French posters from Chéret to Toulouse-Lautrec
27 June – 18 October 1998
introduction | art with a message
In the latter half of the 19th century a new art form appeared on the streets of Paris - the colour poster. Many of these vivid images advertised and celebrated the popular dance halls and cafés-concerts. Venues such as the Folies-Bergère, Alcazar, Moulin de la Galette, Elysée Montmartre and the seedier Moulin Rouge were frequented by a wide range of patrons.
These venues attracted everyone from aristocrats to young working girls. Crowds of merrymakers, pleasure seekers and demi mondaines mingled, flirted, danced and caroused, entertained by performances which, as one commentator put it, were often concerned with `matters below the belt'. By the 1890s, these venues were found throughout the city and its environs, catering to locals and tourists alike.
Once regarded as simply a form of advertising with little artistic merit, posters became more beautiful, more colourful and more daring during the last decade of the 19th century.
Colour lithography was the ideal printing process for posters. Artists drew directly on a limestone block with a greasy medium which absorbed ink. The directness of this method and the use of refined inks, giving purer, bolder colours, attracted artists in increasing numbers. Their art was brought to the streets in brightly coloured posters that could be printed in almost unlimited numbers.
As posters became more popular, entrepreneurs seized upon the opportunities for mass promotion inherent in this medium. At the same time, collectors began to seek out the latest works of upandcoming artists. Posters were used to decorate the home, and albums and portfolios of miniature versions of popular images - such as those in Les maîtres de l'affiche (The masters of the poster) - catered to this fashion.Nowhere was `poster madness' more widespread than in Paris - the quintessential European capital. Its grand boulevards bustled with bohemian strollers and fashionable promenaders. A city of delights, its cafés, delicacies, services, consumer products, exhibitions, circuses and dance halls - even its dives and more downatheel inhabitants - all became the subjects of posters that papered the streets and were sought by connoisseurs.
Jules Chéret was at the forefront of the poster revolution, He had honed his large format printing skills while working in London for the cosmetic company, Rimmel. After his return to France in the 1860s, his reputation and popularity grew. Chéret developed a simplified system for printing in three colours (later expanded to five) from separate lithographic stones, and also perfected the use of graduated colour from warm tones at the base of the composition to cool tones above. His method resulted in bright and memorable compositions that avoided the cheap colour `stews' which had previously given colour printing a bad name.
Chéret's posters advertised everything from gasoline and bookshops, to hats and circuses. However, it is in bright banners for dance halls and cafésconcerts that his style is given its full expression. Described by one contemporary critic as `a burst of multicoloured laughter', his posters are full of the gaiety and vivid colour of the world of Parisian entertainment.
In 1889 Chéret was commissioned to design a poster to advertise the opening of the Moulin Rouge. With pretty Rococoinspired young blondes, which became known as `Cherettes', he created a vibrant image redolent of gaiety and escapism. The following year, Chéret designed a distinctive poster for a masked ball at the rowdier Elysée Montmartre. He also created numerous designs for another café-concert and music hall, the Folies-Bergère, and was influential in establishing the career of a dancer who appeared there: Loïe Fuller, an American who made her name in Paris as one of the principal performers at the Folies-Bergère and was best known for her spectacular danse de feu (dance of fire).
Henri Thiriet 'Cycles et accessoires Griffiths [Griffiths cycles and accessories]' 1898 colour lithographic posterNational Gallery of Australia Gift of Orde Poynton Esq. CMG 1996 enlarge
Alphonse Mucha followed in Chéret's footsteps, designing posters to advertise forms of entertainment, as well as personal and household products. Mucha differed from Chéret stylistically; he became known for his sensual, exuberant interpretation of Art Nouveau. This style emerged in Paris in the 1890s, born of a love of decoration and inspired by organic forms. Mucha's poster art featured swirling sinuous lines and rounded female forms, as seen in his poster of 1894 advertising Job cigarette papers.
Mucha first became known through his association with Sarah Bernhardt, a principal figure on the Paris stage. In a series of lifesize posters, Mucha successfully translated Bernhardt's dramatic qualities, capturing for example her portrayal of Medea, from the classical tragedy Médée. As well as the publicity, Mucha's posters afforded Bernhardt the opportunity to market copies to a growing clientele of collectors who had succumbed to `poster madness'. She scrutinised such ventures carefully and they brought her handsome financial rewards - in one instance she took the noted printer Lemercier to court over copies of an edition that went missing.