Popularity, Populism and the Poster

Book Review

  • The Poster: Art, Advertising, Design, and Collecting, 1860s–1900s

  • By Ruth E. Iskin
  • 408 pages, 48 color plates, 140 illustrations
  • Dartmouth College Press, Hanover, NH, 2014
  • $50

“My posters are not intended for close or detailed examination,” Jules Chéret once remarked. Ironically, Chéret is one of the few artists whose posters have since the 19th century been the subject of careful scrutiny; for the most part they have remained in the shadows of art historical scholarship, rarely treated in any depth. In this new and important book, however, Ruth E. Iskin contends that the poster was at the center of a constellation of cultural developments that continues to affect visual culture, from design and production to art criticism and collecting. In addition to consistently thought-provoking visual analyses, Iskin examines the poster’s history through the lenses of late 19th-century critical responses and contemporary theoretical models regarding reproduction, reception, and the history of modernism.

At the heart of Iskin’s study is color lithography, which became the medium par excellence for artistic posters in the Belle Époque. Although lithography had been used by artists since the beginning of the century, many print connoisseurs considered color lithography an illegitimate form of printmaking: Iskin observes, “the poster lacked the pedigree of the black-and-white print, which was long associated with the interior and with collecting”—a fact cunningly visualized in Pierre Bonnard’s 1897 poster for the journal L’Estampe et l’Affiche. Nonetheless, with the vehement support of critics such as Roger Marx and André Mellerio, color lithography gained traction among both printmakers and a new breed of collectors.

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