatre poster for Sarah Bernhardt. Other important artists are Eugene Grasset, Georges de Feure, Will Bradley, Louis Rhead and Privat Livemont. The Art Nouveau movement spread across Europe quickly, but was adapted differently in various countries: Dutch Art Nouveau is quite ornamental, in Italy it had a theatrical appearance.

Around 1905 Art Nouveau was starting to lose atractivity. In Vienna and Berlin artists were experimenting with bolder designs to convey a stronger message. Lucian Bernhard drew 2 matchsticks against a black background, added the brand name Priester and the Sachplakat (object poster) was born. The artists from the Vienna Secession (Moser, Klimt, Roller, Loeffler) relied heavily on ornamentation and symetry.

The First World War proved the value of posters for propaganda purposes. In 2 years time 20 million posters were printed in the United States, calling people to donate, enlist, buy bonds and 'destroy the mad brute'. The new powers in Russia were quick to recognize the power of the poster. A new school of design emerged, based on Constructivism.

Between 1910 and 1925 Leonetto Cappiello was the dominant designer in France. Hundreds of designs for famous brands (Peugeot, Campari, Fernet Branca) made him the 'Father of modern advertising'. Almost as prolific during those years was Ludwig Hohlwein, Germany's most important designer.

The modernist art movements from the 1910s and 1920s resulted into one of the most succesful styles of poster art: art deco. The use of perspective, bold typography and large planes of flat colours formed a graphic language ideal to advertising. One man stands out from the rest during this period: A.M. Cassandre. His image of the liner Normandie still inspires the designers of today. Other notable artists were Paul Colin, Charles Loupot, Edward McKnight Kauffer, Jean Carlu and Roger Broders. In the United States especially Leslie Ragan created some unforgettable images.

After the Second World War radio and television took over the dominant role of posters. Stone lithography was being replaced by offset printing and instead of illustration, photography became more widely used. Especially the Swiss school of graphic design achieved a constant level of high quality.