One of the most resolved poster artists to grace the era (1890–1940) of the métier’s heyday was A.M. Cassandre. During the 1920’s and 1930’s he designed enticements–particularly for transportation firms–which would impact by way of streamlined composition and surrealist spatiality and light. Notwithstanding polemical insistence upon commonness, geometry and physics, Cassandre’s dedication emerges clearly enough in the works as a dedication to uncanniness. Somewhat like Artaud, Cassandre was neither a prolific nor a comprehensive commentator on his business, but he evinced, in his fashion, a startling acuity. Early in his career (c.1929) he could declare, “The poster has to trigger an emotion. And this emotion, whether or not the viewer is conscious of it, has to be an obsessive one.” However, Cassandre–possibly once again like Artaud, more hopeful than the facts allowed–would claim to be party to a groundswell of iconoclastic perseverance. “The language of advertising is as yet in its infancy–but it has been born. A whole generation of artists recognizes it as its most vital means of expression.” It would be one thing to threaten, rather awkwardly, a presumed squelching of traditional art by lithographic technology, but there would still be a reckoning with the almost mineral obtuseness of world history in face of incursions of (paradoxically) indispensable integrity.
“ ‘Of course a poster is a plastic message. Yet even though the poster artist uses the methods of painting, he does not use them as a means of individual expression. To him these methods are an anonymous language, a sort of international code like the Morse code. There may come a day when our telegrapher will have to send out an SOS, and no doubt his anguished message will then contain something of himself–he will not be able to prevent this. But in the tumult of the city, in the bawling, inchoate, inhuman voice of the loudspeaker on the other side of the world, who will hear his thumping heart beats?’”
The slippery tectonics of promotional intentions, whereby egoity comes to bear and ridiculous vanities run wild, began to assert itself upon Cassandre with overwhelming force by the late 1930’s. At that point, the posterist, who as a very young man had adopted the self–deprecating pseudonym, Cassandre, in order to one day “make the leap into the higher regions of easel painting” under his own name, Adolphe Mouron, but who had subsequently made discoveries about poster art which obviated the callow assumptions about painting’s supremacy, lost confidence in that audacity and migrated out of season into the discredited region of painting (and stage tableaux).
“ ‘As for me, I once felt that advertising brimmed with life. I thought that every time I designed a poster I would be able to break into the flux of days and society, I thought I would be able to express a certain form of activity… an idea…
The reason why I have virtually abandoned advertising and now devote myself entirely to painting is that I felt nauseated by the perpetual confusion of values which is inevitable, given the present state of affairs…and so I renounce what I had believed for a time: that one can utilize the crude means of the poster to reach the viewer’s innermost fiber, that one can reach him in his sensitive and emotional existence and awaken his intellect. That was no doubt asking too much.’”
Cassandre’s painful odyssey culminated in suicide.
To bring more specificness into this consideration, and at the same time anticipate a combative strategy, let us picture Cassandre in New York, that is, during the time (the late 1930’s) when his zeal for graphic art began to erode. To a visitor, especially a visitor with something to sell, the city of New York can bedazzle by reason of the volume and depth of purchasing it evinces. Nowhere else on earth performs conspicuous consumption like that storied town. Someone, like Cassandre, alienated from the saga there, on grounds of culture and language, would undergo a disorientation. What commercial linkage might obtain could in fact evoke further misalliance, if the deal were to turn sour. Cassandre’s prestige was enhanced by critical reverence for the few commissions generated (largely magazine covers and ads), and by way of the expatriate European colony with whom he was generally ensconced. But when it came to engaging the full flood of consumer motives, by way of poster design, there was the unfamiliar shock of failure. The outreach of streamlined bonbons, so admired in Paris, could not widely capture the rowdy surge of American appetites. Commissions evaporated, and, in the subsequent, ample free time, Cassandre reactivated his aspiration to practice the high art of easel painting. Along with that step came contempt for graphic art as partnered with a newly–discerned crudity about commercial involvements.
