In November 1890 an exhibition took place in the exclusive rooms of the Grolier Club of bibliophiles and print collectors at no. 29 East 32nd Street, Manhattan. The exhibit included one hundred mainly French posters and book covers (only seven were by American artists). This, the first public show of Continental posters in America, generated a keen interest in this peculiarly Parisian phenomenon of commercial art.
Strikes and Bikes
On March 31, 1929, in the midst of an Easter Parade, a young woman named Bertha Hunt stepped out into a packed crowd on Fifth Avenue and created a fuss by lightning a Lucky Strike cigarette. The stunt was set up by American Tobacco Company’s PR man Eddie Bernay (a nephew of Sigmund Freud; Bertha was his secretary) who made sure that the press had been informed in advance. It was part of a drive at getting women to adopt smoking and open up a mass market by hammering home a pseudo-psychological message that smoking meant liberation, an act of expressing independence. Attempts to make women smoke had been tried during the early 1900s, but failed because the social stigma of female smoking had stuck. Until Bernay’s intervention, a cigarette remained a symbol of male dominance.
During the 1890s a passion for cycling accelerated emancipation in Europe and America. The bicycle was the pre-eminent vehicle of the avant-garde. Within a context of Modernism, pedal power figured strongly in art and design. From Alfred Jarry’s obsession with bicycles to Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman (the novel reads like an encyclopedia of cycling), literature rode a bike. Bicycles also unchained women from the prison of Victorian domesticity. Pedaling moreover released them from the straitjacket of restrictive clothing. The iconic image of deliverance was a comfortably dressed woman on a bicycle saddle with a ‘Guinea Gold’ cigarette (manufactured by Thomas Ogden of Liverpool) between her lips.
Outdoor advertising was early modern capitalism’s contribution to the arts. Urban walls became prime spaces of commercial communication. The lithographic process had been developed in the late eighteenth century, but for long it proved too slow and costly for the production of placards. This changed when Jules Chéret developed new manufacture techniques. Working from his Paris studio, he applied his considerable skills to create posters that advertised cabarets, music halls, and theatres. He was a pioneer in bringing art and commerce together. During the 1890s countless poster exhibitions took place in France. Parisian dealer Edmond Sagot held a domineering place in this emerging domain of art sales. In 1891 he listed 2,233 different examples in his first catalogue (with a cover design by Chéret) which launched the epoch’s poster craze.
In the visual culture of Belle Époque Paris, the poster held center stage. Since the implementation of the 1881 Law on Freedom of the Press, the city’s hoardings had become official posting places for advertisers. Their proliferation turned boulevards into galleries. The manner of Modernism took possession of the street. The advancement of printing technology and a broadening of prosperity provided young artists with opportunities to design and publish. In this competitive environment the artistic quality of posters became increasingly important. Designers using this new medium and working for a different market were less bound by convention than even the most daring avant-garde painter. The creative spirit was unleashed with a palpable sense of liberation.
Posters produced its own masters of whom Czech-born Alphonse [Alfons Maria] Mucha was the greatest and most prolific. Known as the King of Parisian Pastels, ‘le style Mucha’ became synonymous with Art Nouveau. He helped launch the theatrical career of Sarah Bernardt after she hired him to promote her 1894 dramatic piece Gismonda. The subjects of his posters reflect the texture of modern life. They range from cultural manifestations and travel destinations to consumer products (perfume, champagne, chocolate, etc.). These were among the best-known images of the period. Published in 1902, Mucha’s poster for Cycles Perfecta subtly suggests the association of women’s liberation and riding a bicycle.
The Grolier Club exhibition popularised French posters in America. Magazine publishers, eager to expand circulation, began commissioning illustrators to decorate their covers. The commercial sector took notice of the impact Parisian posters had made on stimulating sales. New opportunities inspired a generation of young designers, including artists such as Brooklyn-born Edward Penfield ( dubbed the father of the American poster) and Boston-born William H. Bradley. These artists tended to follow the example set by the British Aesthetic Movement, finding inspiration in Aubrey Beardsley’s stylistic approach as is evident from Bradley’s lithograph poster ‘Victor Bicycles’ (1896) that was commissioned by Overman Wheel Company in Massachusetts.
From 1896 onwards, Sarah Bernhardt (the Divine Sarah in the words of Oscar Wilde) made annual tours of America which were wildly popular. By implication, Mucha’s posters became widely known and admired. Having taken American audiences by storm, he made his first visit to New York in 1904 and rented a studio near Central Park where he settled as a portrait painter. He also taught at the New York School of Applied Design for Women (established in 1892) at 200 West 23rd Street, in the heart of Chelsea. Away from the pressures of popularity and the continuous demands of Parisian publishers, he re-energised and was able to focus on other, non-commercial projects. He remained in New York until 1909.
One of the largest collections of Mucha’s posters was brought together by Czech-born and naturalized American tennis player Ivan Lendl. His collection was exhibited for the first time in 2013 in Prague, attracting vast numbers of visitors. Six years later Poster House, the only US museum dedicated exclusively to poster art, opened its doors to the public. Located in a historic building at 23rd Street in Manhattan’s Chelsea district, its inaugural exhibition was dedicated to Mucha by making use of the Lendl-collection. It was appropriately named “Alphonse Mucha: Art Nouveau / Nouvelle Femme.”
The triumph of the artist’s talent originates in his ability of matching the conflicting trends of aesthetics, feminism, and commercialism. The artist depicts modern women as sensual, self-confident, and stylish – an antidote to an overly-masculine society. Although boosting consumer products that were more often than not aimed at a male audience, New Woman restored artistic grace to the urban environment. This is the appealing contradiction in the work of Mucha and other poster designers of his epoch.
Illustration: 1890’s caricature of gender role reversals (satire of the “New Woman”), with a smoking woman aggressively pursuing a coy man.