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Exhibition celebrates the postcard craze that revolutioned communication at turn of the 20th century
Taliedo. Great day of aviation, 1934. N. Longo (?). Published in Milan by G. Landsmans. Color lithograph on card stock. Leonard A. Lauder Postcard Archive—Promised gift of Leonard A. Lauder. Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

BOSTON, MASS.- In the decades around 1900, a craze swept the world as postcards—a fast and innovative way to communicate—became the email, Twitter, and Flickr of the age. Billions upon billions of cards were bought, mailed, or collected in albums. Many famous artists turned to the postcard as a new artistic medium, but one of the great pleasures of postcards is how some of the most beautiful and interesting cards were made by artists whose names are barely known today. In celebration of the 2010 promised gift from Leonard A. Lauder of nearly 100,000 cards given to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), the Museum presents The Postcard Age: Selections from the Leonard A. Lauder Collection. The exhibition features nearly 700 stellar examples of works drawn from the riches of the Leonard A. Lauder Postcard Archive, probably the finest and most comprehensive collection of its type. The Postcard Age showcases European and American postcards as both graphic art and historical phenomenon, illustrating how big themes of the modern age—enthralling, exciting, and sometimes disturbing—played out on the postcard’s tiny canvas. The exhibition is on view through April 14, 2013, in the Lois B. and Michael K. Torf Gallery.

“Leonard Lauder has spent a lifetime building this remarkable collection, and in entrusting it to us, has opened our eyes to these objects of beauty and their historical importance,” said Malcolm Rogers, Ann and Graham Gund Director of the MFA. “We are delighted to be able to share these works with our visitors, who will see in this exhibition how postcards captured—and continue to capture—the imagination of millions.”

New York collector Leonard A. Lauder, Chairman Emeritus of the Estée Lauder Cosmetics Company and an Honorary Overseer and Eminent Benefactor of the MFA, began collecting postcards when he was seven years old, and since then has assembled one of the finest holdings of the medium. It ranges in date from 1872 to the present day and includes postcards from around the world. In 2002, he generously gave the MFA more than 20,000 Japanese postcards highlighting several important periods in that country’s history, and in 2009 gave a group of World War I-era posters to the MFA. Along with his 2010 promised gift of 100,000 postcards, Mr. Lauder, through the American Art Foundation, endowed the position of Leonard A. Lauder Curator of Visual Culture. The gifts of the two postcard collections are among the largest the MFA has ever received, and have transformed the Museum’s holdings of works on paper.

“The MFA shares my vision of the postcard as both a modern art form and a revolutionary means of communication,” said Leonard A. Lauder. “This exhibition highlights both the beauty of the postcard and its historical importance. The MFA’s commitment to exploring visual culture brings postcards into a dialogue with other forms of modern art—like posters and books as well as prints and paintings. In this way, what have been viewed previously as mere pieces of ephemera can come to be seen as dynamic and exciting cultural objects.”

Printed on plain stock and measuring 5½ by 3½ inches, the humble postcard was introduced in 1869 by the Austro-Hungarian postal service as a fast and inexpensive mode of communication. It soon became a worldwide sensation, exploding into a mass medium, especially in the decades between 1890 and 1910. In 1903 alone, more than a billion cards passed through the German postal system. Postcards revolutionized the way people connected to one another. They were a truly democratic art form, accessible to a wide audience for just pennies, and provided a new arena for artistic experimentation. In addition, they chronicled social change and served as a vehicle for commerce and propaganda.

The Postcard Age takes visitors back in time to a tumultuous era in Europe and the Americas, when industrialization, urbanization, immigration, and shifting viewpoints about culture, class, women’s rights, and new money shook society. The dynamism of the era was embodied in the postcard mania, which reflected the obsession with novelty and the “need for speed,” while making inexpensive communication available to all.

“The postcards in the show just hint at the extraordinarily rich trove of stories and images in the Lauder Archive as a whole. Cards were so popular and so ubiquitous in these decades that nearly every fad, fashion, social concern, artistic style, or political event of the era found its place on a postcard. They are an artistic and historical resource without parallel—beautiful, fascinating, and fun all at once.” said Benjamin Weiss, the Leonard A. Lauder Curator of Visual Culture, who organized the exhibition with Lynda Klich, a Distinguished Lecturer, Art Department, Hunter College, and Macaulay Honors College, City University of New York.

“Postcards were a fast and modern way to communicate, but they endure as objects of striking design and extraordinary wit. They were the people’s art, and excited such passion that postcard collecting was often referred to as an addiction. Postcards made images and ideas accessible more broadly than they had ever been before.” said Klich, co-curator of the exhibition, who has been curator of the Lauder Archive since 1999.

The exhibition showcases a wealth of beautiful and dramatic designs by well-known artists, such as Wassily Kandinsky and Alphonse Mucha, as well those less well known, and even still unidentified. They will be arranged thematically: Paris; The Craze; Style; About Town; Women; Famous and Familiar; Power, Speed, and Flight; Making the Sale; Healthy Bodies; Around the World; and The Great War.