The tailspin of Cassandre’s formidable sensibility gives access to imperatives the neglect of which spells not merely confusion, but hellish confusion. One great danger lying in wait for an ardent (and unsecured) effort like Cassandre’s is underestimation of those for whom satisfaction of extravagant desires seems to come with ridiculous ease. In its unique hospitableness to the very rich, the very smart and the very tough, New York abounds in acquisitorial triumphs. The thing about such euphoria, in a setting designed to maximize that to which desires lead, is its engagement, however unsteady, of monumental love and its boundless sufficiencies. As a resident of Paris (particularly in the 1920’s), Cassandre would have beheld a sustained, high–power transaction of deluxe beauties. In fact he was close to the center of its generating spirit. But Parisians would be more…prepared, more apt for the transmission of great verities. After all, they bought his work! But Americans? Alarming barbarians, of course!
Cassandre’s descent into chauvinistic hate parallels common responses on the part of outsiders to the purveyance of splendor in New York City. Canadians, to cite an egregious example, return from their visit aghast at the supposed torment of the city’s poor at the hands of its “heartless” rich, and therefrom reiterate their sense of good fortune in living in a land with a superior level of humanity. Toronto, since we’re talking about the emission of hate (particularly, though hardly exclusively, toward New York), designates itself–entirely without irony–as “The People City.” Examination of that ludicrous conceit can bring us to the central point of Cassandre’s mishap, and to the features of efficacious history. To live in The People City is to be spared from the self–evident hardness, coldness and shallowness in murderous effect just an hour’s plane ride away. What is noteworthy here is not that the readings of both places are inaccurate, but that they are absolutely so. They stem from a resort to the cheapest of humanitarian clichés, the currency of which precludes the merest shred of comprehension of what New York is about, and Toronto. More than half the population of that elusive centre are, ideologically, as benighted as Torontonians. But even those most adamantly on guard, there, for the prospect of making their home more like Toronto, evince enhancements seldom, if ever, seen in the empty wastes to the North. Those enhancements cut to the issue Cassandre unnecessarily misplays.
Endowed as he was with a reservoir of courage opening the way to a reflectively serious craftsmanship, Cassandre could have learned much from his Manhattan adventure. Had he opened his eyes, ears and heart, he could have engaged the luxuriance of craft–become–art in the architecture and omnipresent other presentations of that site of unique inspiration born of the most stringent demands. Would he have felt the impingement of vicious jerks? Of course. But for all the shortcomings, there is a formative depth of generosity, gracing not only lucrative productions but every moment of a social fabric keyed to full–throttle intention. Even peevish “progressives,” intent on a sabotage of that refractory motive, rise above triviality not primarily due to adherence to any venerable dogma nor to heartwarming grassroots positivity, but by their good fortune to be amidst a current bearing and yielding love outstripping their sentimental addictions. Had he been receptive to products other than his own and, more importantly, to the timbre of extraordinary professionalism and interpersonal responsibility in effect all around him, Cassandre might have attained to a sense of historical action more apt than his standby of genius–tinged interventions. Confounding the glib musings by defenders of those most “vulnerable” in their useful distress, it is precisely within the context of that hyper–competitive and hyper– incisive creativity that sustaining human warmth emerges on a large scale. Is this the only context able to generate such a gift? Perhaps not; but a perusal of alternatives onstream would suggest that it is a rare (and of course flawed) launch for intrinsically confined historical expectations. It should have been quite possible for Cassandre to muster the discernment, honesty and energy to embrace the uniquely sophisticated opportunities offered by his temporary home. Residents of a place like Toronto, which could be characterized as a giant circuit–breaker for transmissions of pertinence, are perfect candidates for making asses of themselves in face of grownups. Though far from likewise impoverished, Cassandre in New York became too “vulnerable” to be consistently human.
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