Poster art is one of the most ubiquitous mediums of art and arguably the most straightforward in terms of communicating messages to its viewers. It’s a multimedia platform that uses both graphical and textual elements and is crafted to draw attention and be as informative as possible in the short time the viewer looks at it.
Despite its ubiquity and storied history as an art form, many people underestimate it or even outright dismiss it as an art form because of how mass-produced it is. In this post, The Canvas Art Factory delves deep into the history of the poster as an art form. By the end of the article, we hope you will have found a new appreciation of the medium!
An Ancient Medium
The modern poster was ‘born’ between the 1840s and 1850s, but poster as a medium trace its history even further. One can argue that prehistoric art such as cave paintings or victory steles from the Ancient Middle East and Egypt are the earliest examples of what we now call posters. Lithography is the direct predecessor of the modern poster art, but it had little impact on the evolution of the medium as an art form.
The fledgling lithographic process at the time was limited to certain colours but advanced in printmaking allowed it to be mass-produced for use by advertisers. This all changed when Jules Chéret developed a new lithographic process in the 1860s. This ‘three stone lithography’ was more inexpensive to produce and allowed richer and more expressive colours, which enhanced the aesthetics of the poster. Influenced by the then-new and popular Ukiyo-e woodblock prints in Japan, his composition of these lithographs and proto-posters emphasised graceful design and aesthetics. For his role in advancing the lithographic process and poster making, he is widely known as ‘The Father of the Fine Art Poster’.
Jules Chéret wasn’t the only artist pioneering this budding art form in Europe. He wasn’t the first either and many artists before him, as well as his contemporaries, experimented with poster art. These include Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Adolphe Willette, and Alphonse Mucha to name a few. The rising popularity of the poster was such that the main streets of Paris, filled with all kinds of posters and colourful advertisements, were called ‘the poor man’s picture gallery’. This wasn’t negative at all as art, in the form of the poster, had reached the everyman. It was no longer exclusive, and anyone could have a better appreciation of the arts, composition, and aesthetics.
The Golden Age of the Poster
Chéret’s development of a new lithographic process made it easier for other artists to adopt the medium and the movement flourished. This ‘Golden Age of the Poster’ saw the spread of poster art beyond Paris and throughout Europe, with the medium advertising all sorts of things – from cabarets, circuses, to sporting events. Théophile Steinlen’s advertisement for the Parisian cabaret Le Chat Noir is an iconic piece of poster art from the movement’s Golden Age. The poster became a more serious form of art by the end of the 19th century during a period called the Belle Époque.
This period was born at the very end of the Franco-Prussian War and was an era characterised by regional peace and optimism. The colonial powers waxed, technological and scientific innovations were made, and the arts flourished. Many art movements can trace their origin or peak during this time, such as Art Nouveau, Art Deco, and the beginnings of the Modern contemporary art movement. During this ‘Beautiful Era’, Chéret created his now iconic Maîtres de l'Affiche, which was a collection of 256 lithographic plates and posters from 97 artists – the titular ‘Masters of the Poster’ of that time. Among these artists include T. Privat-Livemont, Dudley Hardy, Eugène Grasset, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and Chéret himself among others. Privat-Livemont’s Absinth Robette was one among the 256 posters in Chéret’s Masters of the Poster Collection.
The posters produced during this era were in a constant state of evolution and refinement. As with any movement born during the ‘Beautiful Era’, it was defined by its contemporary movements. Poster art was influenced and enhanced by the budding Art Nouveau movement, defining many of the ‘norms’ in the medium such as curvilinear shapes and stylized female figures. As posters became more ubiquitous and commanding of the public spaces they were in, they garnered respect and admiration from European society. The richest families and the humble worker finally found a medium they both could appreciate. While posters and advertisements were becoming more colourful and extravagant in Europe, things took a different turn in the United States. During the 1850s, the most prominent form of poster art at the time were advertisements for circuses such as the Ringing Bros. Mass-produced and hastily made woodcuts were more common than the masterfully created poster and the subject matter, as well as the crowded style and bright colours, garnered contempt from contemporary critics.
American posters took on a more subtle and realistic approach, with subdued colours and simpler composition. Designers such as Edward Penfield pioneered this poster off-shoot and his works were even received warmly in Europe where more colourful and extravagant posters dominated. More importantly, American Poster art sowed the seeds for a poster movement that would dominate in the years following the ‘Beautiful Era’.
The Rise of Posters as Propaganda
On 28 June 1914, 19 year-old Bosnian Serb and Yugoslav nationalist Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir of the Austria-Hungarian throne in Sarajevo. His assassination caused Austria-Hungary to declare war on Serbia, which in turn started the First World War when the latter’s allied countries started declaring war with one another. The ‘Great War’ ended what many referred to as the ‘Golden Age’ of Wester History and struck a blow to many art movements.
The Art Nouveau movement was in its death throes even before the war, but it never recovered as the violence soured the communal atmosphere of the people. The poster found a new niche during this tumultuous time in the form of war posters. Combatants from both sides utilised the medium as a rallying cry and call to arms. Above is arguably the most famous and most iconic war poster at the time – Lord Kitchener Wants You by Alfred Leete. It epitomises the true essence of the poster as a medium that speaks directly to its viewer. Decline While the poster found new niches in propaganda and advertisement, the classic poster art experienced a steady decline. After the First World War, many considered Art Nouveau aesthetics as old-fashioned and irrelevant, and this affected the reception of the once-popular colourful and extravagant poster art. The rise of Art Deco and other modern art movements in Europe would cause a resurgence in poster popularity, showcasing new aesthetics, but the medium itself never became as ubiquitous as it was during its Golden Age.
Posters were now private decorations and mediums of self-expression or as a vehicle for counter-cultural shifts. Different sub-niches of poster art were born during this time, such as the minimalist Sachplakat or object posters in Germany and travel posters in Switzerland. In the United States, where the seeds of realism took root early, the poster became the primary medium of the Social Realism movement during the Great Depression and would be considered fine art on its own. During World War II, posters were unfortunately used by Nazi Germany as propaganda to fuel their anti-Semitic campaigns, showing that the power of the poster can often be used for the detriment of others.
Today, poster art is seeing a resurgence in popularity. They are now a staple decorative element in homes and public places. Text posters with inspirational and personalised text abound, while graphic posters get influence from past and contemporary art movements. It’s also seeing a new purpose as the main medium for reproducing famous paintings as prints on canvas. In advertising, the poster must now compete with digital and online advertising, but there’s no doubt that it still plays an instrumental role in grabbing the attention of a prospective customer.