A New Way of Seeing:
History of Deco Travel Posters
By Jack Rennert & David A. Schneider
Graf Zeppelin, Hamburg-Amerika Linie, c. 1932, Ottomar Anton, Printer: Erasmusdruck, Berlin
Air France/Golden Clipper, 1933, Albert Solon, Printer: France-Affiches, Paris
Air France, Paris London, 1938, Roger de Valerio, Printer: Perceval, Paris
Air Fer, 1936, Roland Hugon (1911-?), Printer: Editions Paul-Martial, Paris
“One’s destination,” wrote Henry Miller, as he vagabonded his way through Greece in the 1930s, “is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” In fact, the entire Modernist project was about seeing old things in new ways. “Make it new!” cried Ezra Pound. Modigliani, Brancusi, and Henry Moore seized upon the idea, taking the forms of ancient Cycladic art from the Aegean, and stripping away the ornamentation of the nineteenth century to create an aesthetic for the twentieth.
Travel for pleasure had once meant the Grand Tour: a ramble through the historic sites of Europe for the edification of aristocratic young men. (Consider it a gap year that lasted three and a half years.) As medical practice evolved in the late nineteenth century, doctors recommended travel as a necessary part of physical rehabilitation — “taking the waters” at the spa to treat rheumatism or tuberculosis. But the early twentieth century saw the reinvention of travel and touring.
The Need for Speed
What changed? For starters, just as in our own time, everything suddenly got faster. The latter half of the nineteenth century had experienced the introduction of the bicycle — which transformed personal mobility — followed before long by the internal combustion engine, the automobile, and the motorcycle. Steamship companies began competing for the fastest trans-Atlantic crossing. Eventually travelers took to the skies. For most people, however, the great signifier of speed was the railroad. Between the 1910s and the mid-1920s, the top speed of rail travel doubled — to 100 miles per hour.
As railroads began to conquer the Alpine passes, mountaineering societies swelled. Cable-cars, pioneered during the First World War for the Italian Alps campaign, became symbols of the avant-garde. In a remarkable convergence, during the 1920s and 30s, cars, trains, airplanes, zeppelins, and ocean liners all competed for a growing and changing market. Obliged to sell their services, they turned to posters suggestive of speed and experience.
In October 1928 the zeppelin offered the world’s first commercial trans-Atlantic flight — from Friedrichshafen, Germany to Lakehurst, New Jersey. In 1932, the Graf Zeppelin began five years of shuttling travelers between Berlin and Buenos Aires, the “Paris of the South,” in a three-day route that radically accelerated the standard airship itinerary, while retaining ocean-liner standards of luxury. A poster for the Graf Zeppelin by Ottomar Anton (German, 1895-1976) embodied the zeppelin’s futuristic luxury.
In 1933, Albert Solon (French, 1897-1973) designed the first, and now rarest, advertisement for Air France, created that year by a merger of several French airlines. Air France offered travelers an astonishingly quick 95-minute ride from Paris to London. In 1938, having shaved 20 minutes off that flight time, the airline issued an exceptionally clever poster by Roger de Valerio French, 1896-1938), suggestive of the speed of change.
Statendam, 1928, A. M. Cassandre (1901-1968), Printer: Nijgh E Van Ditmar, Rotterdam
Trouville, 1927, Maurice Lauro (1878-?), Printer: Imp. Devambez, Paris
Danemark, c. 1935, artist unknown, Printer: S.L. Mollers, Bogtrykkeri
Pullman/Speed to Winter Playgrounds, 1935, William P. Welsh (1889-?), Printer: Charles Daniel Frey, Chicago
Some of the most dramatic images of the era began to envision travel, for the first time, as a multimodal network. In 1936, Roland Hugon (1911-?) used a photomontage of railroad tracks, combined with the flat colors and precise geometries of peak Art Deco aesthetics, to promote a brilliant one-ticket deal: a straight shot from the rails to the wings to the sky — “You leave one, you board the other” — in an idea of seamless travel that even today seems hyper-modern.
