A poster is any piece of printed paper designed to be attached to a wall or vertical surface. Typically posters include both textual and graphic elements, although a poster may be either wholly graphical or wholly text. Posters are designed to be both eye-catching and informative.
Posters may be used for many purposes. They are a frequent tool of advertisers (particularly of events, musicians and films), propagandists, protestors and other groups trying to communicate a message. Posters are also used for reproductions of artwork, particularly famous works, and are generally low-cost compared to original artwork. The modern poster, as we know it, however, dates back to the 1840s and 1850s when the printing industry perfected colour lithography and made mass production possible.
According to the French historian Max Gallo, "for over two hundred years, posters have been displayed in public places all over the world. Visually striking, they have been designed to attract the attention of passers-by, making us aware of a political viewpoint, enticing us to attend specific events, or encouraging us to purchase a particular product or service." The modern poster, as we know it, however, dates back to the mid-nineteenth century, when several separate but related changes took place. First, the printing industry perfected colour lithography and made mass production of large and inexpensive images possible. Second, government censorship of public spaces in countries like France was lifted. And finally, advertisers began to market mass-produced consumer goods to a growing populace in urban areas.
"In little more than a hundred years", writes poster expert John Barnicoat, "it has come to be recognized as a vital art form, attracting artists at every level, from painters like Toulouse-Lautrec and Mucha to theatrical and commercial designers." They have ranged in styles from Art Nouveau, Symbolism, Cubism, and Art Deco to the more formal Bauhaus and the often incoherent hippie posters of the 1960s.
Posters, in the form of placards and posted bills, have been used since earliest times, primarily for advertising and announcements. Purely textual posters have a long history: they advertised the plays of Shakespeare and made citizens aware of government proclamations for centuries. However, the great revolution in posters was the development of printing techniques that allowed for cheap mass production and printing, including notably the technique lithography which was invented in 1796 by the German Alois Senefelder. The invention of lithography was soon followed by chromolithography, which allowed for mass editions of posters illustrated in vibrant colours to be printed.
By the 1890s, the technique had spread throughout Europe. A number of noted French artists created poster art in this period, foremost amongst them Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Jules Chéret, Eugène Grasset, Adolphe Willette, Pierre Bonnard, Louis Anguetin, Georges de Feure and Henri-Gabriel Ibels. Chéret is considered to be the "father" of advertisement placards. He was a pencil artist and a scene decorator, who founded a small lithography office in Paris in 1866. He used striking characters, contrast and bright colours, and created over 1000 advertisements, primarily for exhibitions, theatres, and products. The industry soon attracted the service of many aspiring painters who needed a source of revenue to support themselves.
Chéret developed a new lithographic technique that suited better the needs of advertisers: he added a lot more colour which, in conjunction with innovative typography, rendered the poster much more expressive. Not surprisingly, Chéret is said to have introduced sex in advertising or, at least, to have exploited the feminine image as an advertising ploy. In contrast with those previously painted by Toulouse-Lautrec, Chéret's laughing and provocative feminine figures, often called "chérettes," meant a new conception of art as being of service to advertising.
Posters soon transformed the thoroughfares of Paris, making the streets into what one contemporary called "the poor man’s picture gallery." Their commercial success was such that some fine artists took up poster design in earnest. Some of these artists were, like Alphonse Mucha, in great demand and theatre stars personally selected their own favorite artist to do the poster for an upcoming performance. The popularity of poster art was such that in 1884 a major exhibition was held in Paris.
By the 1890s, poster art had widespread usage in other parts of Europe, advertising everything from bicycles to bullfights. By the end of the 19th century, during an era known as the Belle Époque, the standing of the poster as a serious artform was raised even further. Between 1895 and 1900, Jules Chéret created the Maîtres de l'Affiche (Masters of the Poster) series that became not only a commercial success, but is now seen as an important historical publication. Alphonse Mucha and Eugène Grasset were also influential poster designers of this generation, known for their Art Nouveau style and stylized figures, particularly of women. Advertisement posters became a special type of graphic art in the modern age. Poster artists such as Théophile Steinlen, Albert Guillaume, Leonetto Cappiello, Henri Thiriet and others became important figures of their day, their art form transferred to magazines for advertising as well as for social and political commentary.. Indeed, as design historian Elizabeth Guffey notes, “As large, colourful posters began to command the spaces of public streets, markets and squares, the format itself took on a civic respectability never afforded to Victorian handbills.”
