On the Wall

By Jo Phillips

So that favourite band image you displayed on your bedroom wall, Che Guevara, Art Noveau, and French artist Jules Cheret all have something in common, their visual identity was spread via poster art. This seemingly simple technique was seen at one point as something that would take over artists…An invention that goes back hundreds of years the birth of the poster is older than you may think. Find out more here in On The Wall

Posters may seem on the surface to be a relatively modern invention but in fact, the idea of sharing information in this way goes back thousands of years.

In Roman times wooden plaques would have been utilised as a way in busy areas to hang notices all the way through to the Middle Ages where they would be placed outside of churches or market squares.

Shopkeeps merchants and businesses in the early days would have listed goods and prices carved onto stone tablets.

The turning point of course came with the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg. Printed public notices were seen on public walls in the fifteenth century, but the modern-day poster did not emerge until the eighteenth century.

This important step was in 1796 when a Bavarian musician and playwright Alois Senefelder invented lithography, a form of printing that today’s offset version of printing is still linked to. This bought on the ability to mass-produce posters for general information, political messaging and advertising.

Initially, works were created by the printers themselves but as the demand became stronger so did the edition of artists getting involved. Because posters offered a way to reach a range of people, literate or not.

It was a French artist Jules Cheret who became known as the father of the modern poster. Starting out in 1866 with a lithograph workshop he is thought to have created over 1200 works over a 40-year period.

Yet it was another French person who is probably most noted in this art form. One rather famous (and infamous) Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Known for spending many a night capturing the extravagant nightlife in the Montmartre dance halls theatres. From 1891 until his death in 1901, it is thought he produced nearly 350 lithographic posters and illustrations recounting life in Belle Époque Paris.

The poster story moves next to Germany, where Art Nouveau was becoming popular around the turn of the century. But again it was a French connection that became another important step in this visual artistry, as German artist, Alfons Mucha created for the play “Gismonda,” starring then world-famous French actress Sarah Bernhardt, a startling poster, so admired was it that copies put out in the streets kept getting stolen.

These images became globally a way to show off items for sale from fashion to food cars to homes.

Once into the 20th century posters became more political with items in say the USA, with its pointed finger poster I Want You, Uncle Sam, reminding young men their services were required for The War.

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The beginning of advertising in the 1920s in the way we know it today spurred the movement of posters, seeing far more lavish ones arrive. The 20th century saw the poster evolving, with art influencing design from Bauhaus to Art Deco.

Also Hollywood understood the power these printed items could bring and utlised them as ways to advise on new releases with these posters becoming very collectible. But then came propaganda…

The Nazis used them for propaganda purposes, as did the communist regimes of the Eastern bloc creating a whole movement later to be known as The Russian Constructivists.

Kokorekin, Aleksei My Fighting Labor Effort Is Reflected in This Report From the Front!, 1943 Poster available at the International Poster Gallery Here

After the Second World War, graphic design and commercial illustration became part and parcel of the life for young artists to make a decent living. But once mass media changed with the advent of television then the entire approach of advertising was changed forever as product releases and advertising were bought directly into people’s homes.

In 1967, the American magazine Life wrote an article on the “poster craze” sweeping the United States. More than a million posters were sold each week. With cheap printing available and the dearth of teenagers, posters became an easy way for any young person to decorate their own spaces. It was also an opportunity to hang political thoughts with images of the likes of Che Guevara and anti-Vietnam War readily available to the growing idea of youth opinion and then into the 1970s with counter-culture.

Posters then took a new turn some of the most collectible posters of the postwar era were created in May 1968, when French students and workers united to protest their nation’s moral and political direction using posters to express their disdain. The use of Day-Glo colours and heavy patterns is now forever linked with the sixties.

The American writer, philosopher, and political activist Susan Sontag wrote that the poster had originally been invented “to seduce, to exhort, to sell, to educate, to convince, to appeal.” A product of capitalism yet is a perverse way that the poster went on to become a commodity.

In our age of digitalization, the poster is far from old hat. Now posters are easier than ever to produce with the likes of desktop publishing. These tools have made it easy to produce posters literally from someone’s bedroom.

Colours words and shapes printed on paper posters allowed for social movements, pop icons, events, and advertising even public notices. Although seen initially as disposable posters are now highly collectable, after all, “A picture is worth a thousand words.”

If you enjoyed reading On The Wall then why not read Combatting the Cold here

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