WASHINGTON.- Featuring about sixty pieces ranging in date from the late 19th century to the present, this exhibition demonstrates how posters function as portraiture. Subjects as diverse as General Pershing, "Buffalo Bill" Cody, Joe Louis, Judy Garland, aviator Jimmy Doolittle and labor leader Lane Kirkland all enhance the poster's mission to attract attention and persuade. Dramatic, colorful and often enormous, these likenesses hardly seem subtle. But what a poster communicates about an individual is usually secondary to its principal messageselling war bonds, announcing the arrival of the circus, advertising a product, or publicizing a concert or film. Posters invariably project the public image, enhancing, promoting, exploiting, or upgrading the information we subconsciously absorb about celebrity figures.
By interweaving the three themes of poster artcelebrity promotion, and advertisingthis exhibition from the National Portrait Gallerys collections examines how a famous face can enhance a poster, and, conversely, how posters have defined reputations of prominent Americans. These images remind us of the ubiquitous presence of visual messages outside the world of fine art. Widely disseminated forms of popular portraiturelike the posterremain a profound influence in our culture.
Broadsheets and Show Posters
Poster art is a form of communication that has roots in antiquity, in the form of painted announcements and proclamations. But it was the increasing urbanization of the Industrial Revolution that caused the printed poster to flourish. By the early nineteenth century, broadsides, theater handbills, and proliferating product advertisements joined the lettered and pictorial signage of shops and taverns to create an urban street literature of promotions. As technological improvements in presses, printing, and papermaking made possible large sizes, vibrant colors, and an array of pictorial effects, the modern poster began to evolve.
In America, advertisements for circuses and various traveling shows, printed in large, multi-sheet sizes, dominated other types of posted advertising. Often in town for only one day, these shows depended heavily on the ballyhoo of dramatic pictures and exaggerated rhetoric to draw an audience.
The Poster Craze
Exuberant color posters of cabaret stars proliferating on the streets of Paris helped launch an international poster craze in the late nineteenth century that generated collectors, exhibitions, publications, and a new emphasis on design. The artists of this poster-mad era incorporated new decorative styles, including a fluid art nouveau aesthetic and the dark contour lines, flat areas of color, and angled viewpoints inspired by Japanese woodblock prints.
The vogue reached the United States in the 1890s, stimulated primarily by the publishing industry. When art editor Edward Penfield began designing posters to advertise the monthly issue of Harpers magazine, he started a trend. Publishers began to hire leading artists and illustrators to produce poster advertising for magazines, books, and newspapers. The aestheticizing influence of the turn of the century crept into the designs of the large commercial lithography companies as well, influencing many forms of advertising.
George Creel, who headed the Committee on Public Information during World War I, considered posters crucial for wartime communication. I had the conviction, he wrote, that the poster must play a great part in the fight for public opinion. The printed word might not be read, people might not choose to attend meetings or to watch motion pictures, but the billboard was something that caught even the most indifferent eye.
During World War II, film clips, leaflets, and radio were also employed, but posters were still considered effective tools of propaganda. Much of the poster art emphasized the unembellished photographic imagery and simple texts favored by commercial advertisers at the time. Some posters, instead of exploiting sentimental themes related to the family and American values, featured renowned military leaders who could unite home front and battle front with a single authoritative voice.
Export of American Culture
Foreign posters tell the story of the export of American culture. Early in the twentieth century, such images as the Belgian double poster of cyclist Marshall (Major) Taylor and the German poster of heavyweight champion Jack Johnson, for instance, suggest the international appeal of sporting events and the universal admiration for great athletes that would become such an important part of twentieth-century global exchange.
Moving pictures developed at a moment when posters played a newly important role in urban culture, and the fledgling film industry saw their potential as a primary form of promotion. American films were typically advertised by poster art made in the country that imported them. The foreign posters generally conform to the celebrity images so carefully honed by the actors and their studios, helping us chart the international reputations of these individuals.
The Product and the Promise
Since the nineteenth century, famous figures have been used for product advertising, and such testimonials increased dramatically in the 1920s. As the president of the J. Walter Thompson advertising firm pointed out, there was ample evidence that people wanted their news, education, and entertainment conveyed . . . through the medium of personalities. When celebrity endorsement was enlarged from page to poster size, the effect could be dramatic.
Photographic celebrity portraits were the key component for an enormously successful advertising campaign for Blackglama mink coats. Launched in 1968, the stark black-and-white posters featured Richard Avedons photographs of recognizable stars, each garbed in her choice of coat. Not only did the intersection of photography, celebrity, luxury, and glamour serve the purpose of commerce, it also produced collectible art: a high-style version of the personality poster. After Blackglamas success, advertisers increasingly tapped celebrities for their campaigns.
Politics and Protest
No posters are more concerned with building upon or establishing public images than political campaign advertisments. Although fine artists were sometimes eager to offer their talents, too much of an artistic component could undermine effectiveness. Campaign managers often preferred simple, unadorned photographic imagery to promote their candidates. Massed groupings of these bold, recognizable placards could announce a campaign office or political rally to all passersby.
In the 1960s, the poster became a popular tool for political activism. Posters appeared in college dorm rooms as a signal of ones affiliations. Mounted posters became part of the ritual of political demonstrations. For example, the photographic image of Huey Newtonthe imprisoned Black Panthers Minister of Defence, posed with a gun, a spear, and African shieldsquickly became an iconic protest image; hundreds of copies were carried in mass Free Huey rallies.
Postermania of the 1960s
The 1960s revolutionized the design, purpose, and collecting of posters, turning low-cost advertising products into decorative statements of ones personal affiliations and launching a second poster craze. As images of film celebrities, rock bands, and political activists wallpapered dorm rooms within the rapidly expanding collegiate demographic, poster vendors flourished, and the press took notice. Hilton Kramer called it Postermania in the New York Times.
While celebrity and activist images were often photographic, much of the poster art of the 1960s sported a radical new look. On the East Coast, the disparate artists of