Irina Nikiforova

Magazine issue: 
#2 2011 (31)

The introduction of graphic advertisement posters in the second half of the 19th-century outdoor urban space became an important historical and art phenomenon. Today, its significance and well- deserved influence are beyond dispute. Displayed in public places, graphic posters exercised a defining influence over the tastes of society. However, the poster played an even greater role in the evolution of art as it attracted the most avant-garde ideas and embodied the essence of various art movements and styles. Symbolism entered the “metropolitan landscape” with the posters of Puvis de Chavannes and Aman-Jean. “Le Style Moderne”, Art Nouveau, Jugendstil, and Sezessionstil - the last style of the end of the 19th century in its many local incarnations appeared on the streets of European cities and captured the imagination of millions by way of advertisement posters by Aubrey Beardsley and Walter Crane, Alphonse Mucha and Eugene Grasset, Franz von Stuck and Gustav Klimt.

Advertisement poster art demanded simplicity as well as a vivid, expressive technique. It challenged artists to experiment, to be creative and original in their approach. The need for generalisation cut off all that was not essential as it brought out and magnified an artist’s distinctive style. The same technique found its way into painting, engraving, and magazine graphics. The revolutionary approach to colour introduced by the Fauvists was tried out in the art of the poster. The minimalis- tic form went naturally hand in hand with vibrant colours and one-dimensional representation. The visual intensity of the propaganda posters was a lot like the antiwar verve of the Expressionists and Dadaists. The Italian Futurists’ admiration for the "motorized century” with its aeroplanes, balloons, and airships, was first expressed in the most compelling and striking manner in the dynamic compositions of advertisement poster artists.

More radical than other art forms, poster advertisement was the first to borrow techniques from photography and cinema. As a result, at the beginning of the 20th century poster artists embraced such novel elements as bold framing, which lead to free composition, as well as unusual angles and perspective. Images in graphic advertisement posters grew more and more powerful due to radically altered proportions, distorted perspective and masterful emphasis on detail.

However, the significance of the poster became much more than that of an art form. In 1909 "The Poster” magazine published an article called "The Poster as a Mirror of Life” by Charles Hiatt, a British art critic and historian of advertising. "We may convince ourselves of the omniscience of the pictorial placard if we take the trouble to turn over the pages of the volumes of this magazine. In the illustrations which adorn them we are reminded of every aspect of our existence. The clothes which we wear, the sports with which we pass our time, the amusements which we pursue, the food and liquids which we eat and drink, the literature which appeals to us most strongly are all suggested and reflected there. We can trace fashion as it rises and so to speak — shoot folly as it flies.”1

100 years later, Max Gallo, another scholar of the art of visual advertising, called his new book "The Poster: Mirror of History, Mirror of Life”. Gallo’s publication, based exclusively on the poster art form, produced what amounted to a short course in French history.2 Advertising posters of those earlier periods are now a testament to the emotions and images of times long past. Their choice of subjects, their characteristic presentation, their unique appeal to the potential consumer — all these aspects of poster art reflect the national identity and tradition of both the artist and the customer.

The creations of French illustrated poster artists are quite different from those of their British or American counterparts; the distinctive features of German and Polish advertising placards betray their "national identity” even without their written messages. American poster art is an illustrated historical study of journalism and publishing. German posters of the late 19th century enthusiastically advertised classical opera, as well as domestic goods and beverages. In Poland, national consciousness and self-determination became the key theme of poster art, whether it was promoting a book, a concert or an exhibition — the result of society’s opposition to the political conditions of the time.

In France, the strong revanchist sentiment caused by the country’s humiliating defeat in the 1870 Franco-Prussian war was reflected in visual advertisements for the entertainment business. The country’s economy, freed from political problems and government regulation, was booming. The time became known as the "Belle Epoque”. The Enlightment ideals of the middle classes were replaced by the pursuit of extravagant pleasures and luxury; indulging in illusory delights allowed an escape from reality. An insatiable need for spectacular entertainment and pleasure drove the demand for innumerable new restaurants, cafés-chantants, and dance halls. Paris gained its reputation as the luxury capital of the world, replete with never-ending celebrations.

