Uncle Sam’s intense gaze is unmistakable in an image where his outstretched index finger conveys a clear message: “I want you for the US Army.” The 1917 poster reminded young men of their patriotic duty to fight for the fatherland during World War I. Designed by New Yorker James Montgomery Flagg, who is said to have modeled Uncle Sam on his own face, the US military also advertised with this poster during World War II – and still does to this day. The cult advertisement is world famous.
So it’s no coincidence that the Folkwang Museum in Essen, western Germany, chose “We Want You!” as the title of its current exhibit on the history of the poster, featuring designs derived from historical cartoons, illustrations and photographs from the 18th century to the present day — as well as perspectives for the future.
After all, according to curator Rene Grohnert, posters will always exist – even when they take on digital form. He is a firm believer in the saying “A picture is worth a thousand words”.
Ancient Origins of Stone Tablets
The ancestors of the poster were stone tablets on which the ancient Egyptians scratched symbols.
The Romans placed wooden plaques with public notices in busy squares, and in the Middle Ages posters resembling posters were hung in market squares or in front of churches.
But the modern poster first appeared in the mid-15th century, with the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg.
Then around 1796, Bavarian musician and playwright Alois Senefelder invented lithography, a vital technology for modern poster design and a precursor to modern offset printing.
Inspired by a rainy day observing how the image of a leaf stood out on a piece of limestone, the process he created allowed the reproduction of a pattern drawn on a stone slab to be transferred to paper.
From then on, Senefelder’s invention enabled the mass reproduction of posters for everything from event promotion to politics.
The design of the first posters was initially handled by printers and lithographers. But they were unable to meet the increasing quality demands of customers, leading to an increasing number of artists being hired to design posters as well.
French artist Jules Cheret became the father of the modern poster. He founded his own lithography workshop in 1866 and produced approximately 1,200 posters in 40 years.
Equally well known was Cheret’s compatriot, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, who wrote poster history with his works for the famous Parisian variety shows at the Moulin Rouge. He spends almost every evening capturing the energy of the extravagant nightlife of the Montmartre theater in his drawings.
In Germany, Art Nouveau designs became popular around the turn of the century. One of the most famous posters of the time was the one designed by Alfons Mucha for the play “Gismonda”, featuring world famous actress Sarah Bernhardt. All copies of the poster on public display were quickly stolen by art lovers.
The poster as an advertisement
Posters with elaborate designs by artists are still created for museums and theaters today, but since the 1920s posters have focused on advertising, brand and product replacing lavish ornaments, notes curator Rene Grohnert.
Throughout the 20th century, the poster continued to evolve, advertising being influenced by the artistic currents of its time, from the Bauhaus style to Art Deco.
Some played with psychedelic motifs during the 1960s counterculture; others became even more provocative in the 1980s, advertising with AIDS patients.
But the posters were not only designed to advertise goods but also political messages: the Nazis used them for propaganda purposes, as did the communist regimes of the Eastern bloc. Young people in the 1960s (and later generations) hung posters of the revolutionary Che Guevara on their walls. Other famous posters from the time denounced nuclear weapons, the Vietnam War, pollution and overpopulation.
Mass media then changed the whole approach to advertising, with television bringing product advertising directly into people’s living rooms.
The poster, however, remained. “It was then less about providing information and more about reminding people of something they had already seen,” says Grohnert.
Posters can still be seen on advertising pillars, invented in 1854, although today these relics have been updated and now turn 21st century with the posters illuminated from behind.
But the future looks different, says Grohnert. “The poster was integrated into an overall concept,” he says, noting that at a bus or train stop, an illuminated advertising poster can be combined with information and “roof greening” to create “a element of street furniture”.
In the era of digitization, the poster is far from being old-fashioned.
The poster exhibition “We Want You!” takes place at the Folkwang Museum Essen until August 28, 2022.
This article has been translated from German.