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MKG in Hamburg Reappraises Art Nouveau with Exhibition of More than 180 Posters
A young woman stands in front of a print by German artist Hans Christiansen (1866-1945) from 1897 at the 'Musem fuer Kunst und Gewerbe' (Musem of Art and Craft) in Hamburg, Germany, 18 May 2011. From 20 May until 28 August, the museum will host an exhibition of art nouveau prints. EPA/CHRISTIAN CHARISIUS.

HAMBURG.- On the occasion of the reappraisal of one of the most comprehensive collections of commercial art in the world, the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg will show a selection of 180 works of the decades when picture production exploded – around 1900. The exhibition will be on view on May 20th and will run until August 28th 2011.

From the late 19th Century the MKG accumulated a unique collection comprising more than 15000 sheets, among them posters, book covers, calendars sheets, postcards and letterheads. Among the 200 designers from Europe and the US represented, are leading artists such as Toulouse-Lautrec, Alfred Mucha, Henry van de Velde, and Peter Behrens. The artists used print especially to deal with contemporary topics, like sports, fashion, politics, engineering and the everyday and laid the foundations for corporate design, graphic design and an aesthetics of advertising – all of which are commonplace today.

The exhibition will present the results of a research project financed by die ZEIT-Stiftung Ebelin und Gerd Bucerius, highlighting the key-developments of Historicism, Art Nouveau, the Vienna Secession, Expressionism and Art Déco in Europe, as well as New Advertising in the USA. Over the course of three years more than 10000 graphic works, ca. 2000 posters, and examples of book illustrations from the collection “Commercial Art in Art Nouveau” have been compiled in an inventory. The opulent book accompanying the project and the exhibition embellished with numerous plates offers an overview over the international development, introductions to the most important aspects of commercial art, its styles as well as biographies of nearly 200 important graphic artists.

Nowadays graphic design is playing such an important role in everyday life that it has become unthinkable without images. Adverts, magazines, internet, a lot of television, even street signs and other necessities – all of them have gone through the hands of graphic designers. This has not always been the case. Only 150 years ago the printed image was rare in everyday life. When around 1890 colour-print began to conquer all aspects of everyday life there were also critical voices to be heard. In the US for example people warned against a “Chromo Civilization”, which threatened to lead to general superficiality.

The exhibition and the opulent catalogue to go with it deal with the picture explosion around 1890 and the great advancement in quality to be discerned in the layout of books and magazines, commercial art and job printing post 1895. By 1910 this development had largely been completed. Advertising in its various guises, from the small brochure to the great poster, multiple forms of business graphics, which eventually lead to corporate identity, or the illustrated book with its contemporary layout had found their new forward-looking form. For the first time this large exhibition will take a comprehensive look at the whole of the developments that lay the foundations for today’s diversity in graphic design.

Important artists contributed to these developments. William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement represent the beginning. Out of rejection of industrialisation and the estrangement of the worker from the working process, Morris sought a return to working methods of medieval workshops, where design and execution lay in the same hands. In his workshop Morris produced wallpaper and fabric and from 1890 onwards especially precious books, published by his Kelmscott Press. He instituted the so-called „private press movement“: private publishers and printers offered a valuable and exemplary alternative to the industrially produced book.

When commercial art came into fashion, it offered impulses of similar importance. The Parisian Jules Chéret had started it off and after 1890 commercial art had become an interesting art genre in its own right. Young artists such as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec or Pierre Bonnard wanted to be part of the “Poster Boom”, or “Affichomanie”, as it was termed in France, and thus sought to distinguish themselves through spectacular poster designs.

In the mid 1890s Aubrey Beardsley and Alphonse Mucha formed an idea of Art Nouveau that is still valid today: youths of ideal beauty in harmonious surroundings, stylised to an ornamental degree, promising a carefree future. The exquisite stylisation of the everyday brought with it a certain degree of removal from reality, which formed a great contrast to the oftentimes tangible functionality of the designs: many of them were realised for book covers, posters or invitation cards. The desires to which glossy adverts appeal today clearly were no different then and were equally exploited.

Around 1900 the architects and designers Henry van de Velde and Peter Behrens introduced to commercial art a professional design, reaching beyond the individual image. It was van de Velde, who in 1898 designed the first corporate identity for the food maker Tropon. A few years later, Peter Behrens followed in his steps, when he designed a much more encompassing corporate identity for AEG. Around 1905 professional designers took the lead, when it came to the layout of books, posters and other areas of graphic design. Ludwig Hohlwein, Lucian Bernhard, Walter Tiemann and Emil Rudolf Weiß would be representatives of Germany, which had become a leading capacity in this category. Edward Johnston worked in England, and Leonetto Cappiello in France.

These names no longer have any meaning to the interested layman. As professional graphic designers, typographers and commercial artists, they fell through the cracks of art history. While the arts had formed a unity in the 1890s, and around 1900 the notion of the ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’ was considered an ideal of modern art, from 1905 onwards applied arts and free graphics gradually followed their own paths. At a first glance the crude wood cuts for posters and brochures by artists of Die Brücke stood apart from the elegant and colourful professionally designed advertising prints. Since 1905 first advertising agencies opened in the US and in Germany; they offered their services independently of printing or publishing houses and employed young graphic designers as well. By 1910 already, photo design, as it is still widely practised today was developed. The individual and recognisable touch of the graphic designer would soon be the exception.

The Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg holds a unique collection of commercial art comprising over 15,000 works, including posters, illustrated books and periodicals, calendar pages, post cards, and letterheads from the decades around 1900. Justus Brinckmann, the museum’s founder acquired most of them. More than 12,000 small-size graphic works in the collection are by renowned designers.

Three years ago the ZEIT-Stiftung Ebelin und Gerd Bucerius committed to supporting a project to catalogue and research the largest collection of the MKG for the first time: commercial art of the decades around 1900. Since then more than 10,000 graphic works as well as nearly 2,000 posters and examples of book design have been catalogued. Thanks to the generous sponsorship by the ZEIT-Stiftung approximately ten percent will be published in an extensive de luxe edition.

Artists: Aubrey Beardsley, Peter Behrens, Lucian Bernhard, Pierre Bonnard, Will Bradley, Jules Chéret, Otto Eckmann, Lyonel Feininger, Eugène Grasset, Olaf Gulbransson, Thomas Theodor Heine, Ludwig Hohlwein, Oskar Kokoschka, George Lepape, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, William Morris, Kolo Moser, Alphonse Mucha, Emil Orlik, Edward Penfield, Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen, Luwig Sütterlin, Jan Thorn Prikker, Jan Toorop, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Felix Vallotton, Henry van de Velde, Heinrich Vogeler and others.

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May 19, 2011

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