The Origin of Art Deco Advertisement

Posters & Artwork in the Art Deco Age

"Advertising is the truest vernacular art form. The fine arts represent a rarified strata of American society. Advertising appeals to the average person."

[Charles Sable, curator of the William F. Eisner Museum of Advertising & Design in Milwaukee via]

Creative advertising has always claimed to be Art.

With artists like Norman Rockwell, who styled his paintings and illustrations as advertisements, this isn't a such a stretch. [See Rockwell paintings here.] Perhaps he is the reverse case -- the artist who emulates the advertiser -- but his work shows the beauty of advertisements.

Consider the Art Deco poster work of the early 20th century. This novel Art Deco style -- with roots so steeped in the world of art -- produced rich, captivating ads. These are now collector’s pieces, remembered less as promotions and more as artwork.

Where did Art Deco advertisements come from in the first place?

The Art Deco movement has roots in a tangled mix of culture, individual artists, and ideas. Yet we can find a line of reason by looking at the revered artist A.M. Cassandre, whose work spanned decades and whose influence lives on.

Historical Context

During the late 19th century and early 20th century stylish advertisements served the theatrical community, promoting plays & cabaret performances. These posters embraced the curlicues and Oriental ornamentation central to Art Nouveau, Art Deco’s predecessor. Famous artists like Alphonse MuchaJules Chéret & Leonetto Capiello captured the flair of this style with their work.

As the early 20th century pushed on, however, economic development dominated cultural thought in Western Europe and the US. The rapid rate of technological expansion did wonders for the production of goods -- goods that needed promotional materials to create market demand. As such, the poster artists of yesterday’s theatre community became agents of big industry. In turn, graphic poster became a preferred medium for promoting products, travel, technology, and even countries!

The commercial purpose of posters influenced their artistic direction, as transmitting a clear, promotional message became the driving factor behind their commissions.

Chief among the artists of this period was AM Cassandre, the most famous of the Deco era poster artists.

Cassandre himself spoke to the commercial purpose of his work,

"[Promotional posters are]...A means, a shortcut between trade and prospective buyer. A kind of telegraph. The poster artist is an operator; he does not issue a message, he merely passes it on..He is only expected to establish a connection --clear, powerful, accurate."

Today, of course, history sees Cassandre's work with artistic eyes, leaving the commercial intent all but forgotten. This is easy to understand, as the posters themselves -- regardless of their original intent -- are so pleasant.

The core of Cassandre's work: Progress, Comedy, and Simplicity

Progress: The Art Deco era was enchanted by the idea of social and technological progress. The robustness, sleekness, and beauty of machinery found in Cassandre’s posters reflected the limitless, upward expansion the future. (This machine-focused view of Deco was particularly popular among American interpreters.)

Comedy: Cassandre’s visual comedy dovetailed nicely with his focus on the general public. With mass production of the 1920s came a newfound interest by advertisers to attract attention in novel ways, as technology enables the supply of modern goods to exceed the demand.

Simplicity: The symmetry and simplicity of the machines, designs, and ideas conveyed in Cassandre’s work were meant to captivate the masses from a distance.

And today?

The broad strokes of what made Cassandre’s work so appealing exists in much of what we hear today about design and usability. Cassandre "always insisted that his posters were meant to be seen by people who do not try to see them."

This was a novelty once upon a time but has since been accepted as a common practice for many advertisers. Chief among all other concerns is clarity of message.

Perhaps Art Deco advertising has fully transitioned from the world of commerce to the world of art. In any case, history's tip of the cap to Cassandre undoubtedly verifies his place in the pantheon of 20th century art.

- J. Hornbrooke

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