DECORATIVE AND evocative, poster art of the last 100 years has been produced by some of the finest and most imaginative of artists. In the 17th and 18th centuries, posters were used mostly for political propaganda and government announcements. In the final decades of the last century, a whole new area opened to the poster artist: advertisements, either for publicizing events or merchandise. There were, and are, many popular special categories: sports, transportation (ships, airplanes and railroads), theaters, cafes, movies, the circus.
In Europe, the golden age of the poster was at the turn of the century, in the period known as the Belle Epoque. Among many who created imaginative posters were artists such as Jules Cheret, Alphonse Mucha, Aubrey Beardsley and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. The output of Jules Cheret was prodigious, and his work for advertisers (cigarette papers, aperitifs, theaters) richly documents the period and its interests: the cabaret, the music hall, the opera, the ballet--all symbolized by his conventionally pretty girls and vivid use of color.
Toulouse-Lautrec, in his relatively few posters, saw the reality of life during the Belle Epoque that went beyond its appealing surface. In an instant, for example, his brutally realistic poster of La Goulue can call back all those glorious, impossible years in a remarkably vivid way.
A few decades later, under the influence of Cubism and at the beginnings of the Art Deco period, artist A. M. Cassandre produced some memorable advertising posters in France: for trains, for Dubonnet aperitifs in 1932 and for the ocean liner Normandie in 1935 (an original sold at a recent auction for $2,800). Such posters summon up the essence of the 1920s and 1930s, with the era's technological advances and Cubist sophistication, quite as vividly as the work of Cheret and Toulouse-Lautrec summoned up the Belle Epoque.
Today there is an even wider range of poster art available: among them, those handsome announcements for gallery shows and museum exhibits by artists such as Chagall, Matisse, Braque and Miro and, more recently, Roy Lichtenstein, Milton Glaser and Frank Stella. Colorful and relatively inexpensive, such posters are not only decorative but also evoke a particular time and place in vivid style. There is endless material from which to choose, both in original and reproduction posters of the last 100 years.
Find poster art at Museum Mount Gallery, Flax and Jane Moufflet Gallery in West Los Angeles; El Molino Gallery in Pasadena; Mission Art Center in San Gabriel; Aqua Classics and Lady Di in Laguna Beach; Framemakers Gallery in Costa Mesa; Graphics Gallery in Newport Beach; Frame of Mind in Oxnard, and Synthetic Trips and World Art in San Diego.