When we think of posters, it’s difficult not to get sucked into the hypnotic eddies of adspeak. In an advertising poster — and is there any other kind? — the text is meant to dominate the image. The function of the image is merely to direct the viewer’s attention to the central concern of the advertiser: to the language of selling. The woman on the toothpaste hoarding grabs the eye, leaving the viewer no choice but to closely scan the name of the brand as well as the nature of the deal. Whatever follows — our decision to buy the product on not — happens on a subconscious level.

This logic of advertising was the prime impetus that gave direction to the art of poster-making in Europe. But those who took it up had their own ideas about how a poster ought to be made.

When we think of the brilliance of the French artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, we think of his works done in oil paint, depicting the louche ballrooms and dance halls of Paris. His proficiency as a maker of posters and his love for poster-making are all but forgotten.

Making posters was a sort of commercial exploit for Toulouse-Lautrec, a source of easy income. He was commissioned by the most unlikely of people and organisations — once by a manufacturer of bicycle chains, though he always responded with his creative best. His poster for the bicycle chain manufacturer, for instance, exemplifies some of the main qualities that inform the rest of his work.

Made in 1896, this poster is a product of a typically modern consciousness. It conveys a sense of movement not just through the cyclist trio in the foreground, but through the stance of the figures that provide the backdrop to the drawing. The two men in their suits and bowler hats, hands in their pockets, are frozen in their walk, between one step and another. They look like they have emerged, after the break of dawn, from a Parisian club — the sort that might feature in a Toulouse-Lautrec painting.  The two oddballs are oddities in the present context. They are gatecrashers at a party, and their presence somewhere along the centre of the overall frame makes the work look completely off-balance, from an advertising point of view.

Such posters — and there are many — defy advertising logic, by infusing complexity, a multiplicity of elements, in the field of view. On the contrary, the seasoned advertiser strives to limit perspective by using techniques like magnification and repetition. The aim is always to endorse the supremacy — both visual and qualitative — of the featured product. When human models are used, this endorsement is manifested through stock emotions that are determined, for the most part, by a Huxleyan cult of happiness. That old shibboleth is at play: a happy person (consumer) is always smiling, is always proud. Now notice the profound lack of happiness in the Toulouse-Lautrec poster. Notice how the faces of the two riders (the face of the third is outside the frame) lack every little trace of joy. We see in their expressions resolve, resentment and envy. But no happiness and no material pride.

Toulouse-Lautrec was a great admirer of another 19th-century artist, Jules Cheret, who is regarded as the pioneer of the modern European poster. Cheret’s litho prints included advertisements of French casinos and of cabarets like Moulin Rouge.

Toulouse-Lautrec was a great admirer of another 19th-century artist, Jules Chéret, who is regarded as the pioneer of the modern European poster. Chéret’s  litho prints included advertisements of French casinos and of cabarets like Moulin Rouge. There’s a photograph of the tiny Toulouse-Lautrec (he was barely five-foot tall) standing respectfully, hat in hand, next to a large framed print of a Chéret poster. The interest of this image lies as much in the concurrence of genius it presents as in its reputation of having become a monument of a kind to the art of poster-making. 

The list of 19th-century European artists who regularly made posters would run to great lengths. It would include names like Pierre Bonnard, Eugène Grasset and Henri Matisse, apart from the two luminaries already mentioned above. Yet posters have received none of the scholarly or critical attention given to, say, oil paintings or watercolours in the history of the visual arts. Maybe that was why Chéret stopped producing posters altogether after a point of time, devoting himself completely to other, academically sanctioned, forms.  The fin de siècle brought with it radical changes in technology, changing in turn the way we created or absorbed art. Historical forces were at play. Wars and revolutions were ripping the European continent apart and unveiling the exploitative tendencies of consumerism. No wonder most serious artists began to turn their gaze elsewhere, even as poster art, which had always been a useful tool of the advertising industry, was being enlisted for spreading political propaganda.

Some of the most imaginative specimens of propaganda posters are to be found in the archives of the Soviet Union. These posters are exhortations, often quite shrill, addressed to a responsible citizenry. Some of them show graphic scenes, of hideous violence being committed — people skinned alive or stabbed or impaled — attributing the brutality to the enemy. The role of symbols is given absolute primacy in propaganda posters, something they share with the rules of commercial advertisement.  Tracing the history of poster-making, we follow a trajectory that expresses a distinct loss of innocence. An old form whose strength was its originality, its ebullience, its joie de vivre, was given over, with the passing of time, to the vulgar falsehoods of the philistine. This is a trajectory that leads us downwards: from Chéret and Toulouse-Lautrec, down to wartime propaganda, political lies, and eventually, right down to that woman grinning on the toothpaste hoarding.

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