With great enthusiasm the French welcomed a new entertainment trend — artistic cabaret. Cabaret theatre emerged as a stage for chanson Kaliste, or "realist song”, and evolved into a broader arena for artistic, musical, expressive dance and dramatic performances. It became a favourite for the Bohemians of Paris, a life-style of an entire generation which would be recorded in history as the "citizens of the Republic of Montmartre”. A green suburb with cheap little houses, apartments and boutiques, it first gave shelter to actors and artists, and quickly became popular. By the end of the 19th century the quiet, crooked rural streets of the Montmartre hill developed into a neighbourhood with a reputation as the most fascinating part of Paris. The area offered plenty of entertainment, and its cabarets and cafés attracted the idle, students and the bourgeoisie, all looking for a thrill. The merry Montmartre had its muses — dancers, artists’ models, demimondaines and actresses.

The poster reflected this culture in rather colourful detail. Theophile Steinlen, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Adolphe Willette, and Alexandre Grun all created advertising posters for Parisian taverns, dancing halls and cafés-conceгts. Their art urged the public to enjoy improvised chanson and variety shows with fiery cancan and pantomime. Lithographic advertising posters preserve for us today the names of the entertainment stars of that era — masters of ceremonies, wrestlers, eccentric artists, singers and dancers, as well as the titles of popular programmes of music-halls and cafés-concerts. "Alcazar”, "Folies Bergere”, and "L’Olympia”. Poster artists created dynamic visual compositions to advertise the fashionable establishments, such as "Le Chat Noir”, "Ambassadeur”, "Le Mirliton”, "Moulin Rouge”, "Moulin de la Galette”, and "Casino de Paris”. This lavish praise made life in Montmartre sound like a fairy-tale world of constant joy. Through their art, the masters of the advertisement poster supported the legendary French opera, comic operetta and the divertissement.

The French public universally admired the originality of illustrated advertisement, and poster artists were in demand — and, most importantly, generously remunerated for their creative work. In contrast, Victorian English polite society despised illustrated advertisement, and as a consequence it remained the occupation of craftsmen only. In one of the first 19th-century historical studies of poster art, Charles Hiatt sincerely lamented the plight of English artists: "It will be observed that the artistic poster was in the air in England not very long after it began to develop in France. It does not, however, seem to have taken so great a hold on English artists or on the English public as on the artists and public of France. In England the artistic poster appears to have been received coldly or with indifference, and doubtless many designers who would have been glad to turn their attention to the poster were deterred therefrom by lack of public sympathy.”3 Unlike France, in Britain just a tiny share of illustrated advertisement was devoted to entertainment — and mostly those were invitations to traditional Christmas pantomimes. Victorian England rejected the never-ending whirlpool of festivities and the infamous frivolity of Parisian life. The fundamental British values remained intellectual curiosity, education, sportsmanship and fair play, and strong traditional family ties. Most British posters advertised travel and means of transportation — cruises, the railway system, the London Underground, buses and trams. As they addressed their customers, the artists chose thoughtful and sensitive approach to avoid pestering the public or pushing a product or a service.

Advertising images that worked without fail with Parisians could easily leave Londoners cold. Quite successful in France, Jules Cheret’s poster advertising the popular Mariani Tonic Wine was rejected by the British public. The tonic was created by the French chemist Angelo Mariani and was made from red wine treated with coca leaves. It was considered medicinal, had been available in French pharmacies since the 1870s, and was marketed as a remedy which restored energy and vitality. The British disapproved of the lovely, vivacious girl in Cheret’s poster as vulgar and frivolous. It was indeed hard to imagine an English lady buying the tonic for herself so that she could dance and party through the night; it was quite impossible to see an English gentleman purchasing it for his love interest. The idea of a beer in front of a fire on a cold winter night was much more pleasing to the British mind.

"Purely British” advertising art is well represented by the picture poster “Rowntree’s Elect Cocoa” by the Beggarstaff Brothers. It gives us a fascinating insight into the history of the protestant Quaker movement in Britain. The members of this religious society wore plain dress, rejected the pursuit of luxury and careless mirth. They did not accept the official church and denounced inequality; their lack of respect for rank made them unfit for government service. However, their well-known honesty, integrity and discipline gained the respect of wider society, and many Quakers became successful lawyers, scientists, chemists, bankers and businessmen. The Cadburys, the Frys, the Rowntrees, all unassuming Quaker families, rejected “worldly delights” such as fashionable entertainment, music, dancing, liquor and tobacco. The Beggarstaff Brothers’ poster attempted to popularise their just choice of cocoa as a healthy, wholesome beverage, nourishing and invigorating. Small confectionaries started to offer the exotic cocoa — such was the origin of the world-famous chocolate dynasties.

