Mention an exhibition about the history of poster advertising, and the first thing that comes to mind may be the gloriously groovy psychedelic posters of the 1960s. The Grateful Dead at the Avalon Ballroom, complete with a smiling skeleton image embellished with red roses. The Yardbirds and the Doors at the Fillmore [the San Francisco concert venue that gives out its quality posters after shows for free] has a stylized peacock separating the poster text from a face. Posters that originally served as advertisements have become stylistic reference points for graphic designers of the 21st century.
But “The Art of Advertisement: Art Nouveau posters of the Late 19th Century,” now on exhibit at VMFA, takes viewers back to the original source material. The eight large posters selected from museum’s collection of art nouveau works on paper highlight the iconic late 19th-century design style, which emphasized beauty in natural forms and movement which was often expressed through flowing, stylized lines and flourishing patterns.
While printed ads for public consumption can be traced back to the 15th century, it was really the invention of lithography in the late 19th century that was the game changer. After 1860, brilliantly colorful posters could be created cheaply and easily, making it simpler to reach the public with eye-catching posters for venues, shows, home goods, food and drink products and magazines.
Best known for his posters featuring the multiple neighborhood cats he fed –many a ‘70s apartment wall boasted the iconic “Chat Noir” poster; painter, printmaker and sculptor Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen is also part of the exhibit. “Pasteurized Milk from the Vingeanne” was designed for dairy owner Maurice Quillot, who was looking to advertise his newest product, pasteurized milk. Steinlen’s poster shows his daughter Colette in a vivid red dress with black sash, sipping a bowl of milk while three felines lean into her, staring intently at the bowl. The image proved so popular that Nestlé’s Milk eventually adapted the design for its own advertisements.
And what would an exhibit of posters be without a piece by Toulouse-Lautrec, the prolific artist commissioned to produce a series of posters for the Moulin Rouge when it opened in 1889? Included in “The Art of Advertisement” is “Divan Japonais,” a poster for another Parisian nightclub he and Paris’ night crowd frequented. It was commissioned by Edouard Fournier, the director of the club, whose name is featured prominently on the poster, along with can can dancer Jane Avril and French critic and journalist Edouard Dujardin. Behind them, performing, is singer Yvette Guilbert, who would have been instantly recognizable to Parisians because of her trademark black gloves.
La Maison Moderne, Julius Meier Graete’s art gallery, opened in 1899 and took its place at the forefront of the French Art Nouveau movement. Italian-born illustrator and designer Manuel Orazi was one of a stable of master craftsmen and emerging artists whose work was sold at the gallery.
In “The Modern House,” Orazi shows a fashionable woman in profile, clad in a jewel tone blue color from head to hand to waist, and conveniently sporting jewelry he designed. The display case behind her, in muted shades of green and white, depicts an array of decorative objects conceived and crafted by the various artists.
With the aim of rapidly producing these posters and displaying them on city walls, kiosks and fences, the artists learned there was an unexpected consequence of this new art form. The average Joe could collect posters, a change that represented one of the first opportunities for the public to build their own art collections. It was a trend that lasted about 20 years, but stylistically, the art nouveau design style laid the foundation for modern and contemporary graphic design.
For any Richmonders who discovered absinthe at the VMFA’s Amuse restaurant during the “Picasso: Masterpieces from the Museé National, Paris” in 2011, “Absinthe Robette” is a titillating reminder of the liqueur’s seductive qualities.
Belgian artist Henri Privat-Livemont’s creation for the Belgian distillery Robette’s absinthe is a siren’s song to the heady pleasures of imbibing the unique drink. With a Greco-Roman flair, the female nude wears only a sheer drape as she holds aloft the holy grail: absinthe, the spoon and sugar cube resting atop the glass so that water may be poured through it to achieve the hallucinogenic effects. Brewing wormwood produces absinthe and the plants’ leaves form a repeating pattern on one side, with the background color a pale absinthe green.
For those who haven’t been in the VMFA lately, “The Art of Advertisement” is a snack-sized entrée back into the museum’s fabulous collections. Small, eye catching and utterly compelling, the exhibition makes a strong case for how art nouveau posters pushed the preconceived notions of fine art and merged the gap between academic art and applied arts, leading to the poster craze spreading from Europe to America.
A contemporary visitor could look at Paul Berthon’s “Folies Bergere, Laine de Poughy,” with its intricate patterning of yellow irises in the foreground of the young woman’s figure, and understandably be reminded of Kehinde Wiley’s use of foreground flowers, as in his Obama portrait. Or, depending on the visitor’s age, be reminded of Stanley Mouse and Alton Kelley’s Grateful Dead at the Avalon poster.
Entertainment, milk or jewelry, it was all about the art of advertising.
“The Art of Advertisement: Art Nouveau Posters of the Late 19th Century” through January 21 at VMFA, 200 N. Arthur Ashe Boulevard, vmfa,museum