In the history of art, the poster occupies a strange no-man’s-land, a middle ground at the intersection of design and commerce. However masterful they might be in terms of composition and execution, the fact remains that posters are used to sell something else—a product, an idea, a critical bit of wartime propaganda. Whether it’s cookies or patriotism that is on the block, the purpose of a poster seems to rest uneasily alongside the artistic spirit that impels it.
The Poster is a book that aims not to apologize for this duality, but to acknowledge it and then move on. In purely artistic terms, posters can be marvelous works of skill and imagination—powerfully designed and skillfully executed. This chunky book, 9 1/8 by 7 1/2 inches and 565 pages, makes this point by bringing together a thousand examples of artwork dating back to 1865.
Overall, the collection succeeds admirably. With 150 years and the entire world to select images from, finding even a thousand examples of superlative poster art isn’t so much a question of “Where can we find enough?” as much as “How can we narrow it down?” Examples from France and Holland dominate the early pages, from such artists as Toulouse-Lautrec and Theophile-Alexandres, whose cat-themed posters remain wildly popular. Art Nouveau artists such as Mucha—famous for his rolling paper illustrations, among other things—are also well represented early on.
Editors Cees W. de Jong, Alston W. Purvis and Martijn F. Le Coultre opt to keep text and explanation to a minimum, allowing as much page space as possible for the images themselves. Every 50 pages or so, Purvis contributes a one-page essay clarifying some of the more arcane developments in the genre’s history, helpful to those of us who might be a little foggy on who the Vienna Secessionists were or why Poland was such a hotbed of postwar poster design.
For the most part, though, it is the pictures that tell this story. The sweep and breadth of the selection is impressive: open the book at random and you might find Mao-era propaganda from China, travel posters promoting Finland, Scandinavian movie advertisements, a Saul Steinberg New Yorker cover, posters for German cigarettes, French cigarettes, English cigarettes. The chapter on psychadelic posters from the ‘60s features plenty of mind-bending concert and film posters, while the era spanning the World Wars features not only the military propaganda but also a fair amount of Soviet revolutionary imagery, as well.
The order is chronological, as one might expect, and it’s interesting to see how the medium develops as decades pass. Early posters are almost always painted illustrations featuring recognizable human figures, with or without their Art Nouveau trappings of intertwined leaves and flowers. Colors are bright, images are simple and immediately comprehensible. A travel poster for Switzerland shows the Matterhorn; a Dutch ad for a bicycle manufacturer features—you guessed it—a man on a bicycle. Some designs, particularly those promoting art exhibitions, are more abstract, but for the most part, simplicity is the key.
This is of course critical to the success of the poster as a form—it’s not generally something we are expected to linger over (or peer at in books for that matter) so its effect has always been of the hit-and-run variety: grab the viewer’s attention and make the point quickly. Is there anything more iconic, more immediately recognizable, than James Montgomery Flagg’s figure of Uncle Sam pointing directly at the viewer and proclaiming “I Want You for the U.S. Army”? A child of five could understand the message.
Things get more complicated as time goes on. Art Deco design dominated the ‘20s with its diagonal lines and thick sans-serif fonts. Later, the postwar era brought about changes in both materials and style, which The Poster does a fine job of reflecting. Photography and photo-collage become more prominent, and sometimes the images, though striking, are not immediately comprehensible. (A 1987 exhibition poster for photograoher Helmut Newton features a naked women holding a carving knife and fork, leaning jauntily next to a turkey.) Iconic images from Van Gogh and da Vinci are cut up and deconstructed and reinterpreted in new, unexpected ways. Cartoonish imagery becomes more common, as does nudity, usually female.
Make no mistake, this is a beautiful book. It is also a hefty one, and for its price it offers a generous sampling. The criticism could be made that the artwork is not well served by the format; oversized the book might be, but with two or even three posters occupying most pages, the vast majority of images are postcard-sized, or even half that. Given that the original artworks were large enough to be easily viewed in the street or the lobby of a public space, this reduction in size is significant.
There seems little way around it, though, other than increasing page size even more, and/or limiting the reproductions to one per page. The necessary tradeoff would have either decreased the number of posters included or increased the cost of the book, or both. For most of us with a casual interest in the form, The Poster is a pleasing, affordable primer.