Exhibition: Messages off the Wall - Bilbao Fine Arts Museum


2015-10-06 • 2016-01-18

Messages off the Wall

Posters in the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum Collection (1886-1975)

BBK Gallery

The modern poster first appeared in the second half of the 19th century, a time of far-reaching economic, political and social changes that paved the way for a a new mercantile order, the proliferation of brands and the appearance of new consumer habits. For the next century, the poster provided a very useful response to the need to advertise political events or ideas, and to promote specific products and tourist destinations.

Messages Off The Wall. Posters in the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum Collection (1886-1975) provides an unprecedented opportunity to see more than two hundred works from the Museum's extensive and largely unfamiliar collection of old posters, selected by Mikel Bilbao Salsidua, lecturer at the Department of Art & Music History at the University of the Basque Country, following research work facilitated by a BBK-Museum grant in 2008/2009. The exhaustive catalogue published by the Museum to accompany the exhibition is also the result of this investigation.

On display are works by pioneers of the poster like Jules Chéret, Théophile Alexandre Steinlen and Eugène Grasset, and others by a host of leading designers, a roster that includes such names as Leonetto Cappiello, Paul Colin, Jean Carlu, Charles Loupot, Ludwig Hohlwein, Raymond Savignac, Saul Bass, Milton Glaser, Roman Cieslewicz, Giovanni Pintori, Jan Lenica, Armando Testa and Shigeo Fukuda. Also in the exhibition is a significant representation of Basque posters, illustrating work done in this field by major painters like Adolfo Guiard, Aurelio Arteta, Antonio de Guezala and Elías Salaverría. Also included are posters by outstanding draughtsmen such as Rafael de Penagos, Federico Ribas, Emilio Ferrer i Espel, Josep Morell, Manolo Prieto and Josep Artigas.

Covering the years 1886-1975, the exhibition goes from the oldest poster, created by Adolfo Guiard (Bilbao, 1860-1916) in 1886 to several posters from 1975, including Victory 1945 by prestigious graphic designer Shigeo Fukuda (Tokyo, 1932-2009).

Divided into seven themes (posters for tourism, bullfights, trade and commerce, sports, politics and war, trade fairs, exhibitions and congresses and culture and entertainment), the exhibition enables the spectator to appreciate the way posters, advertising and graphic design developed over the years, and the poster's capacity to absorb a broad range of artistic idioms of the 19th and 20th centuries. It is, then, a journey through a century of the poster, an object designed to be ephemeral and which, despite its intended brief passage, very early on became a collector's item.



1.- The poster in the tourist industry

In the late 19th century, the continuing advance of capitalism, the consolidation of the bourgeoisie and the transport revolution all contributed to the appearance of tourism. Over the next century, what was originally an elitist pastime developed into a mass phenomenon and a major economic sector in its own right. The poster came into its own as an essential support for advertising holiday trips and destinations. An enthusiasm for healthy living meant plenty of favourable advertising for spas and seaside resorts with good bathing, while other destinations, promoted by railway companies, paved the way for designs based on landscapes, heritage sites and places with popular characters and customs. Our selection begins in the last decade of the century with posters in the modernist style like the one Antoine Pochin produced for French Northern Railway CF du Nord and is rounded off with a poster with Surrealist touches by Salvador Dalí from 1971. Others are linked to the international style of the twenties, including Rafael de Penagos's 1928 poster advertising San Sebastián as a well-established tourist destination, plus one by Antonio de Guezala, published a year later for the Spanish National Tourist Board to publicise Bilbao's Abra Bay beaches.


2.- The bullfight poster

This is perhaps the most genuinely Spanish contribution to the story of the poster. Indeed the oldest Spanish posters are associated with announcing and publicising bullfights. Unlike other posters, the bullfight poster is basically explanatory (date, venue, time, bullfighters, the ranches the bulls are from and so on), which means of course that the typographical features are of particular importance. The images accompanying the words generally bear the influence of the almost eternally sunlit idiom of the Illuminist art movement from Valencia and Impressionism, although there are examples, like some works produced by Antonio de Guezala and Nicolás Martínez Ortiz, clearly influenced by Cubism and Futurism. The importance of the Vista Alegre bullring in Bilbao is clear from the Museum bullfight poster section, which includes leading poster makers like Carlos Ruano Llopis and Luis García Campos alongside forays in the genre by a number of representative Basque artists: Adolfo Guiard, Alberto Arrúe and Isidoro de Guinea, among others.


