Believe it or not, it pays to attempt to start a collection of poster art. The interest for this form of art has transformed vintage movie posters, advertising posters, WWI and WWII propaganda posters, into valuable pieces whose art market value has seen an increase in the last 10 years. Representing pieces that are in fact illustrations of the mankind’s history, poster art is a reflection of the manhood's spirit, technical and social developments, cultural heritage, and documentation of the major events that have shaped the world. Similarly to any art movement, or school of thought, poster art is not just one style of work or one subject matter. The variety of techniques used, subject matters depicted, functionality and purpose of production, make this form of art valuable just because of a myriad of options and rarity of original and valuable examples. Having said this, let us take a look at a brief history of poster art, examples of the most collectible and most valuable pieces, and hints on what to look for if you wish to start your poster art collection.
Even though lithography, a printmaking technique that helped the development of poster art, was invented in 1789, it proved to be too slow and expensive for poster production. Most posters, in the beginning, were produced with the use of the wood or metal engravings with little color or design. It was the invention of the stone lithographic process in the 1880’s that marked the breakthrough, which allowed the authors to use any color they wished for and to produce any image they desired. Even though the process was difficult, the result was a remarkable intensity of color and texture, and beautiful transparencies and nuances impossible in other media.
By the early 1890’s, the walls of European cities, in particularly Paris, were covered in commercial posters promoting theaters, burlesques, and café-bars. Mirroring the style of the Art Nouveau, eminent painters such as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Alphonse Mucha raised the poster art status to pieces of art. Promoting art and culture events is seen as one of the major functions of posters. In each country, the poster was used to celebrate the society’s unique cultural institutions. In France it was the cafes and cabaret, in Italy, it was the opera and fashion, in Spain the bullfight and festivals, in Germany trade fairs and magazines, and in Britain and America literary journals, bicycles and the circus. The major development in art history, and the changing of the different art styles echoed in the poster productions as well. Following the interest of major art figures in Art Nouveau; poster production was later influenced by Cubism, Futurism, and the brand making designs of Leonetto Cappiello. During the WW I, and WW II, the posters gained their most useful role to date, and that is propaganda and advertisement. Following the rise in the machine age and the focus on speed and power, the end of the stone process lithography was marked after the WWII and in its place the photo offset technique was the dominant choice. Today, the use of the digital and computer materials have in fact diminished the admired vintage feel, but many designers are still making this production, one of the fruitful ones.
Two of the main areas of poster collecting today seem to be vintage film and travel. The rise and focus on the leisure time, during the 20th century, produced an increase of posters that were focusing on luring the public to travel, spend their money and time abroad, involve themselves and their free time in a variety of sports activities. One of the most influential illustrators and designers, also a member of the watercolor society in 1930, was the artist David Klein. Famous for his vintage travel posters for Trans World Airlines, he was employed to produce an ad campaign for a wide variety of destinations. In his trademark use of bright colors and thick brushstrokes, Klein produced a number of posters that are highly collectible and considered valuable today. Vintage movie posters are also highly collectible, especially those for films released before the 1940’s. Movie posters were originally produced purely as advertising, so even the major studios rarely saved posters of their films, making the original film posters of this period a rarity. The film posters that are most sought by collectors tend to be from science fiction, followed closely by the horror movies, but also, popular are film noir, independent films, and B-movies. Since there is always an exception to the rule, one must always buy what one likes. That way the value of the collected item is for sure priceless.
The rarest posters tend to be found at major auction houses or art dealers. Purchasing this way, you will be provided with a lifetime guarantee that the poster purchased is genuine since reproductions of the original film posters are common, as many film posters were often reprinted to follow the reissue of some major films, such as Wizard of Oz. These posters are in most cases labeled with a letter R but you must be aware of forgers. The collection of poster art must be carefully planned, and the areas of interest researched well in advance before any purchase. You must examine the piece you wish to buy, paying much attention to the color, the state of the paper and if any damage is visible or not.
Poster art is truly an amazing world, and once you enter it, you will realize how much variety, how many different themes and uses of the printed image you will discover. From major film posters, travel posters, that can span from posters focusing on traveling, different destinations, Pan-Am, or railway company posters, the possibilities are endless. The field concerning the poster art is truly one of the more inspirational ones, since posters are almost like footprints of the world around us, and have since 1890’s helped to shape the graphic design, and the visual language we rely on today.
Editors’ Tip: The Poster: Art, Advertising, Design, and Collecting, 1860s-1900s (Interfaces: Studies in Visual Culture)
Though international in scope, the book is focused on the France and England poster art production and it provides the reader with a cultural history that places the poster at a crossroads of art, design, advertising, and collecting. Investigating the importance of the avant-garde posters and original print production as one of the important factor used in the development of the modernist language of art, this stunningly illustrated book will appeal to anyone interested in history and the importance of this printed media.
All images used for illustrative purpose only. Featured image: Lester Beall – both images from the Electrification Administration Posters, 1941. Images via christies.com
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