Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec may be more famous today for his life — a dwarfish, disaffected, aristocratic, womanizing drunk, he seems tailor-made to serve as a symbol for the seedy artistic demimonde of late nineteenth century Paris — than his art. At the peak of his fame, however, he was the toast of Paris. Toulouse-Lautrec’s advertisement for the Moulin Rouge nightclub, where he was a regular, featured Louise Weber, la Goulue (that’s "the glutton", a reference to her hard-drinking ways) dancing a scandalous can-can and flashing her scandalous knickers, making him instantly the best known poster artist in Paris upon its release in 1891. Toulouse-Lautrec would die ten years later, having produced a number of well-regarded oil paintings, over three hundred lithographs, and no heirs; the Toulouse family line, which could be traced back to the time of Charlamagne, ended with Henri. Although Moulin Rouge - La Gouloue is widely considered to be the start of the modern tradition of poster-making, the explosion of French poster art that began in the Gay Nineties would never have happened without two developments. Starting in the 1860s, prolific printer Jules Chéret had reworked the eighteenth century technology of lithography, introducing new English techniques to France and redefining poster design thanks to a brilliant eye for minimizing the numbers of stones required for a vivid, multicolored poster. And in 1881, to deal with the wallpapering of vertical spaces throughout Paris, the French government passed a law limiting the use of posters in certain official public spaces; to post in these spots required a tax stamp, the cost of which was based on the square footage of the poster. This led in turn to standardized poster sizes, printers springing up to print the legal and standardized posters, and an explosion in the use of posters for advertising.

Despite the noble efforts of artists to produce Depression-era W.P.A. propaganda posters (link via Mena’s A Day Late; my friend Andrew, who has been going on a poster-buying rampage of late, notes that you can order photo-quality reproductions), Communist propaganda posters (which begain with the Bolsheviks), American propaganda posters, and Hollywood propaganda posters, the Parisian poster boom wasn’t really equalled until the rock poster craze of the ‘60s.

The psychedelic posters of the Sixties — best exemplified by the series of Fillmore and Avalon Ballroom posters created for Bill Graham — ranged from attractive to eye-burningly awful, but I confess that I find very little of it as appealing as the William-Morris-influenced posters created by David Lance Goines in the early 1970s. Perhaps some of my feelings are because I would rather sit on a tack than listen to a Grateful Dead album.

Contemporary rock posters are more likely to be influenced by Big Daddy Roth and Mad Magazine than by Chéret, but they still have the goal of being eyecatching and communicating the advertising message. Frank Kozik is probably the best known contemporary rock poster artist; his addled takes on Disney-esque cartoon art are popular enough that some bogglingly unlikely company now sells Kozik checks. (If he actually did rock posters, Shepard Fairey’s Andre the Giant posters, in all their manifold Communist imagery variations, would probably be a second.) There’s some beautiful work being done by more obscure postermakers, though. Jay Ryan of Chicago’s Dianogah has done some beautiful work, often combining nods to previous poster art traditions with some wonderfully simple, surreal line art. (V. longs for Shellac vs. the squirrels; I dig the giant bunny.) I have a lovely Monozine Godspeed You Black Emperor! poster on my wall; Aesthetic Apparatus (pointed out to me by Judith) has some nice ones, including a wonderful Pernice Brothers poster. I have no idea who the Pernice Brothers are, but that poster makes me want to find out. Score another one for effective advertising, as important to twentieth century nightclubs in Wisconsin as it was to nineteenth century nightclubs in Paris. Plus ça change…