POSTERS -- traditional cheap college dorm decoration -- now are selling for the high prices of serious art. Art-lovers are avidly collecting, studying, buying, selling and admiring posters. Distinguished artists are attracted by the poster's conciseness of image, the immediacy and the quick and striking announcement.
Much of the current interest was stirred up by the sales of Phillips Auctioneers in New York City in November 1979 and May of this year, when the Toulouse-Lautrec "Moulin Rouge" poster brought a startling $52,000. A few other prices from that May 10th record-breaking sale: an Aubrey Beardsley, $3,400; a Jules Cheret, $3,800; and an Alphonse Mucha, $18,000.
But these prestigious posterists are not the only ones fetching fabulous prices. The following examples were given by the most knowledgeable dealer in this area, George Theofiles of New Freedom, Pa. A poster by Jean de Paleologue (PAL) had a top price of around $250 two years ago; now his posters would bring $700 with ease.
Those British Transport posters of the 1920s and '30s done by well-known posterists (Fred Taylor, Frank Newbould, Austin Cooper, Kenneth Shoesmith), which were sold two or three years ago for $75, would now bring $250 to $400.
Anonymous posters done for British Transport, which sold for $3, are now being sold for $50 or more. A Robert Gotch poster advertising the Hookers' Ball in San Francisco, made to sell in 1978 for $5, brought $225 at the November Phillipse sale. Nick Price's famous Camel Cigarette ad, produced to give away in 1975, brought $1,300 at the May Phillips sale.
This is by no means the first period of enthusiastic collecting. In France, in the 1880s and '90s, with the development of color lithography, the influence of Japanese print, and the flowering of the Impressionist movement, the art and design of the poster rose to great heights.
Jules Cheret is considered to be the father of the modern poster. Concerned with making the text an integral part of the design and drawing directly on the lithographic stone, he inspired such artist as Toulouse-Lautrec (above all others -- the master), Theophile A. Steinlen and Mucha in France; Beardsley, William Nicholson and James Pryde (the Beggarstaff Bros.), and Dudley Hardy in England; Will Bradley and Edward Penfield in the United States, to name just a few.
Poster societies, exhibitions and sales flourished and collecting became a craze. Bevis Hillier writes: "In the 20 years 1880 to 1900, the poster was transformed from a vulgar disfigurement of the streets into an art form and even a collector's prey: at dead of night, the real fanatics would steal out with damp sponges to take the coveted Cheret or Lautrec off the walls."
Hillier goes on to say: "Before the 1880s, the poster had been modelled on, or only slightly adapted from, the academic painting; now the painters began to take their cue from the posterists." Cheret's posters, for instance, were collected by Seurat.
During the century that has passed, the poster has been closely connected with important art movements, sometimes leading the way. Czech-born Mucha, Beardsley and Will Bradley, for example, were among those who helped to spread the undulating forms of Art Nouveau around the world.
The Austrian Secessionists Klimt, Kolo Moser, Schiele and Kokoschka, using posters as well as prints and paintings, were leaving the William Morris and Glasgow Schools and looking forward to the Bauhaus. The drastic interruption of World War I brought forth an enormous number of posters intended to persuade and exhort. Possibly the most famous of these is James Montgomery Flagg's "I Want You For The U.S. Army." Among other artists involved in the United States and abroad were Charles Dana Gibson, Joseph Pennell, Ludwig Hohlwein and Frank Brangwyn.
In the '20s, life, for some, was luxurious and Art Deco reflected this in ads for travel, entertainment, furs, aperitifs and grand hotels. Among the artists setting new standards in graphic design were A.M. Cassandre and Paul Colin in France. The poster, at that time advertising's most powerful tool, called for a style giving nothing but the fundamentals, a reduced, concentrated image influenced by cubism.
In Germany, Holland and Russia posterists, influenced by Dada, photo montage, the Expressionists, the Bauhaus and Russian constructivism, were designing for the "masses." Kandinsky, Herbert Bayer, John Heartfield and Eliezer Kissitzky were among the much-respected artists.
Posters have remained a persuasive political, cultural and commercial force in Europe to this day, but radio advertising gradually took over in the United States until World War II. Posters were then revived here with a bang.
Again after the war, as television became the important advertising weapon, there was a lull in the United States until the 1960s when people's movements found posters a useful way to carry their messages. For example, the California Psychedelic Movement artists, reinterpreting Art Nouveau designs, produced 400 posters mainly for rock concerts.
At about the same time Vera List in New York City was commissioning posters by contemporary artists for cultural events. The posters were masterfully created stone lithographs, originals of which have been leaping in price ever since. For instance, two posters taken from works by Chagall were published in 1966 and sold for $5 -- at the Phillips November sale each poster brought $600.