In 1890 the French painter Maurice Denis asserted: “remember that a painting – before it is a battle horse, a nude model, or some anecdote – is essentially a flat surface covered with colours assembled in a certain order”. If this reflection is transferred over to the understanding of a poster, then it is unsurprising that the disciplines of design and painting share common ground, and designers enter a field that, in principle, could appear foreign but in fact is far from it. If we think of a flat, colour-covered surface on, generally, a thin sheet of paper, upon which a mix of colours is spread and organised using a certain composition, then we’re referring to a poster. And a poster – why not? – can in some cases be a work of art with a communicative approach. Just like a battle horse, a religious print or portrait of a monarch, the aim is to communicate, although just to be clear, I do not want to discuss here the hackneyed question of whether design is art, or vice versa.
It’s no secret that the poster is a graphic piece that has been losing a large chunk of its communicative effectiveness as it is replaced by other information mediums; nevertheless, today this support still preserves much of its potential as a device, information support and space for aesthetic enjoyment. For decades the star piece in design was the poster, and looking back through the pages of any story of design history there are scores of examples of magnificent graphic pieces. When one talks of the poster the names of the eminent French poster artists normally emerge, for instance Toulouse Lautrec, Cassandre, Mucha or Chéret; or the Russian Constructivists, the politically driven posters such as those from the Polish or Cuban Schools, or those that are most tragically closest to us – the propaganda posters from the rival factions in our last Civil War. Posters are also shown from 1970s psychedelia or the fantastic series created for sporting events like the Olympic Games, cultural events or local festivals. Not to mention the other star genre: posters advertising film productions, which inevitably throws up the name Saul Bass.
Virtually all human activity has gone hand in hand over recent centuries with this modest support – diametrically distanced from digital aspects – known as the poster. Interest in the poster is so great that the English term has been widely appropriated to the point where it is understood instantly and used indistinctly. When such a circumstance arises, it becomes a symptom of something that is not circumscribed to the limited circle of experts – Have you seen how beautiful the poster for latest Bond film is? Yet if, in the end, the poster is something as unsophisticated as a piece of printed paper, then where does its importance and substance lie? Clearly in two aspects: the greater or lesser excellence of graphic composition and the greater or lesser relevance of the message it transmits.
On certain occasions, Milton Glaser has referred to the limits of the printed material to reflect dynamics, or the passing of time or evolution of something, and also to show the characteristics of an object that tends to surpass, in its origins, the limits of paper. Resolving this impossibility is one of the question marks surrounding graphic design, which is left to the ingenuity of the artist. Today’s digital design helps to put forward solutions in this way, which is perhaps one of the reasons why it is contributing to the death of the poster, as well as the impositions that come from new and controlled urban supports that are designed for outdoor advertising.
The major poster artists throughout history tend to be great illustrators; Alphonse Mucha, the British artists with ties to Curwen Press, the aforementioned Milton Glaser, and Plá Narbona and Huguet in Spain are names that back up this claim. Here is also the place where another of the reasons for the diminishing importance of the poster resides. Nowadays, few graphic designers have the qualities and expertise provided by the bygone names in poster design; but they are not the only ones, there are also other, lesser-known artists who were equally skilled for illustration, skills they used as a powerful tool when it came to formally composing their graphic pieces.
What, then, is the future of the poster? I would dare to say that the same as the printed book: those that are examples of graphic excellence – fine-tuning between theme and solution – which, along with a magnificent execution and the best selection of material support, are placed in the category of an artwork or unique piece. I’m unsure as to whether it’s a temporary situation but, in recent years, the majority of posters that we as designers still receive requests for are for participating in collective competitions for charity purposes. Posters with a common, imposed theme which end up as part of touring exhibitions or are used as part of charity auctions.
The poster has lost its battle as the pre-eminent tool in the transmission of current information, but it has won the war in becoming a piece we keep, one which stays with us through our lives in those corners we hold dear, or that we find in museums and galleries, spaces that reach us to confirm the importance of the squared centimetres of paper we call a poster.
Written by Emilio Gil for the tribute book “Enric Huguet 60 años de la historia gráfica del diseño catalán (Enric Huguet, 60 Years of Graphic History from Catalan Design)”