European Poster History: 19th and 20th Century

The 19th century

The first poster by an artist that counts among the outstanding poster works of the 19th century was an 1868 lithograph by Edouard Manet that advertised the book “Les Chats” by the art critic Jules Champfleury in France. Literature, again, was the theme of the second successful artist poster: in 1871 a huge woodcut by Fred Walker announced the stage adaptation of Wilkie Collins’ “The Woman in White” in London.

The first artist, however, who used the art of poster-making professionally was the French painter and graphic designer Jules Chéret. Around 1870 he used colour lithography to develop a whole new style of poster design that united art and advertising in a way that satisfied the advertisers as well as the artists and the public.

The invention of colour lithography and large-scale industrial printing methods had rendered a great deal of artists’ jobs obsolete. In 1848 hundreds of jobless painters in Paris faced an art market that had collapsed completely and they, along with their future employers or clients, had to learn to use the medium of advertising. The large-format poster painting was replaced by the mass-printed poster. The walls, pillars and house facades of Europe were transformed into a panorama of advertising.

The art of Czech-born Alfons Mucha was an especially pronounced culmination of the Paris Art Nouveau. In his famous posters of Sarah Bernhardt, he lengthened the figure and dressed her in luxurious robes of cultic splendour. Italian-born Leonetto Cappiello followed in the footsteps of Chéret and Toulouse-Lautrec after 1900.

In 19th century Germany, Berlin and Munich were the centres of poster design with artists such as Josef Sattler, Thomas Theodor Heine and Julius Klinger. Vienna was the centre of the Austrian “Secession” artist community including Egon Schiele, Gustav Klimt and Oskar Kokoschka. They took on poster commissions and created a style of strict ornamentation, two-dimensionality and minimal colours.

In Holland the masters of the late 19th century were J.G. Caspel and Jan Thorn Prikker, in Belgium there was Privat-Livemont and in the Netherlands Henry van de Velde. They developed their own typical form of Art Nouveau. In Hungary Arpad Basch was well-known and in Italy there were a few illustrators such as Adolfo Hohenstein, Leopoldo Metelicovitz and Giovanni Mataloni who designed posters mainly for publishers, theatres and department stores.

The 20th century

At the start of the 20th century, in Germany as well as the rest of Europe, the relationship between poster advertising and art was controversial. Founded by the enthusiastic poster collector Hans Sachs in 1905, the Verein der Plakatfreunde (“Association of Friends of the Poster”) strove to reconcile art and commerce. Artists such as Ludwig Hohlwein joined the association. Between 1910 and 1921, the journal “Das Plakat”, edited by Hans Sachs and Lucian Bernhard, also tried to bridge the gap between art and advertising.

The creations of the French “Belle Epoque” had a strong influence on the countries of Europe. In Germany, architects such as Ludwig Hohlwein, Peter Behrens and Franz von Stuck designed distinctive and unique posters. England boasted Alexeieff and McKnight Kauffer as creative designers influenced by cubism, who were in turn responsible for training numerous outstanding poster designers who became their successors.

In France, there was relatively little development after the “Belle Epoque”. A star among poster designers was Livorno-born Leonetto Cappiello. Paris was by far the world’s most glamorous metropolis in terms of lifestyle, theatre, fashion, architecture and art, and was an ideal stage for Cappiello’s remarkable posters. In the twenties and thirties, Bernard Villemot and Raymond Savignac were the greats of French poster art. However, the most idiosyncratic designer, who has remained unmatched, was A. M. Cassandre. His posters reveal an extraordinary sense of colour and form, an eye for the essential, as well as great inventiveness and an ability to simplify a message without losing dynamism and liveliness. He remains the master of French poster history.

In Switzerland, important artists contributed to the development of Swiss poster art. Painters such as Ferdinand Hodler, Emil Cardinaux, Wilhelm Friedrich Burger, Burkhard Mangold, Augusto Giacometti, Robert Hardmeier and Otto Baumberger created poster masterpieces at the start of the 20th century.

Poster designers such as Dudovich, Sepo and Nizzoli shaped the illustrative poster style in Italy and in eastern countries such as Poland, Hungary and Russia, various artists created unique, illustrative posters. The 1920s saw the first outstanding photo posters; among the most noteworthy of posters with photographic elements are those of El Lissitzky and the Swiss designers Herbert Matter, Walter Herdeg and Hans Neuburg.

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