In the late 19th century, Paris, the City of Light, was a center of learning and culture and the epitome of all that was new and exciting. Universal Expositions, or world’s fairs, showcased a variety of modern marvels and entertaining attractions, such as the Eiffel Tower, which debuted in 1889, a tour de force of design that was then the tallest man-made structure. Crowds waited in line to ascend the tower where, in an upper-level room, visitors could write cartes postales to be mailed from the “Top of the Eiffel Tower.” The thousands who flocked to these fairs bought postcards to send loved ones back at home, writing “wish you were here” on cards such as The Great Wheel of the exposition (about 1900) showing a Ferris wheel with the Eiffel Tower in the background.

Postcards featuring whimsical puzzles, advertisements, photographs, and even risque images were mailed and collected around the world. Although some critics decried the lack of formality and warned of the demise of the well-written letter, others celebrated the ease, beauty, variety, and efficiency afforded by the cards, which had an image on the front and space for the address on the back. (Eventually, the back of the card was divided, allowing room for both the address and a message, and postcards of varying size were produced.) Over the years, the popularity of these cards inspired innovative designs and concepts. On view in the exhibition are several sets of puzzle cards (about 1900), meant to be sent one by one, to confound the recipient, as well as a photo-montage postcard of a beautiful woman adorned with postcards, seemingly on top of the world.

Artists and printers created beautiful works of art, many featuring the color-saturated swirling lines and decorative patterns of art nouveau, which came into vogue during the period; other cards were embossed, used glitter, incorporated photographs, or were printed on silk, leather, or thin slices of wood. The exhibition includes numerous striking works, including the imaginative series The Elements (1898) by Belgian artist Gisbert Combaz.

Even those pleasures of cosmopolitan life that were available only to a privileged few could be enjoyed vicariously by anyone with a few cents to buy a postcard. Depictions of boulevardiers and cancan dancers partaking in the nightlife of Parisian cabarets, or of people amusing themselves at Luna Park in New York’s Coney Island or the Bains de Saint-Sauveur in Brussels, are showcased. Postcards such as The white lights, Broadway at 43 street, looking north (1924) offer yet another view of the urbanization of Europe and America.

The evolving role of women in modern society also played out on the postcard, where they were portrayed as fashion icons, saucy coquettes, accomplished athletes, and instigators of social change. The Postcard Age features women as style-setters in the series Fashion in “white-black” (1920s), sex-symbols in The Jungfrau (about 1900), and sports enthusiasts in advertising postcards for Continental Pneumatic (about 1900). But among the works most telling of the times are several unflattering depictions of angry, finger-wagging women who want the right to vote, including A solution of the suffragette question! (before 1914).

The craze for celebrity was fed by postcards, which put a face to a name and provided people around the world with images of notables that they could collect, from royalty and revolutionaries, to presidents and millionaires. Many postcards poked fun at the world’s leaders. One humorous series, Bowling kings (before 1910) by Charles Naillod, features European monarchs enjoying this fashionable pastime. Also pictured are those who dabbled in glamorous and dangerous pursuits, such as the aviators, or “man birds,” who pioneered flight—Americans Wilbur Wright and Glenn Curtiss, and Frenchman Louis Blériot, the first to fly across the English Channel.

During the postcard age, an obsession with technological change was reflected in postcards that celebrated the latest and greatest advances. Oil and gas-fueled machines, electricity, and new forms of entertainment and communications were fodder for artists and advertisers who used the postcard as a mass medium. Images of light bulbs, speeding cars, soaring airplanes, and modern appliances appealed to the consumer’s interest in all things that would transform their lives, as seen in postcards featuring ads for a Carl Zander light bulb hanging from a tree in a desert oasis (1910), the Michelin man taking Europe by storm, and hairdryers and irons that would make stylish women even more beautiful.

Another major development brought on by this new age was the increase in travel around the world for both business and pleasure. Never before had travel been so accessible and affordable to so many. Postcards on view in the exhibition herald the latest and greatest modes of transportation (such as the ocean liner Mauretania and the airship Graf Zeppelin), tempt travelers with exotic destinations (Rio de Janeiro and Nice), and showcase the pleasures of vacation (swimming and tennis).

Perhaps in reaction to the perceived excesses of the belle époque, men and women at the turn of the 20th century became fans of physical fitness, as seen in depictions of healthy lifestyles on postcards. Sporting activities also encouraged patriotic spirit. In 1896, the modern Olympic Games were created, and a number of postcards in the exhibition reflect the passion for sports, such as a series by E. Blanche for the 1924 Paris Olympics.

Politics always loomed large on postcards, and throughout the era cards had been used to shape public opinion, but with the coming of World War I—the Great War—postcards with patriotic themes flourished. Numerous examples in exhibition depict troops mobilizing in Europe, soldiers at the front, and families waiting for their loved ones to return. By 1918, the horrors of the Great War cast a pall over the postcard craze. The passion for the novelty it represented had faded a bit, compounded by a shortage of supplies, disrupted production (many of the top producers were German), and destruction of factories during the war. Still, postcards remained important from the 1920s through the beginning of World War II—though by then, the earliest cards were already becoming tokens of nostalgia for a bygone age, pursued by a new generation of collectors.

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