A few years ago I gave a course on – yes, you guessed it – vintage posters. I thought that an interesting way of discussing posters would be to put them within the context of their specific time period, and so every week I assigned a short story or other reading that I thought would help the students understand the society and culture within which the posters were created. It proved to be an interesting exercise for all of us – myself included – and today, as I was cleaning out some files, I found some of those readings and thought I would share them here… with a view towards proving posterromance readers with some of that same context. (If you’d like a list of the readings I can probably dig them out for you).
I really enjoyed reading a book called Recollections of a Picture Dealer, by Ambroise Vollard (it’s a Google Book and if you are interested, you can find it here). Vollard was the pre-eminent poster dealer in Paris in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His client list and portfolio of artists was unequaled, as was his power. And his intellect! He had keen powers of observation, a very sharp wit, and a fabulous memory.
From the book: “At the time when I lived in the rue des Apennins, the only amusement I could afford was to go of a Sunday to watch the procession of smart carriages from under the trees lining the Avenue des Champs Elysees. But one day, waiving the principles if economy which had enabled me so far to hold out, I went a drank a bock at the Cabaret Le Chat Noir. There was a big picture there by Willette … which I had been told rivaled the most celebrated compositions of the eighteenth century… Willette had been known to me through the Courrier Francais. That splendid publication had brought together most of the best-known draughtsman of the day… The best-known, which was not to say the best-paid. Willette had fervent admirers, but praise is a meagre diet.” I’ve left Vollard’s words as they appear in the original translation of his work because I love them. They are arcane, antique, and perfect. They give the reader a perfect sense of Paris, of the cabarets, of the artists…
Of course, Vollard writes of Toulouse Lautrec: “There was another establishment of Montmartre, kept by Aristide Bruant, where the customer on entering was bombarded with the most ill-sounding epithets. This cabaret achieved a vogue at least as great as that of the Chat Noir, and ended by disappearing the same way. But of Aristide Bruant’s day there remain to us not only his work as a chansonnier, but the magnificent posters that Lautrec executed for him. As a poster artist Lautrec, though little appreciated at the time as a painter, rivaled Jules Cheret … given the least encouragement, Lautrec might even have developed into a great painter of frescoes, judging by the panel he executed for the booth of La Goulue,, another of Montmatre’s celebrities. This woman, after dancing the cancan at the Moulin Rouge, set up as an exhibitor of lions and other wild beasts; but the exhibition soon proved a failure and the collection was dispersed. La Goulue died in neglect and poverty…”
It doesn’t take too much imagination, after reading Vollard, to be able to picture the environment within which artists like Willette and Lautrec functioned. The images and expressions are so full of life and knowledge and awe of a sort, that all we have to do is close our eyes and dream of a throaty singer belting out a chanson d’amour while the artist, cigarette dangling, drink on the table, sketches the scene.