3.- The commercial poster

Towards the end of the 19th century, the second wave of industrialization encouraged the development of international trade and greater access to consumer goods. With brands and brand names proliferating, the poster had a central role in advertising products and services, and in attracting the attention of potential consumers. This was the big moment for the pioneers of publicity and advertising and for the commercial poster, well represented in the Museum collection. The selection kicks off with the great 19th-century French poster artist Jules Chéret, who tended to use the image of women (known as the "chérettes") to promote products. In his colourful posters, Chéret portrayed his chérettes in an insouciant, relaxed style reminiscent of Toulouse-Lautrec. An anonymous poster from around 1921 advertising Fap' Anis liqueur also uses the image of a woman as a publicity ploy.

For the popular Maggi consommé, Firmin Bouisset came up with the image of a child, as did Emilio Ferrer i Espel for the biscuit firm Artiach and Gaspar Camps for Zuricalday chocolates, under the direct influence of Charles Chaplin's film The Kid (1921). One of the pioneers of Spanish graphic design, Josep Artigas, is represented here with an affiche promoting oranges; the poster also uses humour as a tool for winning the spectator over. Other industries also established themselves in the early decades of the century and required the services of outstanding poster makers. Amongst the top artists were Henry Le Monnier and Armando Testa, who worked for the Armagnac and Carpano liqueurs, respectively, Gino Boccasile, who produced work for the classic Bantam hats, Leonetto Cappiello, the finest and most prolific poster artist of the first three decades of the 20th century, who provided designs for a pharmaceutical product, Emilio Vilá, who set up his own agency, Affiches Vilá, in Paris and worked for Columbia Records, Aníbal Tejada, who collaborated with Orbea bicycle makers and Alberto Arrúe, who produced posters for local savings bank Caja de Ahorros Vizcaína. More modern poster makers include Giovanni Pintori and Raymond Savignac, who made posters for Italian typewriter manufacturer Olivetti and Manolo Prieto, famous for designing Osborne's iconic bull, still to be seen at vantage points around the Spanish countryside, also worked for the Aviaco airline.


4.- The sports poster

During the 19th century, much sporting activity became increasingly regulated and institutionalized, as sports associations mushroomed and the first professional players began to appear. This trend meant sport became more competitive and a mass attraction; major sporting events were organized on a regular basis and posters made a decisive contribution as a medium for communication. The oldest poster in this section is an anonymous effort from 1921 publicising horse races in San Sebastián. Also from the 1920s is Eduardo Lagarde's work for races at the Lasarte racetrack, Ascensio Martiarena for the European boxing championship and Robert Portefin for the French Basque Pelota Federation, whose poster became a notable hit with spectators. Around 1930 Rafael Elósegui produced some rather modern-looking posters to advertise yachting regattas in San Sebastián, as did Aurelio Arteta the same year for the team rowing regattas, reusing a well-known image originally created for the 1924 regattas.

A large roster of poster makers produced work for motor racing. Miguel Ángel Aguirreche, Rafael Elósegui and Javier Gómez Acebo and Máximo Viejo  all managed to combine images of cars with the impression of speed and movement in posters clearly influenced by Futurist art, an influence also appreciable in motorbike posters designed by Luis Lasheras and Antonio de Guezala and in the dynamism of Otto Ottler's football posters. An art movement known as Rationalism makes its bow in the poster signed by architects Eugenio Aguinaga and José Antonio Domínguez and tennis player Francisco de Asís Alonso for the 1934 San Sebastián International Tennis Competition. Finally, the revival of the Olympic Games in 1896 stimulated  global interest in sport and the creation of posters associated with the Games. One major homegrown contemporary artist, Eduardo Chillida, produced posters for the 1972 Munich Olympic Games.


