Modernity is a major theme of art museum exhibitions of objects made by Europeans or Americans after 1850. If we think of the Art Institute of Chicago as a kind of church, the advent of Modernism is the sacred narrative that drives its liturgy. In that sense, this exhibition of railway posters from the early decades of the twentieth century is same-old same-old, just like “Manet and Modern Beauty,” a special exhibition running concurrently in Regenstein Hall. What is different about the material in this exhibition is that it was directly connected to so much modern life outside the world of artists and collectors.
The Underground Electric Railways Company was a privately owned rail consortium that served the greater London area in the early 1900s. Its financial survival depended on a vibrant and ever-growing urbanization. To get people traveling, it needed to sell all the attractions that London had to offer: museums, gardens, theaters, parks and playing fields. To promote itself over its competitors, it needed to establish an attractive and memorable corporate identity. In these early days of the industrial consumer economy, advertising was done in-house and the ad-hoc adman who rose to the occasion was Frank Pick. Pick was trained in law, but his enthusiasm was for promoting mass transit.
This exhibition is a tribute to his aesthetics and vision as he utilized styles that included Art Deco, Art Nouveau and Modernist approaches that ran from Cubism and Fauvism up through Futurism and Suprematism.
Most of the designers he selected were professional illustrators, the most virtuosic of whom was Frederick Charles Herrick (1887–1970). His masterpiece was a poster that promoted the International Advertising Exhibition of 1920. It presented an aerial view of a bustling crowd of cartoonish characters that included the best-known corporate logos of his day, including the Michelin Man, the Kodak girl and Nipper the dog.
But Pick was especially interested in emerging artists, both men and women, who were attracted to modernist painting. One of them was Edward McKnight Kauffer (1890-1954), an American from Montana, whose connection to the Art Institute of Chicago may have guided Pick to donate these posters to the museum. One of Kauffer’s posters, “Route 160 Reigate,” is clearly derived from a landscape by Andre Derain now hanging upstairs in museum gallery 391. Similarly, the spiny lobster depicted by Richard Talbot Kelly (1896-1971) quotes a print by Hiroshige. Japanese printmakers inspired early Modernism, and a Japanese screen probably inspired the poster chosen to promote this entire exhibit. Designed by Mary Koop (1884-1967), “Summer Sales Quickly Reached,” depicts a manic cluster of colorful umbrellas as it presented yet another attraction of a vibrant metropolis.
Unlike the work of modernist and Ukiyo-e artists, however, these posters were created to quickly deliver an unambivalent message: Go to the zoo! (or the park, or the racetrack or wherever). The message delivered by the text was at least as important as the illustration—and Pick had an impact on typography as well as graphic design. He chose an iconic calligrapher, Edward Johnston (1872-1944), to design a bold, clean, sans-serif typeface for station lettering, and variations appear throughout the posters on display. Sometimes that lettering feels perfunctory, but often it is integrated into the overall design and delivers its message visually as well as verbally.
Most of this work comes from the decade following the first World War and is contemporary with Dada, that iconoclastic eruption that continues to echo throughout the contemporary art world. But these posters celebrate the delights rather than the horrors of modern civilization. As one of the designers, F. Gregory Brown, put it: “To make a good job of a poster it must be well designed, but for goodness sake do not drag it through the mud by calling it art.”
In a way, I agree. These travel posters have a faith in our dynamic secular world that so much twentieth century art does not share. (And not a single church is offered as a preferred destination!) Some of the designs are so clever, you have to laugh out loud. But most of their cheerfulness feels as breezy and superficial as was surely intended. The lithographic plates as well as the lettering were usually done by someone other than the artist and only a few pieces have the aesthetic intensity of a good, artist-made print—much less an early modernist painting like the John Marin watercolors shown here a few years ago.
A great poster is one thing—a great painting is something else. (Chris Miller)
“Everyone’s Art Gallery: Posters of the London Underground” is on view at the Art Institute of Chicago, 111 South Michigan through September 5.