Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Poster boys

Pierre Bonnard
Reduced-size lithograph reproduced by Fernand Mourlot, 1952

The lithographic poster was one of the defining artistic advances of the latter half of the 19th century, culminating in the wonderful graphics of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Pierre Bonnard was just making a name for himself in poster design, producing marvellous images such as France-Champagne of 1889 for the printer Ancourt, when he made the mistake of introducing Toulouse-Lautrec to Ancourt. As soon as Bonnard saw the wonders Toulouse-Lautrec was producing, he bowed out of poster art.

Jules Chéret showing one of his posters to Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

But Toulouse-Lautrec, although he was artistically the towering figure of the French lithographic poster, was not the godfather of Belle Époque poster design. That title belongs to Jules Chéret. Chéret created over 1,000 posters. He also had his own lithographic printing shop, which opened in 1866 under his own name and from 1881 operated as a branch of the larger Imprimerie Chaix (the x is sounded, so it is pronounced something like sheikhs, I believe).

Jules Chéret
Folies bergères
Reduced-size lithographic poster, from Gazette des Beaux-Arts, 1884

Chéret was born in Paris in 1836, into a poor family. He went to England to be apprenticed as a lithographer, and when he returned to Paris he used his new skills to revolutionize French poster design and printing. He retired to Nice, and many of his vibrant and joyful posters, as well as his rather slickly sentimental paintings, can be seen in that city’s Musée des Beaux-Arts.

Jules Chéret
Reduced-size lithographic poster, from Gazette des Beaux-Arts, 1884

The large-sized wall posters created by artists such as Toulouse-Lautrec and Chéret were printed in large numbers, and quite quickly the printers started to reserve quantities for sale to art lovers. But there was a problem: the sheer size of these posters meant few people were able to display them. Chéret solved this problem by creating reduced-size lithographs of posters by over 90 Belle Époque artists, printed by Imprimerie Chaix and issued in monthly portfolios of four posters at a time, under the title Les maîtres de l’affiche. Between 1895 and 1900 Chéret published 240 of these domestic-sized posters, plus 16 special lithographs for subscribers. About a quarter of the posters were by Chéret himself, but other artists included Toulouse-Lautrec, Maurice Denis, Pierre Bonnard, Félix Vallotton, Alphonse-Marie Mucha, Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen, Charles Léandre, Adolphe Willette, and Maxfield Parrish.

Jules Chéret
La danse
Lithograph for the programme of the fête of 5 August 1900 at the Elysée Palace
Gazette des Beaux-Arts, 1900

I have made a semi-conscious decision not to enter the poster market, but I have inevitably picked up a few along the way. From Les maîtres de l’affiche I have posters by two artists in whom I have an interest, Henri Jacques Édouard Evenepoël and Henry-Gabriel Ibels. Both of these artists also contributed to a similar monthly portfolio of original lithographs, L’estampe moderne, published from May 1897 to April 1899, which I will discuss in a coming post.

Henri Evenepoël
Anvers et son exposition
Les maîtres de l'affiche, pl. 116, 1898

Evenepoël was born in 1872 in Nice, to Belgian parents. His first studies were in the Brussels Académie, in the atelier of Blanc Gorin, but then he moved to Paris, where he studied alongside Rouault and Matisse in the studio of Gustave Moreau. Evenepoël’s art was influenced by Art Nouveau and also – especially in his organisation of space – by Nabis artists such as Bonnard and Vuillard. His close friendship with Matisse and other future Fauves suggests how his work might have developed, but we will never know, for in 1899 Henri Evenepoël died of typhoid fever at the age of just 27. When a devastated Matisse broke the tragic news to Albert Marquet, Marquet replied with a nonchalance that may pass either for peasant wisdom or extreme insensitivity, “Oh well, if people didn’t die, they’d have to be killed.”

Henry-Gabriel Ibels
Les maîtres de l'affiche, pl. 78, 1897

Henry-Gabriel Ibels, five years older than Evenepoël, was one of the founders of the Nabis, having studied with Bonnard, Vuillard, Denis, Ranson, and Sérusier at the Académie Julian. Ibels was also a disciple of Gauguin. As a lithographer, Ibels benefited from the advice of his friend Toulouse-Lautrec, with whom he collaborated on an 1893 suite of prints, Le café-concert. Among his own pupils was the great etcher of Paris scenes, Eugène Bejot.

Jean Carlu
La République
Poster tipped in to Arts et métiers graphiques, 1933

The main point of difference between a poster and a stand-alone lithograph is that a poster incorporates lettering. In a great poster design, the lettering is integral to the composition of the image, and the letterforms reflect the artist’s aesthetic. In the 1890s, Art Nouveau typefaces wind themselves in sensuous curves around the image; forty years later, the blunt modernism of the type on Jean Carlu’s Cubist-inspired poster for La République announces the arrival of a very different, machine-age sensibility. Carlu was born in 1900, and only died in 1997. He trained as an artist after losing his right arm in an accident at the age of 18, and his many posters are distinguished by their elegant clarity of line and their mastery of form and space.


ronoc said...

what is art? Clearly, the artist draws the line, but who draws the line between? Etching for example,
seems to be one of the snubbed, looked down upon art forms, but as your blog, in general, and your recent post on the American etchers shows, much of the so- called Art doesnt hold a candle to it, in term of both artistic expression and , of course,
mastery. Posters and lithography seem to fall into this snubbed catagory. Could it be that "MORE THAN ONE MEANS " NOT ART "?

Anonymous said...

How curious that Jules Cheret was responsible for technical innovations in reproduction when his style seems far more dated than the others. By 1900, his style looked rather fussy and old-fashioned compared to the Belgians, I think.

Neil said...

Hi Ronoc - The invention of the lithographic poster seems to me to be the moment when art and advertising first crossed paths - now, of course the two are virtually indistinguishable.

Neil said...

I suppose the answer, Jane, is that Chéret was so much older than the others. Toulouse-Lautrec was born in 1864; Chéret was born in 1836: which in late-night arithmetic makes him 28 years older. That's a big time difference even today; in the 19th century, it was a huge gap. And of course, Chéret for all his fun and frivolity and graphic sense, is nowhere near Toulouse-Lautrec or Bonnard as an artist.