Celebrities, dance halls, Champagne and bicycles. Those are some of the subjects of “Posters of Paris: Toulouse-Lautrec & His Contemporaries,” the marquee exhibition on view this summer at the Milwaukee Art Museum. These large works on paper from the late 19th and early 20th centuries were created more for commercial interests than as art for art’s sake.
Many of the posters in the exhibition were originally street advertisements. Nineteenth-century Paris was characterized by a growing middle class with more time and money for leisurely pursuits than prior generations. A proliferation of cafe-concerts and nightclubs catered to middle-class entertainment and fostered a cult of celebrity. The posters advertising all of this covered entire walls as well as freestanding kiosks that were created simply to tout the modern delights of the city.
The artists behind the posters became known for their work. The best created affiches artistiques (artistic posters), which were not just advertisements but were also admired for their aesthetic values. The best-known artists in this field are Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Jules Chéret, considered the “king of the poster.” Alphonse Mucha was also highly regarded, particularly for his glorious, glamorous posters for the legendary actress Sarah Bernhardt. One of the exceptional pieces in MAM’s exhibition is Mucha’s representation of Bernhardt in the role of Gismonda, glowing with Byzantine splendor and shimmering gold.
In Paris, popular posters were stolen off walls – or poster hangers might be bribed to part with choice pieces. In the 1880s, posters became available through the gallery system, and along with this came poster exhibitions. While the posters didn’t have the same pedigree as paintings or sculptures, the bright scenes of modern life sparked affichomanie, or poster mania. MAM’s exhibition includes a wide variety of posters, plus archival pieces such as studies and drawings. The layout of the exhibition gives a strong sense of the variety of artistic styles, from the early works with nuanced light and shadow, to the swirls of Art Nouveau, to the boldness of color and flat forms in the early 20th century. The posters on view come from museums as well as a number of private collections, including that of Milwaukeeans Jim and Susee Wiechmann.
Just as they once adorned the streets of Paris, these posters today can be found on the walls of many fashionable homes. Their colorful vibrancy and commanding size appeal to museum-goers, collectors and decorators alike. Designer Beth Liebl, owner of Applegate’s Interior Design in Mequon, is an aficionado of decorating with posters as well as a collector. She contends that the right installation of a poster can “make a room.” A dramatic composition can make an excellent focal point to enliven a quiet room, especially when placed against a neutral background, Liebl says. Another option is a dark wall color that offers a rich contrast to the brightness of a poster.
Milwaukeean Julie Solochek is an avid collector of posters whose interest in them has spanned decades. Like many collectors, she became smitten following visits to antique galleries and art fairs. From there it was only a matter of time before she bought her first poster.
Solochek advises to “buy what you like. Like any other art, you don’t buy it for an investment. You have to love it and want to look at it.” On a practical note, however, she also advises considering wall measurements. The posters tend to be quite sizable, and while crowded posters on the streets of Paris were de rigeuer, it is too much for a living room.
For Solochek, the posters’ appeal is in their history as well as their artistic value. She finds it fascinating to think about their origins as pieces of advertising – that they were part of everyday life preserved as artifacts of art.
“Posters of Paris: Toulouse-Lautrec & His Contemporaries” offers an enjoyable, informative overview of the poster as a form of street art. But keep your eyes open, as you are sure to see their likes again – in galleries, or as vivacious decoration in well-appointed homes.
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s posters captured the personalities of Parisian nightlife, as seen in his poster “Ambassadeurs:Aristide Bruant” (R).“King of the Poster” Jules Chéret plays with the energy of nightclub acts in “L’Horloge: Les Girard” (L). “Posters of Paris: Toulouse-Lautrec & His Contemporaries” continues at the Milwaukee Art Museum through Sept. 9.