The large-format, colorful posters familiar to us today have existed for only circa 150 years. With the invention of new printing techniques in the late 19th century, the poster soon evolved into the advertising medium par excellence. Before long, the boulevards of the metropolises were lined with posters (“Plakate” in German; “affiche” in French) – a genuine “affichomanie,” or “poster mania,” had gripped Europe and the United States.
Poster for the newspaper "Berliner Tageblatt" by Ephraim Mose LilienKunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
The Frenchman Jules Chéret played a central role in the history of the poster. In the 1860s he simplified the printing technique of lithography and established a fast and inexpensive printing process. As a designer, with his colorful compositions, he laid the foundations for the modern poster, intended to have an impact from a distance. On his initiative, major artists were commissioned with poster designs, among them Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen, and Eugène Grasset. The “art of the poster” had been born.
Poster for a concert at the restaurant "Olympia" by Jules ChéretKunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
Emerging around 1900, and stimulated by a new, modern sensibility, was an artistic movement characterized by a unique style. Known in the German-speaking world as the “Secessionstil,” (from the Latin "secessio" , meaning to withdraw or secede) or “Jugendstil,” (youth style) in France as “Art Nouveau” (New Art), and in Britain as “Modern Style.”
The aim was to revolutionize all spheres of life, which would now be permeated by artistic forms. Jugendstil artists, hence, worked not just in the fine arts, but also designed posters, furniture, jewelry, textiles, magazines, books, glassware, and buildings.
Exhibition poster for "L'Art Nouveau. Exposition permamente" by Félix VallottonKunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
Atmospheric impressions of Parisian nightlife around the fin de siécle characterize the celebrated posters of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Actors, dancers, cabaret habitués, and prostitutes are showcased as the real stars of the Belle Époque. The planar, stylized mode of depiction, with its restricted range of colors, was a function of the new printing techniques, but was also compatible with Toulouse-Lautrec’s preference for Japanese woodcut prints.
Poster for the cabaret "Divan Japonais" by Henri de Toulouse-LautrecKunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
Théophile Alexandre Steinlen was a great cat lover. In this poster, he has created a monument to the elegant feline. The legendary nightclub "Le Chat Noir" in Montmartre in Paris was the first modern cabaret: here, guests enjoyed drinks at their tables while being entertained by stage acts.
Poster for the nightclub "Tournée du Chat Noir" by Théophile Alexandre SteinlenKunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
Given preference in Art Nouveau were organic forms and motifs drawn from nature. Eugène Grasset’s poster for his exhibition at the "Salon des Cent" in Paris features a personification of the Arts engaged in the attentive study of a plant called Bishopswort. The dark contour lines and expansive planes of color are reminiscent of stained-glass painting. This image inaugurated the international diffusion of the Jugendstil poster.
Poster for the "Salon des Cent – Exhibition E. Grasset" by Eugène GrassetKunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
Alphonse Mucha was a star of Art Nouveau. He achieved fame through a series of posters devoted to the celebrated actress Sarah Bernhardt. He designed countless advertising posters, calendars, and menus, as well as purely decorative posters, which continue to be much prized up to the present and marketed as souvenirs.
Poster for the play "La Dame aux Camelias. Sarah Bernhardt" by Alphonse MuchaKunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
Devised during the late 19th century was an advertising strategy that continues to be employed today: to sell products, depictions of women are featured in images as “eyecatchers.” The commodity itself – in this instance, cigarette paper bearing the "Job" label – recedes into the background. The billowing coiffeur, arranged in decorative arabesques, and known as “macaroni curls,” was frequently adapted, and became a trademark of Art Nouveau.
Poster for the rolling paper manufactuer "Job" by Alphonse MuchaKunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
This poster by Henri Privat-Livement advertises "Rajah" brand coffee. The female figure is meant to generate an association between the enjoyment of the beverage and beauty or elegance. In the typical Art Nouveau manner, Privat-Livement adapts the text to the content, the letters imitating the clouds of steam that rise from the hot coffee.
Poster for the coffee brand "Rajah" by Henri Privat-LivementKunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
The appearances by the US-American dancer Loie Fuller at the "Exposition Universelle" in Paris in 1900 were legendary. Manuel Orazi has captured their excitement in his poster.
Smooth color transitions evoke the spectacular veil dances, for which Fuller had bright lights projected onto her fluttering garments.
Poster for the Loie Fuller Theatre by Manuel OraziKunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
Jan Toorop’s advertisement for salad oil by the firm "Nederlandse Olie Fabriek" (NOF) is quite singular: stylized masses of hair and flowing garments expand to fill the entire picture surface, surging around the salad bowl like a mesmerizing vortex of liquid.
Toorop was born on Java, then a Dutch colony; his unconventional style betrays the influence of Indonesian art.
