The Colorado International Invitational Poster Exhibition opens Friday night at CSU, a fabulous poster show sponsored by the CSU Art Department. Posters, for most of us, don’t seem the obvious choice for a serious art exhibition. We think of the bills posted around campus and wonder how any show could be dedicated to these advertising works. Yet an examination of the history and current expanse of posters as a genre can and should lead to a reassessment of our view of the poster as an art form.
Historically, posters have played a very important role in society. Early poster-like bills from the 1400s advertised events and political movements. These postings were so powerful in moving the public that the French monarchy even placed a ban on all posters that were not approved of by the king, says artist and poster historian Ervine Metzl.
The development of what is now recognized as the modern poster came about in the late 19th century with the artwork of French artists such as Jules Cheret and Henri Toulouse-Lautrec. Cheret’s sensual scenes and Toulouse-Lautrec’s striking characters and sickly colors not only were simple advertisements for products (such as wine and books) but also were sharp examinations and commentary on society.
Posters moved into America shortly after, morphing into brightly colored scenes that advertised a multitude of products and services. With the onset of both World Wars, poster art became powerful propaganda tools for all sides. Certainly we all recognize the “I Want You!” Uncle Sam posters and Rosie the Riveter images as part of our cultural lexicon. Growing and changing, they came to address social concerns with the development of “protest posters.”
Today, artists like Chaz Maviyane-Davies from Zimbabwe (who is the juror of this year’s Poster Exhibition), Daniel Reisinger from Israel or Luba Lukova in New York call attention to important social problems such as AIDS, hunger and war. Other artists, such as Art Chantry have been creating challenging art that both advertises and represents underground cultures such as the punk movement (for great examples of their work, our own library has a Web site dedicated to posters that has hundreds of images from these and other artists).
Unlike “fine” or “high” art, posters are designed to galvanize and appeal to a broader audience. Since they are in essence advertisements, they have to be able to catch the eye of many people and must be unique and exciting. Besides that, their short lifespan also forces them to be highly representative of the instant in society for which they were created, and thus are good windows into the current cultural atmosphere. The posters from around the world in the show this year are excellent examples of this, and everyone should attend this fabulous show to see how this “most transient of ‘applied’ arts” (as poster scholar Attillio Rossi calls it) is becoming a powerful and important ‘fine’ art that has a large part to play in our society. Perhaps by attending this show and examining posters in a new light, we can all learn to look more critically at the art that surrounds us in the form of posters.