In the United States, posters underwent a slightly different evolution. By the 1850s, the advent of the travelling circus brought colourful posters to tell citizens that a carnival was coming to town. While many of these posters were beautifully printed, the earliest were mass-produced woodcuts; that technique, as well as their subject matter, crowded style, and bright colours, was often derided by contemporary critics. As chromo-lithography began to reshape European posters, American artists began to take the medium more seriously. Indeed, with work of designers like Edward Penfield or Will Bradley gained an audience in Europe as well as America.
Challenged by newer modes of advertising, the poster as a communicative form began to decline after the First World War. Civic groups had long assailed the poster, arguing that the form made public spaces ugly. But the real threat to posters came from newer forms of advertising. Mass-market magazines, radio and later television, and bill-boards all cut into advertiser’s marketing budgets. While posters continued to be made and advertised products, they were no longer considered a primary form of advertising. More and more, posters purpose shifted toward political and decorative uses.
Indeed, by the mid 1960s, posters were reborn as part of a broader counter-cultural shift. By 1968 the poster craze was described as "half way between a passing fashion and a form of mass hysteria." Sometimes called a “second golden age” or "postermania" however, this resurgence of popularity saw posters used as decoration and self-expression as much as public protest or advertising.
By the 1890s, poster art had widespread usage in other parts of Europe, advertising everything from bicycles to bullfights. Many posters have had great artistic merit. These include the posters advertising consumer products and entertainment, but also events like the World's Fairs and Colonial Exhibitions.
Other times of great turmoil also produced great posters. The first widespread use of illustrated posters for political ends occurred during the First World War. War bond drives and recruitment posters soon replaced commercial advertisements. German graphic designers, who had pioneered the simple Sachplakat style in the years leading up to the war, applied their talents to the war effort. Artists working for the Allied cause also made over their art in wartime, as well.
The 1960s saw the rise of pop art and protest movements throughout the West; both made great use of posters and contributed to the poster's revitalization at this time. Perhaps the most acclaimed posters were those produced by French students during the so-called "événements" of May 1968. During the 1968 Paris student riots and for years to come, Jim Fitzpatrick's stylized poster of Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara (based on the photo Guerrillero Heroico), also became a common youthful symbol of rebellion.
After the September 11 attacks, in the United States, public schools across the country posted "In God We Trust" framed posters in their "libraries, cafeterias and classrooms." The American Family Association supplied several 11-by-14-inch posters to school systems.
Many printing techniques are used to produce posters. While most posters are mass-produced, posters may also be printed by hand or in limited editions. Most posters are printed on one side and left blank on the back, the better for affixing to a wall or other surface. Pin-up sized posters are usually printed on A3 Standard Silk paper in full colour. Upon purchase, most commercially available posters are often rolled up into a cylindrical tube to allow for damage-free transportation. Rolled-up posters can then be flattened under pressure for several hours to regain their original form.
It is possible to use poster creation software to print large posters on standard home or office printers.
Many posters, particularly early posters, were used for advertising products. Posters continue to be used for this purpose, with posters advertising films, music (both concerts and recorded albums), comic books, and travel destinations being particularly notable examples.
During the First and Second World Wars, recruiting posters became extremely common, and many of them have persisted in the national consciousness, such as the "Lord Kitchener Wants You" posters from the United Kingdom, the "Uncle Sam wants you" posters from the United States, or the "Loose Lips Sink Ships" posters that warned of foreign spies. Also in Canada, they were widespread.
Posters during wartime were also used for propaganda purposes, persuasion, and motivation, such as the famous Rosie the Riveter posters which exhorted women workers to work in factories during World War II. The Soviet Union also produced a plethora of propaganda posters, some of which became iconic representations of the Great Patriotic War. During the democratic revolutions of 1989 in Central and Eastern Europe the poster was very important weapon in the hand of the opposition. Brave printed and hand-made political posters appeared on the Berlin Wall, on the statue of St. Wenseslas in Prague and around the unmarked grave of Imre Nagy in Budapest and the role of them was indispensable for the democratic change. An example of an influential political poster is Shepard Fairey's Barack Obama "HOPE" poster.