Poster for the salad oil "Delftsche Slaolie" by Jan TooropKunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
During the Victorian era, Aubrey Beardsley’s prints and illustrations – sexually charged and peopled with femmes fatales – made him an artist of scandal. He designed very few posters, but their influence was all the greater, especially on US-American artists. They are characterized by elongated figures, ornamental lines, and strong contrasts of black and white.
Poster for the magazine "Spinster's Scrip" by Aubrey Vincent BeardsleyKunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
This motif by William Bradley is regarded as the first US-American Art Nouveau poster. Across the Atlantic, differently than in Europe, small-format advertisements were used to announce the monthlies of the large publishing houses. Promoted here is a volume of love poetry by Tom Hall.
Two lovers, a satyr and a young woman, are entwined by grapevines. Their delicate figures, defined by fine contour lines, have clearly been inspired by Beardsley.
Poster for Tom Hall's poetry book "When Hearts are Trumps" by William BradleyKunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
William Bradley created a number of advertising posters for the Chicago art magazine "The Chap Book". For this Thanksgiving edition, he plays with strong color contrasts and dynamic, swirling masses of color, which are recognizable as garments only through their interplay with the graceful heads, hands, and feet of the figures.
Poster for the magazine "The Chap Book. Thanksgiving No." by William BradleyKunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
William Bradley employed particularly splendid posters to advertise his own art publication, entitled "Bradley: His Book", containing poems, text, and illustrations. Characteristic of Art Nouveau are motifs such as peacocks, young girls and youths, mythological beings, and vegetation.
Poster for the art magazine "His Book. The Kiss" by William BradleyKunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
Cycling was en vogue around 1900 – for women as well as for men. It offered women the possibility of rapid and independent transport. As potential customers, they were depicted with great elegance in advertising posters. The vegetal motifs provide biking with an additional aesthetic dimension.
Poster for the bicycle manufacturer "Victor Bicycles" by William BradleyKunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
The US-American Ethel Reed was among the few woman poster artists to achieve international fame. During the mid-1890s, she designed advertising posters for various publishing houses. Reed was fond of combining floral motifs with sensitive portraits of young and at times cheeky women, not a few of them based on self-portraits.
Poster for Louise Chandler Moulton's "In Childhood’s Country" by Ethel ReedKunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
During the German Empire, magazines such as "Simplicissimus" and "Jugend" revolutionized graphic art, and hence poster design as well. In Germany the "Jugendstil" (Art Nouveau) movement owed its name to the magazine "Jugend". This work by Ludwig von Zumbusch visualizes the aims of the movement: two energetic young women drag along an elderly gentleman, who emblematizes the demise of inherited values and beliefs.
Poster for the magazine "Jugend" by Ludwig von ZumbuschKunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
In this poster by Franz von Stuck, Pallas Athena – the goddess of wisdom and the tutelary goddess of the arts – is presented with severe elegance. With his reductive, lucid style, he distances himself from the conservative advertising posters of the Wilhelminian era. The Greek divinity was a much-favored motif among avant-garde artist’s groups, among them the Munich and Vienna Secessions.
Exhibition poster for the "Internationale Kunst-Ausstellung des Vereins Bildender Künstler München" by Franz von StuckKunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
Peter Behrens designed this symbolically-charged exhibition poster for the artist’s colony on the Mathildenhöhe in Darmstadt. An elongated figure holds aloft a luminous gemstone, while another jewel lies at her feet. In his image, Behrens visualizes the notion of the ennoblement of humankind through art.
Exhibition poster for "Darmstadt. Ein Dokument deutscher Kunst. Die Ausstellung der Künstler Kolonie" by Peter BehrensKunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
The idea of corporate identity is not entirely new: alongside advertising posters, Henry van de Velde designed packaging, brochures, and labels, for the firm "Tropon", based in Cologne-Mühlheim, all featuring the firm’s distinctive logotype. This poster advertising the dietary supplement succeeds admirably in uniting industrialized product marketing with elevated artistic demands. The ornamental forms represent the separation of egg whites from yolks.
Poster for the dietary supplement manufacturer "Tropon" by Henry van de VeldeKunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
This exhibition poster by Koloman Moser illustrates the ideal aspired to by the Vienna Secession: the powerfully stylized figures symbolize the unity of the three arts of architecture, painting, and sculpture.
The elegant typefaces and distorted lettering of the Vienna Secessionists would be emulated by the psychedelic typography of the 1960s and 1970s.
Exhibition poster for the "V. Jahr. XIII Ausstellung der Vereinigung Bildender Künstler Österreichs" by Koloman MoserKunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
Text: Staatliche Museen zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz
Concept, text and realisation: Justine Tutmann
Translation: Ian Pepper
© Staatliche Museen zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz / Photo: Anna Russ, Dietmar Katz