Poster Art – Reminiscence Down the History Lane

Poster art is one of the most well-defined forms of art that has a rich historical background that involves a number of famous artists throughout the world. Ranging from advertising campaigning to political and social awareness, posters have made their mark well on the walls of history. These interesting pieces of paper are a frequent tool of advertisers, propagandists, protesters and other groups trying to communicate a message.

Another type of poster is the educational poster, which may be about a particular subject for educational purposes. However, whatever their purpose may be, posters have inherited a rich legacy of art and artists. I have tried to sum up the yesteryear of poster art in the following:

Initiation – The Chéret Era


Posters and poster art first came into existence in the late 19th century by a French artist, J. Chéret. These were basically advertising posters that evolved from picture-less playbills and book adverts. The written information was over-powered by decoration and figurative depictions. Chéret played a leading role in the development of the posters by his ‘three stone’ lithographic process.

It was a breakthrough in poster printing which allowed artists to achieve every color in the rainbow with as little as three stones printed in cautious registration. The characteristic to combine text and image in such an attractive, yet economical way made the lithographic posters a powerful innovation.

Posters soon became an important mean of mass communication in the growing cities of Europe and Americas. The streets of Paris, Milan and Berlin transformed into the art galleries of poster art and pioneered the modern era of advertising.

Obsession – The Belle Epoque Era


Belle Epoque is the era of 1890s when poster craze was at its acme. Meanwhile Toulouse-Lautrec created Moulin Rouge, his masterpiece poster that elevated the status of the poster art to fine art. Posters began selling like hot cakes and French poster exhibitions, magazines and dealers multiplied.

Another revolution was brought in 1894 called the Art Nouveau poster design by Alphonse Mucha. This was a flowery, ornate style, developed overnight when Mucha was pressed to produce a poster for Sarah Bernhardt, a famous French actress.

This style dominated the Parisian scene for the next ten years and became the major international decorative art movement till the World War I.


In the 1880s, the poster art took hold in other countries as well, especially during the Belle Epoque. Each country’s specific poster art came up with a taste of its particular culture. In France the café culture, in Italy the opera and fashion, in Spain the bullfight and festivals, in Holland literature and products for the home, in Germany trade fairs and magazines, in Britain and America literary journals and the circus were prominent in poster subjects.

Progression – The New Century


The twentieth century came and Art Nouveau continued. However, it lost much of its dynamism through imitation and repetition. Then came Leonetto Cappiello, a young Italian caricaturist rejected the detailed style of Art Nouveau. Being a caricaturist, he focused on creating one simple image, often humorous or bizarre, which would immediately capture the viewer’s attention on a busy boulevard. His 1906 Maurin Quina absinthe poster-style dominated Parisian poster art for quite a while. To create a brand identity established Cappiello as the father of modern advertising.

In the meantime, artists working in Scotland’s Glasgow School, Austria’s Vienna Secession, and Germany’s Deutscher Werkbund also were transforming Art Nouveau. A key outcome of these modernist efforts was the German Plakatstil, led off in 1905 by Lucien Bernhard in Berlin and Ludwig Hohlwein in Munich.

Bernhard took the novel approach of drawing two large matches and writing the brand name above them in clean, bold letters. The stark simplicity, stress on flat colors and shapes made his work the next step towards creating an abstract, and modern visual language.

Aggression – The World War l


With the outburst of World War I, posters performed a new role, i.e. propaganda. Indeed, the war initiated the biggest advertising campaign to date. Wartime communication ranged from raising money, recruiting soldiers and boosting volunteer efforts, to spurring production and provoking outrage at enemy violence.

Bolsheviks turned to poster art to help win their civil war against the Whites. Lenin and his followers proved to be the pioneers of modern propaganda, and here the poster became a weapon which was used throughout the century.

Industrialization – Modernism and Art Deco


After World War I, Industrial Age boomed and so, Art Nouveau’s organic inspiration in poster art seemed irrelevant. The new realities were better expressed in the modern art movements of Cubism (An artistic movement in France beginning in 1907 that featured surfaces of geometrical planes), Futurism (An artistic movement in Italy around 1910 that tried to express the energy and values of the machine age), Dada (A nihilistic art movement (especially in painting) that flourished in Europe early in the 20th century; based on irrationality and negation of the accepted laws of beauty) and Expressionism , (An art movement early in the 20th century; the artist’s subjective expression of inner experiences was emphasized; an inner feeling was expressed through a distorted rendition of reality) all of which would have a profound influence on graphic design.


Art Deco was a scientific language of design popularized as a new international decorative poster movement. In this machine age style, power and speed became the primary themes. Shapes were simplified and streamlined and curved letterforms were replaced by sleek, angular ones. Art Deco, like Art Nouveau, spread quickly throughout Europe and was adopted by some famous European artists as their poster art.

Innovation – The World War ll


In the World War II, poster again acted as an important communication role, but this time it shared the spotlight with other innovative media as well, mainly radio and print. By WW ll, most posters were printed using the mass production technique of photo offset, which resulted in the common dot pattern seen in newspapers and magazines. The use of photography in posters, begun in the Soviet Union, became illustration.

Poster style changed in this era. Visual elegance was often matched by gentle humor. With the end of lithographic printing in the ’50s, Leupin, Brun and the other artists turned to a humorous style which was less reliant upon the rich color and textures of lithographic printing. After the war, with the invention of Television, the status of poster declined further in most countries.

Internationalization – The Postwar Information Age


Switzerland continued to dominate poster art in the late fifties with the development of a new graphic style. As the new style strongly relied upon typographic elements in black and white, the new style was called the International Typographic Style. This style utilized a mathematical grid, strict graphic rules and black and white photography to provide a clear and logical structure. It became the prevailing graphic design style in the world in the 1970s, and continues even today.


The new Typographic Style was perfectly suited to the increasingly global postwar marketplace. It catered to the corporations which needed international identification, and provided universal solutions for global events such as the Olympics. Meanwhile, a more relaxed approach took hold in several countries, most notably the U.S. and Poland. Philip Meggs uses the umbrella term ‘Conceptual Image’ to describe a new illustration style. A famous example was Milton Glaser’s 1967 Bob Dylan record album insert.

Revolution – Post-Modernism and Computer Age


The International Typographic Style began to lose its energy in the late 1970s and early ’80s, mainly because it was criticized for being cold, formal and dogmatic. A young Swiss teacher, Wolfgang Weingart led the palace revolt which is still seen in today’s graphic style, known as Post-Modern design. Weingart experimented with poster art that appeared complex, chaotic, playful and spontaneous. His experiments brought forth the foundation for several new styles, from Memphis and Retro, to the advancements now being made by computer graphics.

The main purpose and significance of the poster has changed over the past century to meet the changing needs and advancements of world. Although, they play a less central role today than 100 years ago, the poster will evolve further as the computer and the World Wide Web will revolutionize communication in the 21st century.


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