With roots in Japanese ukiyo-e printing, poster art developed alongside the lithographic method of printing. Lithography is a process by which ink is added to paper from a limestone or a metal plate. Though it was invented in 1796, lithography didn’t take off as an artistic medium until almost a century later when French painter Jules Chéret developed the three-color lithographic process. Known as the “Father of the Modern Poster,” Cheret inspired his contemporaries and later generations to produce exceptional works of poster art.
Throughout the 20th century, poster artists around the world referenced art movements including Constructivism, Futurism, and Art Deco. These influences can be seen in vintage posters that served to promote commercial and government initiatives.
From the Belle Époque to the new millennium, each generation of poster artists were influenced by the style and society of their era to create innovative and contemporary graphic designs. Below, take a look at how poster art progressed through the decades of the 20th century.
1900s Posters (Turn-of-the-Century)
Defining moment: Art Nouveau
Vintage posters from the first decade of the 20th century were heavily defined by the Art Nouveau movement, which was still very much in vogue. In addition to Cheret, artists like Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Alphonse Mucha produced iconic images to advertise theater, literature, and consumer products. The style spread throughout Europe and to the U.S. It was known for its use of organic forms, asymmetry, and curvilinear compositions.
Defining moment: World War I
When the United States entered World War I in 1917, posters were used to promote the war effort. Vintage posters from this decade featured recruitment messages, encouraged the purchase of war bonds, and appealed to women to help on the homefront. Throughout the nation’s history, personifications of government and country have been used to great effect in this type of propaganda, as well. The earliest version of this was a woman called Columbia, an iconic image today as she later became the mascot of Columbia Pictures. The first iteration of Uncle Sam appeared in 1812 and was used throughout the 20th century, especially during WWI and WWII.
Defining moment: The establishment of the Soviet Union
The Soviet Union is one of the most prolific originators of posters in the 20th century. After the Bolshevik Revolution, the leaders of the nation took their cues from the U.S. war effort and ordered propaganda posters be created that promoted workers and rejected the ideas of capitalism. Soviet propaganda posters were produced throughout WWII and the age of the Space Race.
Defining moment: Public Works Administration (PWA) & National Parks
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt spent much of the 1930s promoting economic and social relief programs in the U.S. in the aftermath of the stock market crash of 1929. This included the creation of the Works Progress Administration, which paid artists to create public murals and sculpture, and the Federal Art Project, which employed artists across media and established community art centers. Poster artist Dorothy Waugh was supported by these programs, creating signage for the National Park Service throughout the 1930s. Imagery heralding modern design is a hallmark of her work: simplified messaging layered with bold colors and stylized typeface to entice viewers and quickly relay the point.
Defining moment: World War II
As with the decades preceding, posters continued to be a tool used by nations for propaganda and promotion during World War II. The “Keep Calm and Carry On” message was created by the British government on the eve of WWII to boost morale in the event of a mass assault. 2.45 million copies were printed, but the poster was rarely displayed publicly until a resurgence in popularity in the 21st century.
Perhaps the most iconic image to emerge from this era is that of Rosie the Riveter, a fictional character who represented the millions of women going to work in factories and shipyards in the United States. Norman Rockwell originated the character with his May 29, 1943 illustration on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post, but the “We Can Do It!” poster distributed by Westinghouse Electric Corporation preceded Rockwell’s interpretation and is now synonymous with her legacy.
Defining moment: World travel
After WWII, intercontinental travel became easier than ever due to advances in aviation. Thus, poster artists like Jean Even and the duo known as Lefor-Openo created a prolific legacy of travel advertisements throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Vintage posters from this decade promoted airlines, hotels, railways, and city tourism.
Defining moment: Psychedelia
With the rise of the counterculture movement in the 1960s came an era of psychedelic graphic design that referenced Art Nouveau, Op Art and Surrealism. Artists and musicians, in particular, put the aesthetic to good use. Graphic designer Milton Glaser’s iconic image of Bob Dylan was packaged with Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits to promote the album’s release. The poster’s profile view was inspired by a self-portrait of artist Marcel Duchamp, and the swirling colors used for Dylan’s hair were a nod to the popularity of psychedelic drugs that defined the decade.
Defining moment: The Vietnam War
Vintage posters from the 1960s and 1970s were utilized to protest the U.S.’s involvement in the Vietnam War. In contrast to the busy, patriotic propaganda emerging from the country during the WWI and WWII eras, anti-Vietnam protest art put the message before the design. These works typically featured simple lettering and short text to rally supporters fighting for peace and civil rights.
Defining moment: Blockbuster films
The 1980s ushered in a new era of blockbuster icons, including characters like Marty McFly, Indiana Jones, E.T., and Ferris Bueller. In the 1980s, illustrated movie posters were a popular marketing tool and used to great effect for promoting films such as Star Wars: Episode V The Empire Strikes Back and The Goonies. Many of these vintage movie posters have become iconic around the world, thanks to poster artists like Drew Struzan and Richard Amsel.
Defining moment: The Age of the Internet
The advent of the Internet changed the way people communicate, shop, and advertise. During the 1980s and 1990s, companies like IBM and Apple were cultivating their brand’s innovative spirit through posters. Apple took up the call with their 1997 campaign, “Think different.” The posters featured black-and-white photographs of visionaries across a variety of disciplines with the campaign tagline resting below the classic rainbow Macintosh logo. Along with an iconic television spot, this print campaign helped transform the reputation of what is now one of the most influential tech companies of all time.
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