Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 28, 2016
Ruth E. Iskin The Poster: Art, Advertising, Design, and Collecting, 1860s–1900s Interfaces: Studies in Visual Culture. Hanover, NH: Dartmouth College Press, 2014. 408 pp.; 48 color ills.; 188 b/w ills. Paper $50.00 (9781611686173)

Posters have long occupied a paradoxical position in the history of nineteenth-century art. Despite their appearance at the center of many exhibitions and textbook studies of the period, posters remain mostly peripheral to art history’s disciplinary foci. Ruth Iskin’s The Poster: Art, Advertising, Design, and Collecting, 1860s–1900s offers an important antidote to the exclusion of posters from substantive art-historical analysis. As her title asserts, “the poster” merits new consideration as a broad category and as a venue where the domains of “art, advertising, design, and collecting” meet. Rather than simply looking to posters for what they reveal about developments in painting or other traditional media, Iskin gives this form of representation a distinct significance of its own as a modernist medium. Iskin’s engaging and readable book contributes to the history of modern art, writ large; she argues persuasively for renewed examination of posters (and, by extension, other works on paper) as vehicles for the dissemination of modern visual culture.

Imagine a quiet street in Paris, France, circa 1900. Bored police officers and occasional pedestrians populate the otherwise empty boulevard. A worker uses a broad brush and a can of wheatpaste to affix posters to walls and wooden hoarding boards near a Parisian park. He moves on after adding a large poster, an advertisement for a theatrical production, Love on Credit. Each poster shows figures engaged in recognizable activities promoting a product, service, or entertainment for sale. Suddenly, the figures within the pictures come to life, move about, and step out of the frames of their respective posters. Passing police officers find themselves pelted with flour, and the resulting fracas descends swiftly into slapstick humor.

Although Iskin’s book does not treat this scene, one that played out in the trick photography of cinematic pioneer Georges Méliès, its release circa 1906 coincides with the closing years of her valuable study. Méliès’s film Les Affiches en goguette (“posters gone wild,” often called The Hilarious Posters) plays upon the poster’s ubiquitous presence on the streets of modern urban centers like Paris. By bringing the printed figures to life, Méliès interprets liberally the notion that bright colors and vitality characterized the poster’s dynamic challenge to visual culture at the dawn of the twentieth century. Several scholars have discussed the impact of posters, which visually saturated the streets of Europe’s capitals, on the art of the early twentieth-century avant-garde: they signal the role of these objects in the shift from narrative to iconic art, the aim to achieve simultaneity in painting, and the development of montage. Those studies, however, treat the poster as a relatively passive genre whose significance lies primarily in their availability to be appropriated by artists in other media. Thus not only does Iskin’s study add essential background to such twentieth-century histories of popular media and contribute significantly to our understanding of visual culture in the second half of the nineteenth century, but it is also one of the few art-historical studies that treats the poster as an object worthy of study in and of itself.

By focusing on the period from the 1860s into the 1900s, Iskin emphasizes the early history of posters. Readers familiar with Iskin’s Modern Women and Parisian Consumer Culture in Impressionist Painting (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007) may recognize continuities between that study and The Poster. As in her previous book, she continues to focus attention on the depiction of women, with special emphasis on those contexts associated with consumer culture. Posters usually touted something for sale and served as a central device for advertising. Iskin demonstrates the complexity behind such apparently simple acts of solicitation, discussing at length the ways in which form and content interacted in the poster to present the goods for sale. Within the imagery of posters, Iskin also identifies the active presence of consumers and potential collectors of such images, especially the female who inherits the title amateur d’art—a position formerly gendered male. She emphasizes this gendered identity of audiences for works on paper in the late nineteenth century, while showing the ways that the representation of women in posters reinforced (or helped to recruit and define) a diverse audience of collectors. Her arguments rest primarily on careful analyses of the posters themselves, as well as close readings of period sources that have rarely (if ever) been so well mustered for a deep analysis of the poster’s place in history.

Four approaches to examining posters structure Iskin’s narrative. In the first and longest section she considers the poster as art. Here she specifies the place of the poster in both art and mass media, and begins her examination of the female print connoisseur. In her second section she analyzes the consecration of the poster through varieties of reproduction, including the significant series of publications titled Les Maîtres de l’Affiche (“masters of the poster”; 1895–1900). Iskin refers to Walter Benjamin’s ideas about the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction to consider Les Maîtres de l’Affiche’s strategies for disseminating contemporary posters by reproducing them on a reduced scale in well-made books distributed by subscription. In her third section she considers the dialogue of word and image in posters as designed advertising. Iskin’s fourth section positions posters at the heart of a modern image-saturated culture, arguing for the nineteenth-century origins of visual culture. This final section reinforces the significance of collecting practices for Iskin’s arguments throughout. She reminds readers that collectors’ valuation of such ephemeral imagery made possible her own act of historical recovery and revaluation.

The Poster engages its reader effectively throughout, yet its second section is especially provocative and satisfying. Through reduced-scale reproduction, posters leapt from the streets to the pages of books, and thus to the homes and libraries of new audiences. A well-produced publication like Les Maîtres de l’Affiche offers a significant case study. Painter and poster artist Jules Chéret selected the posters included in Les Maîtres de l’Affiche, representing his own work at a volume exponentially greater than those of the other creators represented. Despite the nod given to international poster creation by this publication, French designers and printers dominated its pages. Using the influential example of Les Maîtres de l’Affiche, Iskin emphasizes the curatorial role Chéret and others played in developing a market for poster collecting in France and internationally. Because of Les Maîtres de l’Affiche’s emphasis on high standards of reproduction quality, the miniaturized versions of the monumental street posters seem to hold their own aura, complicating traditional understandings of the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction (and of Benjamin’s essay itself).

Posters existed on the edges of an artistic culture that gradually came to regard them as vehicles for technical and compositional experimentation. Iskin reminds readers that poster designing played significantly into the larger careers of prominent artists such as Pierre Bonnard and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. She sees continuities linking these creators’ experiments in print with their work in other media. In this regard, her work builds upon, and complements, previous groundbreaking work by Phillip Dennis Cate and others. Iskin’s book includes little about the technical processes that distinguished the “color lithographic revolution,” focusing instead on interpretations of depicted subjects and their link to larger social issues. She uncovers enough new topics to launch multiple thesis and dissertation examinations of posters in relation to larger cultural issues.

The greatest contribution of this book to the discipline of art history, however, lies in the challenge Iskin levies to rethink the role of print media in the creation and transformations of modern art. For Iskin, depictions of modern consumption and consumers in posters created a realm of visual culture that complemented, expanded, and energized painting. Poster collectors, especially a handful of fervent ones she refers to as “arch iconophiles,” secured the place of poster media in archives, museums, and ultimately in a cultural memory of what it meant to be modern.

James Housefield
Associate Professor, Department of Design, University of California, Davis