5.- The political and war poster

The earliest noteworthy examples of this kind of poster date from the beginning of the 20th century and are linked to important historical events such as referendums and wars. Although they share with the commercial poster the need to persuade, in this case the idea is the product and the commercial slogan is replaced by one with overtly political content. The First World War marked a major turning point as governments set in motion a propaganda machine that made great good use of posters, stuck up in the streets or reproduced in the media. Defending the mother country and calls for solidarity are the major themes of the war posters of the time. The family, as in the social realist-inspired poster by Théophile Alexandre Steinlen, considered one of the fathers of the modern poster, and the soldier portrayed by Abel Faivre featured in an iconography repeated throughout the century to boost recruitment and help the drive to finance the war. In Spain, the 2nd Republic, proclaimed in 1931, ushered in change: secularization, new educational and agrarian policies, and new statutes of autonomy for the regions of Catalonia and the Basque Country. The first Aberri Eguna (Basque Homelands day) in 1932 and the projected Statute of Autonomy for the Basque Country, cooked up between 1930 and 1936, were two developments that required the visual power of artists such as Nicolás Martínez Ortiz, Nik or Txiki. Shortly afterwards, the poster, alongside the radio and the press, would play a major role in the Spanish Civil War in conveying calls for aid (much like Oskar Kokoschka's poster designed to drum up funds for Basque children affected by the bombing of Gernika) and in lampooning the enemy, as is the case with posters by Juan Antonio Morales. In the early 1930s, Jean Carlu created the Office for Graphic Peace Propaganda to promote education for peace. He would later be responsible for one of the finest pacifist posters of all time, one that combines graphic design and photography. Years later, in 1975, Mieczyslaw Wasilewski and Shigeo Fukuda created powerfully expressive posters of great graphic economy for the same purpose.


6.- The expo, fairs and congresses poster

From the 19th century, ongoing technological, scientific and commercial developments were increasingly showcased at major events that reflected and materialized the idea of progress. There were the great universal or international expositions, like the one held in Barcelona in 1929, and international trade fairs, also reflected in posters, like the one in Bilbao, founded in 1932. Interesting affiches by Nicolás Martínez Ortiz, Luis Lasheras and Manuel Eléxpuru give a fair idea of the élan and scope of the Bilbao trade fair. Agriculture, fishing and livestock also had fairs and shows advertised in posters, as we can see in the modern designs of Eduardo Lagarde for the San Sebastián Industries of the Sea Fair. The world of culture also had its own meeting points, like the exhibitions organized by the AAV, the association of Basque artists, for which Antonio de Guezala and Xavier Nogués produced several posters. Guezala and Alberto Arrúe worked on posters for a number of editions of the Congress of Basque Studies. Herbert Bayer used geometric forms to produce an outstanding poster for a travelling exhibition designed to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the Bauhaus.


7.- The culture and entertainment poster

From cabaret to pop music, from Sarah Bernhardt to Marilyn Monroe, this kind of poster marked the birth of a new entertainment industry in the late 19th century, one which flourished throughout the 20th century. The industry was lucky in that there now existed a bourgeoisie in a position to spend time and money on it. The oldest posters in the Museum, dating from 1890 and 1892, respectively, are two magnificent examples: the first, by Eugène Grasset, is an advert for the play Joan of Arc with legendary actress Sarah Bernhardt in the title role. The second, by Jules Chéret, the father of the modern poster and pioneer in the use of colour lithography, is an example of the first publicity poster for the famed Moulin Rouge. The poster was so successful that even Toulouse-Lautrec had himself photographed standing next to it. In the late 1920s, designers of the stature of Agustín Ansa and Carlos Landi worked on posters for other events, like the creation in San Sebastián of the Aquarium and the Kursaal hall, and the Great Basque Week show. Moving into the second half of the century, we find posters accompanying the rise of the film and record industries, with posters produced for The Beatles by celebrity photographer Richard Avedon, one by Milton Glaser for Bob Dylan's first greatest hits LP, the graphics produced by famous illustrator and designer Saul Bass for film director Otto Preminger or Dorothea Fischer-Nosbisch's poster for Billy Wilder's The Seven-Year Itch, with the iconic image, later appropriated by Warhol, of Marilyn Monroe.