Posters are, by their nature, ephemeral. They are designed to promote a product, further a cause, persuade the viewer that they should go to the cinema or see a show or conscript for the First World War. Rarely do they attempt the supposed ‘high art’ function of transcending time and place. And yet, as The Poster: 1000 Posters from Toulouse-Lautrec to Sagmeister shows vividly, a good poster can be stubbornly enduring, serving both as a visual marker of its day and as art in its own right.
The Poster is a coffee-table book of the best sort: the sort of glossy, inviting, satisfying tome you can flick through entirely at your own pace. Skim bits, skip bits, stop at anything visually arresting – nothing is lost if you do so. On the other hand, reading the book cover-to-cover allows a fascinating story to emerge.
The premise is simple – 1,000 posters, grouped into 16 chapters, each one succinctly introduced. With chapters entitled ‘Constructivism versus Expressionism’ and ‘The Bauhaus and the New Typography’, you could be forgiven for thinking this was an art history book pure and simple. And yet, because posters are created with such practical aims in mind, it opens up a window onto social history too.
Our journey starts off with Art Nouveau – the style of the avant-garde 1890s. For the first time, serious artists were turning their attentions to poster design as well as painting, and we find all the bright colours and undulating lines a fin-de-siècle aesthetician could wish for. These are some of the most readily recognisable posters in the book –‘Tournée du Chat Noir’ might well be familiar from your undergrad bedroom wall.
The book moves on through the twentieth century, taking in various forms of modernism – and propaganda – along the way. The posters are grouped more by chronology than purpose, with wartime motivational efforts such as ‘We Shall Mercilessly Defeat and Eliminate the Enemy’ placed jarringly close to ice cream adverts. Still, there’s nothing to stop a merciless eliminator from liking ice cream, and as a freeze-frame of a time and culture, this sort of juxtaposition proves very interesting indeed.
By the 1960s, posters were striking back with a subversive ‘psychedelic’ style. Political posters were a mainstay of university campuses – some way removed from the ‘Tournée du Chat Noir’ offerings of today – and the posters shown here are exhortations to ‘Boycott McDonalds’ or to pick peace over war. As psychedelia segued into the computer age, styles and techniques diversified, and the book finishes off with some of the most innovative designs of recent times.
The Poster is by no means exhaustive in its scope. If you were hoping for the seminal 1980s Athena poster, for instance, you’ll be disappointed – the emphasis is squarely on the highbrow end of the spectrum, with scant regard to buff-man-and-baby photos. Still, with such a rich art form to choose from, the book couldn’t be other than selective, and its selections will make for an absorbing few hours’ perusal. Watch out your coffee doesn’t get cold.
The Poster: 1000 Posters from Toulouse-Lautrec to Sagmeister by Cees de Jong is published by Abrams, and available to buy online here.
This article appears in Running in Heels