The phenomenon of the British gentlemen’s club illustrates another characteristic feature of British society — its strict tradition of appropriate socializing within the upper-middle class educated and creative elites. This institution had a significant influence on the development of the nation’s art. Members-only private clubs reflected the typical British mindset and stood in stark contrast to the reckless atmosphere of Parisian artistic cabarets. The cabarets attracted a diverse clientele — artists of all kinds mingled with a motley crowd of bohemians, and artistic communities came together and were integrated. In England, with its regimented culture of appropriate social interactions only within one’s class, profession or concession, the gentleman’s club was an essential part of society, a place of leisure and sanctuary.

The London Sketch Club in Chelsea (which exists to this day) was founded as a professional community of elite graphic artists with its own charter. It had a traditional card table, a spacious smoking lounge with Turkish hookah pipes, a first-class library and a good restaurant. Membership subscriptions provided ample funds for many years. Members broke up into groups according to the artists’ specialty, such as water-colourists or cartoonists. The latter were a separate group of eccentric artists lead by John Hassall and Dudley Hardy. This group was the first one in Britain to work professionally in graphic advertisement. They approached poster art as cartoonists, and their sharp drawing technique determined the character and style of their posters. Cecil Charles Aldin, Thomas Downey, Fred Taylor and Henry Barryball were all members of the club, and their work reflected the character of English humour.

As it fulfilled its principal function of advertising goods and services, commercial poster art painted a multi-dimensional picture of industrial evolution in Europe and America. The subject matter of the illustrated placard reflected the achievements of science and technology, industrial growth, the rise in the manufacture of consumer goods, the emergence of railroad systems, the introduction of new means of transportation, as well as modernization of the old ones.

At the end of the 19th century O’Galop, a cartoonist from Lyon, created an advertising character for the tyre manufacturer Michelin, a little man made from tires named “Bibendum”, who became the symbol of the company. The “Michelin man” looked a lot like Andre Michelin, the inventor and the head of the firm. Michelin’s new invention, steel-studded “soled” tyres, was dubbed the “Michelin sole” for their advertising campaign. The premise of the advertisement combines two events which were well known to the cartoonist’s contemporaries, but today need clarification. An old rivalry between traditional French kick-boxing, savate, and the English sport of boxing was finally brought to a conclusion in 1899 with a decisive victory by a French fighter who knocked his English rival down in the sixth round with a kick to the stomach.

The other event was the International Motor Car Race of 1905 which took place in France under the patronage of Michelin & Co. The race ended in a spectacular victory by the French team which prevailed in the rugged terrain due to the new Michelin “soled” tyres. The advertising placard showed Bibendum (Andre Michelin) perform a classic French kick-boxing technique, chasse, against the company’s main competitor, John Boyd Dunlop, the British manufacturer of inflatable tyres. Bibendum is wearing solid boots with studded soles as he expertly kicks Dunlop with his left foot.

As it echoed all the major events of the century, the poster reflected the character of political parties, proclaimed socialist, democratic and anarchist ideas, and influenced the fortunes and careers of politicians and government officials.

A poster by Jules Grandjouan is an example of biting political satire directed at the radical socialists who formed the French government in 1924. Without the support of the banking industry, Edouard Herriot’s cabinet suffered political setbacks which led to a severe financial crisis. The cartoon alludes to the anaemic and conflicting policies of the Herriot government — the anti-war line of the “left cartel” in Europe did not mix well with the need for military action in the colonies.

The composition is called “The Blind Man and the Paralytic”, recalling Jean-Pierre Florian’s fable about two invalids trying to help each other get by: “I will guide you, and you will walk for me”. Prime Minister Edouard Herriot is holding on to the leader of the socialist party Leon Blum, bound by the Geneva Convention to arms control and reduction. Two beggars are sitting on the Prime Minister’s shoulders, holding their cups: Henri Philippe Petain, Commander-in-Chief of the French military forces in Morocco, and Paul Painleve, President of the Council.

It was not just well-known historical events, but also long forgotten facts that are recalled through the advertising poster. Like an eloquent historical narrative, the poster reveals many a secret and illustrates the mentality of the 19th century. To both the viewer and the art scholar, it offers a wealth of unique information on the everyday life and culture of nations.


  • Hiatt, Charles. “The Poster as a Mirror of Life". The Poster, July, 1909. P.178
  • Gallo, Max. “L'Affiche: Miroir de l'histoire - Miroir de la vie". Paris, 2002
  • Hiatt, Charles. Picture posters. London, 1895. P. 204





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