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What you should remember about the beginning of poster art is its connection to the arts politics of 19th century Europe, particularly Paris. Of course the coincidence of a growing industrial economy and a perfected color lithographic print technology accounted for the spectacle of large, colorful advertisements in the streets. But that convergence alone would never have sustained a serious collectible market more than 100 years after the first postings.

Poster commissions allowed painters, illustrators and other artisans to express, in a tangible form, misgivings about the validity of so-called fine art while reshaping the input of so-called decorative art. The apparently lightweight quality of the designs had something to do with the fact that in order to promote effectively a product or service the designer had to associate it with some widely comprehensible glimpse of the rewards of being alive. But it does not follow that their fun and ease of comprehension leave posters a party to the dumbing down of recent times. For the early dissidents of Montmartre and subsequent designers of Cubist, Constructivist and Bauhaus persuasions—amongst whom, notably, A.M. Cassandre—there were possibilities in the transaction between poster and viewer which fascinated and drove them to startling effects.

Only those posterists with a talent (rarer than commonly supposed) for evoking delight managed to thrive in that industry and thereby provide us with collectibles whose beauty and diffidence speak to some of us with surprising impact. It is in the tossed-off aura of such presentations that posters become haunting for producer and consumer alike. For in that they approach something hitherto neglected by the long-established arts.

In addition to providing that surprising bonus along with encouragements to buy a product, the full-grown posters in question here deployed a physical resource which greatly enhanced their labors of attraction, namely, lithographic printing. Its hand-craft intensive preparation and harmonization of porous stone or metal sheets yielded up intensities and subtleties of color and line on a par with original drawing and painting. The upshot of this production method was seductive textural cuisine adding to our bemusement at being arrested in this way.

There is, to be sure, a more complex setting for the emergence of poster art than that paragraph suggests. In fact, the inspiration of Art Nouveau and Art Deco graphic design shares an impulse apparent in several art forms contemporaneous with the dates when the great posterists flourished. Impressionist painting embodied an urgency to do justice to a remarkable significance about moments of kinetic sensuousness that pierce and re-cast absorption in mundane tasks. (Impressionist music followed suit.) Art Nouveau and Art Deco architecture also aspired to such an outcome. Avant-garde and abstract art movements gravitated to such an effort to overthrow the canniness of the Western tradition. It is no mere coincidence that the Golden Age of the poster witnessed the emergence of dance as a self-assured art form. For example, a figure with roots in the Machine Age and with a trajectory still gaining traction in the twenty-first century, namely, choreographer George Balanchine ( 1904-1983) , spent a lifetime launching kinetic crafts that circulate the blithe and uncanny abysses approached by the little magnets that operate from out of a lithographic format. The improvisational character of jazz in marshalling haunting motifs and rhythms certainly has much to do with that tide of audacity seized upon by poster art to establish a desirability about commercial phenomena. So, too, the hyper-physical delivery of avant-garde music composed and produced (often for dance productions) by notables like Philip Glass, and pop and rock music, especially in conjunction with daring filmmaking like that of David Lynch and Wong Kar Wai.

While it is undeniable that the evocative intentions of vintage poster art are not exclusive to that métier, in many instances those intentions are uniquely concentrated due to its unusual interactivity, its not being encumbered by a tradition ( with its antithetical expectations), and its enlisting exponents unintimidated by seeming frivolous. In looking closely at the graphic art at the core of poster production when marketing depended on it in a way similar to contemporary marketing’s immersion in the worldwide web, we have to conclude that the allure of this phenomenon was not confined to large tableaux glued to walls and hoardings on the streets. There was at the time in question a deluge of inducements to buy into and enjoy material products and events, as elicited by smaller-scale, indoor signs and publications. (This dimension of graphic art is covered in our Collecting Vintage Posters file.)

We have, in this account, attempted to alert aficionados and dabblers alike to the vast energies under the surface of these amusing, useful and beautiful historical objects.


Lithography (from lithos, 'stone' + graphein, 'to write') is a method for printing using a lithographic limestone or a metal plate with a completely smooth surface. Invented in 1796 by Bavarian author Alois Senefelder as a low-cost method of publishing theatrical works, lithography can be used to print text or artwork onto paper or another suitable material. Lithography originally used an image drawn in wax or other oily substance applied to a lithographic stone as the medium to transfer ink to the printed sheet. In modern times, the image is often made of polymer applied to a flexible aluminum plate. The flat surface of the plate or stone is slightly roughened, or etched, and divided into hydrophilic regions that accept a film of water and thereby repel the greasy ink, and hydrophobic regions that repel water and accept ink because the surface tension is higher on the greasier image area which remains dry. The image may be printed directly from the stone or plate (in which case it is reversed from the original image) or may be offset by transfer to a flexible sheet, usually rubber, for transfer to the printed article.

Modern Lithographic Process (offset lithography) depends on photographic processes, flexible aluminum, polyester, mylar or paper printing plates in place of stone tablets. Modern printing plates have a brushed or roughened texture and are covered with a photosensitive emulsion. A photographic negative of the desired image is placed in contact with the emulsion and the plate is exposed to ultraviolet light. After development, the emulsion shows a reverse of the negative image, which is thus a duplicate of the original (positive) image. The image on the plate emulsion can also be created through direct laser imaging in a CTP (Computer-To-Plate) device called a platesetter. The positive image is the emulsion that remains after imaging. For many years, chemicals have been used to remove the non-image emulsion, but now plates are available that do not require chemical processing.

Silkscreen Screen Printing is a printing technique that uses a woven mesh to support an ink-blocking stencil. The attached stencil forms open areas of mesh that transfer ink or other printable materials which can be pressed through the mesh as a sharp-edged image onto a substrate. A roller or squeegee is moved across the screen stencil, forcing or pumping ink past the threads of the woven mesh in the open areas.

Serigraphy is a combination word from the Latin word "Seri" (silk) and the Greek word "graphein" (to write or draw). Serigraphy is machine and mass produced printing, whereas silkscreen is hand and limited edition printing.

Engravings/Etchings are made by having a line etched or cut into plates made of copper or wood.  In modern times steel is used and the engraved plate lasts longer than copper plates enabling more impressions to be made taking fashion plates to a larger audience.  When the engraved plate is inked and pressed onto the paper, the ink creates mirror image marks on the paper.

Pochoir printing was used early in the twentieth century in France for fashion and style designs.  The method uses stencils (as does silkscreen), but in the case of the pochoir, an artisan hand colors the spacing created by the stencil. An underlying black line lithograph guides the stencilling process.

Maquette production is a special area of the vintage graphics trade. Graphic designs come to full effect by way of a graphic artist’s initial composition of the evocative project. These preparatory efforts are often drawn and painted on heavy paper of smaller proportions than the finished graphic. There are several such entities in circulation within the graphics collectible market.