I’ve always loved vintage posters. Maybe it’s because they often have to do with food and potent potables. Maybe it’s the Art Deco look or Art Nouveau style of some, or the bold graphics of others.
Thanks to a presentation at Studios on the Park in Paso Robles, I have an even deeper appreciation for this genre of art.
The gallery recently hosted Elizabeth Norris, owner of Vintage European Posters in Berkeley, who brought over 1,000 original posters from her impressive collection. The rest of the VEPCA collection were all restored original pieces, not reproductions. Topics ranged from bicycles to airlines to railroads, from WWI and WWII military posters to science and technology, and – my favorites – wine posters from the 19th and 20th centuries.
Among the real treats she showed us was a newly acquired trove of rare Art Nouveau and Belle Epoque Posters from Belgium and France. One was a circa 1896 original by Alphonse Mucha, one of the most important artists of the French Art Nouveau!
Norris explained that because posters functioned as advertisements, they marked the dawn of inventions and trends. As such, the layout and subject matter are telltale clues as to when the poster was produced.
Here are a few examples … (all from the VEPCA collection)
- Vintage absinthe posters predate 1915, when the drink was banned in most of Europe.
- A champagne illustration touting an “American taste” dates to European’s fascination with all things American during the Roaring 20s.
- Ads for lamp oil are rampant until electricity becomes commonplace. Fast forward to when that electricity shifts from just lighting a home to use in new gadgets such as refrigerators, radios, and televisions.
- Posters also trace advances in transportation through the increased uses of bicycles, cars, railroads, and steamers. Travel posters document the further unfurling of the world via jet travel.
- The advent of cars had an immediate visual impact on poster design. Before then, travel was done largely by foot or in carriages; posters from this era have a lot of information on them because people could and would stop to look at them and read them. Playbills advertising a production would have the date and time, prominent cast names, ticket prices, etc. After cars began to speed up our world, it wasn’t effective to have so much intricate info because people weren’t stopping their cars to read the posters.
Another fascinating aspect of this genre is that it exists for us to admire at all. Though modern posters have become an art form in their own right, not so for those dating back several decades or spanning centuries.
As Norris noted, these vintage works were designed just to be posters in the original sense – just playbills to be hung up in the streets for a few weeks at most. They were printed on newsprint, the cheapest possible paper. The plates, or stones, with which they were printed were ground down to be reused. The topics they touted were ephemeral: a stage production, the latest ad campaign, a new product that would be supplanted by the next new thing next week.
“The artists that made these posters could never have imagined that we would be seeing them today,” Norris said. “These posters weren’t made to last.”
– By Katy Budge