Thursday, May 10, 2018

Auto Poster Designs of the Century

How Auto Posters have influenced Graphic Design in the early 20th century

The process of Lithography - poster printing - though invented in 1798, only began to emerge as meaningful method of advertising and artistic expression around the moment to perfectly coincide with the introduction of the automobile. In a way, Cars and Posters are inherently linked. most of us will remember as children having a poster of our dream car hung on our walls, and even to this day flipping through a magazine to stumble across a beautiful pull-out poster of a shiny new supercar will fill us with delight.

Monaco poster by Alain Lévesque

In this article, we will embark on a voyage, through history and the imaginations of famous artists and advertisers, to explore the history of automobile posters and how they were influenced by the artistic stylings of their era. On this journey we will see the influence of Art, Expression, Culture and Counter Culture and how they altered the artistic world in which these beautiful pieces were created.

Early Lithographs were drab, uncolorful affairs, usually engraved into wood or metal, that were far too difficult to mass produce. This all changed around 1880 with Jules Cheret’s ”3 stone lithographic process," which allowed artists to achieve every color in the rainbow with as little as three stones - usually red, yellow and blue - printed in careful registration. Cheret's process nevertheless still demanded superb artistry and remarkable craftsmanship. The result was worthwhile - a remarkable intensity of color and texture, with sublime transparencies and nuances impossible in other media (even to this day). The ability to combine word and image in such an attractive and economical format finally allowed the lithographic poster to usher in the modern age of advertising.

Automobiles & Cycles Rochet original poster by Philippe Chapellier circa 1900

Just a few years later, the first masterpieces of Art Nouveau poster design were created. This flowering, ornate style became the major international decorative art movement up until World War I. A perfect example of the Art Nouveau movement is this original work, created by Philippe Chapellier for the French Marque Rochet, that manufactured bicycles, motorcycles and automobiles in the early part of this century. Notice how the supple curves of the woman’s form and the road behind her contrast with the rigid layers of the pillar and the surrounding border, all classic hallmarks of the Art Nouveau movement. 

Type 35 Bugatti poster by Roger Soubie, autographed

By 1910, Art Nouveau was already out of style. It was replaced as the dominant European architectural and decorative style by Art Deco. After World War I, Art Nouveau's organic inspiration became irrelevant in an increasingly industrial society; the modern art movements Cubism, Futurism, Expressionism, and Dadaism became chief influences. By the mid-Twenties, these often disparate modernist approaches would coalesce into a major new international decorative movement called Art Deco. In this machine age style, power and speed became the primary themes. Shapes were simplified and streamlined, and curved typefaces were replaced by sleek, angular ones that would reflect the jazz age.

MCF (Motor Club de France) original poster by Geo Ham

Above we see two examples of Automobile Racing posters, done in the Art Deco style. The first is an advertising poster by Roger Soubie commissioned by Bugatti for their Type 35 Racing Car and the second was done for the Motor Club de France by the famous automobilia artist Geo Ham. They both have all the hallmarks of an Art Deco Masterpiece, the bold imagery, attention grabbing styling and colors, and a distinctive simplicity that communicates directly with the audience. We see the cars racing toward us, hurtling from the picture and we know; this car is fast and we must have one.

Save Rubber original World War II propaganda poster by W. Richards 

The poster again played a large communication role in World War II, but this time it shared the spotlight with other media, particularly radio and print. By this time, most posters were printed using the mass production technique of photo offset, which resulted in the familiar dot pattern seen in newspapers and magazines. Above is the Famous ‘Save Rubber’ Poster by W. Richards which was a classic display of 1940’s contemporary art, as well as an effective motivator of National Pride and Sacrifice during that time of struggle.  

7th Grand Prix of Rouen original poster 1959
Packard original dealer showroom poster, 1956

Despite the looming tensions of the Cold War, the end of World War II ushered in a baby boom and a new consumer society with the arrival of television, jet travel and global brands fueling the way. Advertising methods shifted to adapt to the times. A veritable "poster boom" occurred in the early 1950s, driving forward two distinct styles, one consumer and one corporate. The first, which we have labeled the '50s Style, was brightly colored and whimsical, as demonstrated by the G.P. of Rouen Poster above, while the second, called the International Typographic Style, was more rational and orderly, which companies like Packard chose to use to advertise their selection of conservative cars.

Monterey Grand Prix 1964 original poster by Earl Newman

The orderliness of the Fifties would yield to a more chaotic and revolutionary tenor by the mid-Sixties. A new illustration style, one which borrowed freely from Surrealism, Pop Art and Expressionism, was more relaxed and intuitive and the first wave of a Post-Modernist sensibility. A perfect example was Earl Newman’s mesmerizingly surreal event poster for 1964’s Monterey Grand Prix. With it’s vividly dark and forbidding colors and it’s nebulous depictions of racers and track hurtling toward you, this piece perfectly captures the excitement and danger of auto racing in the style of the era.  

Monte Carlo original tourism poster by Steve Carpenter

The excesses of the drug culture and political alienation led to a brief but spectacular Psychedelic Poster craze, which recalled the floral excesses of Art Nouveau, the pulsating afterimages of Pop-Art, and the bizarre juxtapositions of Surrealism. These influences and attributes can be seen vividly in this Monte Carlo original tourism poster created by Steve Carpenter. Scenes of the exotic thrills and locales of Monte Carlo are seen tumbling from the mind of a young and beautiful woman and cascading down her hair as she observes the city’s famous Grand Prix, all captured in the surreal and mind-bending style of the sixties.  

1968 18th Annual Concours d'Elegance Pebble Beach poster by Dedini

Posters like these were placed in windows or pasted on walls to draw people’s attention to the products of auto manufacturer’s, upcoming or famous races or to celebrate important car shows or auto clubs. Before the advent of the television, these pieces of collectable art were one of the only visual mediums that could attract the attention of customers and race fans and deliver them to the Companies and Venues that survived on their patronage. We have seen how the art of the period has effected the advertisements and commemorations that have been put down to poster paper and how those works of automobilia have effected the art world in turn. Now its your turn to collect a piece of history. All the pieces displayed above and many others are available in our gallery, which can be toured here and here. Feel free to peruse it at your leisure and possibly add a piece of art and automobile history to your collection.

Jacques Vaucher
Owner and Curator
l'art et l'automobile

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