The United States has niche museums for almost every subject, from trains and boats, to UFOs and conspiracy theories, but it’s never had a museum celebrating the art and history of the poster. That will soon change with the opening of Poster House in New York City.
The 15,000 square-foot museum, located on West 23rd Street in Chelsea, Manhattan, includes three exhibition spaces, interactive displays in its hallways, and a children’s area. The new museum already boasts a permanent collection of 7,000 historical posters collected from around the world and 1,000 contemporary posters that will be shown in future exhibitions.
The museum’s agenda will be global and diverse, Poster House director Julia Knight announced at the press preview. She promised the museum will put on “one non-Western and women-focused show” every year, “to try to bring as big and diverse a group of posters and poster makers” as possible. Programming for the next five years includes exhibitions on hand-painted film posters from Ghana, historical Chinese posters, and Turkish posters from the 1970s. But Poster House will also keep an eye on the political winds in the US. This October, in anticipation of election season, the museum will open an exhibition dedicated to posters from the 2017 Women’s March. The presentation will also provide information on voter registration and will encourage visitors to participate in the elections.
But for its inaugural exhibitions, Poster House has chosen a safe crowd-pleaser; Alphonse Mucha: Art Nouveau/Nouvelle Femme, which sprawls over two of the museum’s galleries, is dedicated to the legacy of Art Nouveau poster designer Alphonse Mucha — arguably the most famous poster designer in history. “We’re really trying to pull in as broad an audience as possible,” said Knight, “Mucha is super-familiar. Even if the name is not familiar to you, once you go in [you] recognize his work.” This exhibition is the first comprehensive Mucha survey in New York since 1921, when the Brooklyn Museum showed a selection of his posters.
Mucha, a Czech painter, illustrator, and graphic artist, became synonymous with Art Nouveau during his time in Paris in the 1890s. He gained his fame after he started working closely with French actress Sarah Bernhardt on posters for her plays. The posters embodied the proto-feminist ideal of “la Nouvelle Femme,” or “the New Woman,” which challenged patriarchy in Belle Époque Paris in the 19th century and continued to influence women movements into the 20th century. The painterly lithographs show a sinuous, strong Bernhardt, clearly evoking her commanding presence on stage.
The second section of the exhibition traces the evolution of Mucha’s posters in the late 1890s, when his fame and riches allowed him to venture into less commercial projects. In those years, Mucha shifted away from commissioned posters that focused on the utility of products, to unbranded works of fine art dominated by images of women, some earthly and some mythic. Those works, the press release says, sold products “on feeling.”
Mucha’s work was a turning point in the history of advertising, said Poster House Chief Curator Angelina Lippert: “He brought Art Nouveau to the masses and changed the way women are represented in advertising.”
But has Mucha really changed the way women are represented in advertising? Depictions of domesticated, passive, and overly sexualized women have governed commercial promotions all throughout the 20th century. It’s enough to have lived during that period or to have read Erving Goffman’s seminal book Gender Advertisements (1976) to be aware of that fact. In today’s age, references to feminism have become an effective marketing tool in the hand of advertisers. The examples are too numerous to count, but this Chanel runway from 2014 remains a powerful illustration of the problem.
Mucha’s posters themselves became objects of desire, Lippert continued to explain. “People were so enchanted with Mucha’s poster, that they would rip them off the streets to hang them in their houses.” The demand for Mucha’s work became so overwhelming that he finally broke his contract with his printer in Paris and escaped to New York in 1904. Six years later he returned to his homeland to work on the Slav Epic, a series of twenty monumental paintings depicting the history of Slavic peoples.
The second exhibition on view, displayed in a small “Jewel Box” room, showcases the work of East German graphic design group Cyan. Founded shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the group’s members were still influenced by the East Block’s communist ideology and thus shied away from the world of commercial advertising. The group was selective in its choice of clients, focusing mainly on advertising exhibitions, performances, and cultural institutions. Most of the posters on view were created to promote Bauhaus programs and exhibitions in Dessau and East Berlin.
Cyan designers are also known for pioneering the use of the editing software Adobe Photoshop in poster design. They used the software, which was released in 1990, to create complex, multilayered posters that would require more than a passing glimpse to comprehend. Some of these posters are so cluttered with small-size text and obscure images that they could quickly fatigue the eyes and brain of the most curious of viewers.
This second exhibition — wildly different from the eye-pleasing cluster of Mucha’s posters — targets a more professional audience, Knight said. “Cyan is mostly unknown; [they’re] known mostly among designers, but we found out that [designers] do not know much about the practice and history of this group.”
Posters, in the form of placards or bills, have existed since the beginning of recorded history, but commercial lithographs as we know them today came to the world in the wake of the industrial revolution. Although they never enjoyed high regard in art criticism, several poster-themed museums exist around the world, the largest of which operates in Warsaw, Poland.
“New York City has a long history of advertising and design,” Knight told Hyperallergic. “It is where the Mad Man era was grounded, and it’s a great city for poster dealers.”
How is it then that the US has never had its own poster museum? “We have a lot of cultural institutions in New York, and there’s a lot of competition between them,” Knight said. “Many of them have poster collections, but they use them as supplemental material. They don’t look at posters first. We think it’s really important to do that because it’s the bottom-up view of history as opposed to the top-down upper-echelon fancy art looking down.”
Poster House opens June 20 on 119 W. 23rd Street, New York. Alphonse Mucha: Art Nouveau/Nouvelle Femme and Designing Through the Wall: Cyan in the 1990s will run from June 20 to October 6th, 2019. Both exhibitions are curated by Angelina Lippert.