The Belle Époque posters adorning the galleries of the Driehaus Museum right now shouldn’t, by all rights, exist. They are more than a century old, printed on flimsy paper, with inexpensive inks. Some were once even displayed outside, where the wind, rain, and sun of Paris in its various seasons beat down on them.
The fact that we can enjoy exhibitions like L’Affichomania today, in the 21st century, is thanks to the first devoted collectors who preserved the posters. These adorers of the color lithographic poster, which transformed the formerly drab French capital into a bright, colorful, open-air museum in the last half of the 19th century, were known as affichomaniaques—literally “poster maniacs.”
These collectors gave the color poster—first and foremost an advertising medium—a legitimate place in the realm of high art, upending time-honored French traditions and institutions that traditionally defined what high art could be. The popularity of poster collecting rose in the 1880s, and peaked with wild enthusiasm by 1891, when the term affichomanie, or “poster mania,” entered the parlance. The Parisian art world, epitomized by the exclusive annual Salon, had been a conservative bastion of proud ideals defining what art was, who could make it, and who it was for. Suddenly, however, art exploded all over the streets, as available to be seen and enjoyed by the working class as to the upper classes. It was a revolution.
In addition to redefining what could be classified as art, the poster collectors’ enthusiasm also had a profound influence on poster-making itself. Beginning with French lithographer Jules Chéret and his hand-drawn letters, the text had always been an essential and fascinating part of the poster’s design and advertising purpose. But soon, some artists began to produce limited-edition prints “without letters,” not for the street but for affichomaniaques to display in their private collections. Dealers like Edmond Sagot, Édouard Kleinmann, and Victor Prouté stocked their galleries with these special, rare posters, printed without letters and on expensive papers, especially to provide to a wealthier collecting set who didn’t want their images so closely associated with the consumer delights they promised.
However, the infinitely reproducible medium of lithography also allowed the galleries to provide prints of the original posters for just a few francs, so someone could have a real work of art for the same price as one would pay to go to a restaurant or cabaret for an evening. For a similar fee per publication, subscribers to new poster journals, such as Les Maîtres de l’affiche, La Plume, La Revue indépendante, and Le Courrier français, received small reproductions that were easy to display at home.
If you didn’t possess even these financial means, however, there were plenty of posters out on the street to be had. Some bribed the billposters so they could put get their hands on the newest prints before they were glued onto billboards, kiosks, shop windows, and Morris columns. Many more risked being caught and fined by police and surreptitiously peeled posters off the columns at night for free.
The affichomaniaques therefore came from all corners of society. Another aspect of the Belle Époque’s poster revolution is that the first time, you didn’t have to be wealthy to have your own art collection. “The gold frame is for the time forgotten, and all have their eyes on the lithographer’s stone,” wrote Londoner Charles Hiatt in 1895.
What was the appeal? Certainly one reason for this fierce popular interest is that the new poster took the somewhat mundane elements of a Parisians’ daily urban life—applying face powder, drinking an aperitif, using new technology like the Théâtrophone, and enjoying a bawdy dance at the Moulin Rouge—and elevated them to delightful, even glamorous, activities immortalized in a colorful work of art. This is something consumer advertising has honed to perfection today, but in the late 1800s, this was the first time one saw one’s own life take on a new shine through fantasy images of, say, the beautiful Sarah Bernhardt of Alphonse Mucha’s posters or one of Jules Chéret’s cherettes.
Though many embraced the astounding prevalence of these bright and colorful advertising images, others balked at what they viewed as a gaudy and unavoidable display. “This is what distinguishes the poster,” wrote French author Maurice Talmeyr in 1896, “that it does not propose its ideas more or less persuasively, but it imposes itself on me. I read a book if I want to do so; I go to see a painting if I feel like it; I do not buy my newspaper despite myself. But the poster? I see it, even if I do not want to see it. … I am obliged to breathe it and to have its force enter my blood!”
Whether one loved or hated them, however, the sheer power of these posters and the devoted passion of the collectors behind them was certainly not debated. Come and enjoy the exhibition L’Affichomania, a testament to the “poster maniacs” who preserved the ephemera of Paris’s golden age, before it closes on January 7.
The Poster: Art, Advertising, Design, and Collecting, 1860s–1900s by Ruth E. Iskin. Dartmouth College Press, 2014.
Posters of Paris: Toulouse-Lautrec & His Contemporaries by Mary Weaver Chapin. Milwaukee Art Museum / Delmonico Books, 2012.