Likewise, the exhilaration is palpable in Dänemark, an anonymous 1935 work for the Danish Railway, which depicts a train and ship fusing together into one gigantic apparatus dedicated to collapsing spacetime. The poster emphasizes the emergence of a mechanical age. During the last gasps of the pre-industrial period, in the Romantic age of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, explorers experienced the sublime in the beauty and terror of nature, overpowering all things. By contrast, the Art Deco travel poster found the sublime in the enormous constructs of human manufacture. Enormously tall skyscrapers, impossibly large steamships, or unstoppable locomotives — all became objects of awe and veneration, symbols of power and elegance with which one could adorn oneself, like fashionable clothing, and use them, wield them, to conquer the heights and traverse the great spaces of the world.
With so many choices and modes of travel, women — who had tasted their first real freedom of movement with the bicycle in the 1890s — became travel-advertising targets for the first time. The Chicago-based Pullman Company commissioned from William P. Welsh (American, 1889-1984) a high-Deco series of posters,1935-36, which concentrated on women's independent travel to "winter playgrounds." Welsh also painted the murals for the Chicago Room in that city’s famed Palmer House Hotel.
No one better expressed the power, awe, and mystery of this new transportation age than Adolphe Jean-Marie Mouron (1901-1968), a Ukrainian émigré to Paris who took the nom de plume of A. M. Cassandre and now regarded as one of the five greatest poster artists in history. His poster for the S.S. Normandie, justly celebrated at the time of its printing, has become the premier icon of the entire Art Deco period.
Among the many other Cassandre Art Deco travel posters, one in particular deserves mention: his 1928 work for the S.S. Statendam, announcing service between Holland and America. Perhaps the most outrageously counterintuitive of Cassandre’s major posters, it doesn’t make much sense at first. It’s arresting, of course, as Cassandre’s own rules for advertising state: “You cannot stop people in the street and explain the advantages of this or that product. You must catch them by surprise and buttonhole them without their even realizing it.” But the poster doesn’t even appear to illustrate the tagline “for real comfort.” Cassandre faced a specific problem: the Statendam was magnificently appointed — but in 17th-century Dutch and Louis XVI style, with Gobelin tapestries and Dutch Old Master oil paintings. How could a poster faithfully sell newness and real comfort given accommodations more suitable for the ancien régime?
La Plage de Calvi. Corse, 1928, Roger Broders (1883-1953), Printer: Imp. Lucien Serre, Paris
Since the Holland-America line connected the Old World to the New, Cassandre sought inspiration in American Modernism. By luck, he found the perfect model: Boatdeck, a painting by American expatriate artist Gerald Murphy.
Young, wealthy, and fashionable, Gerald Murphy and his wife Sara epitomized the artistic and literary expatriate avant-garde of the Jazz Age. Sara, a great beauty, was a muse to both Fitzgerald and Picasso, while Gerald was taken under the wing of Diaghilev, Cocteau, and especially Léger, who became Gerald’s mentor. The couple later inspired the characters Dick and Nicole Diver in Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night.
Ete sur la Cote d’Azur, 1930, Roger Broders (1883-1953), Printer: Imp. de Vaugirard, Paris
In 1924, Boatdeck became the star of the Salon des Indépendants in Paris’s Grand Palais. A 13-foot-tall Modernist masterpiece, it eschewed any image of prow, profile, or shuffleboard-playing patrons, focusing instead on a stark and potent view of smokestacks and ventilators that Murphy created from over 60 photos he took on multiple cruises. Many art critics have noticed the similarity between Cassandre’s and Murphy’s work. Cassandre, though, appropriated these aesthetic choices for a purpose. The Statendam boasted extraordinary ventilation systems: twenty-four thousand feet of piping carried fresh air escorted down ventilators by 76 large electric fans. The real comfort, Cassandre’s poster says in an instant, is from this machine, shown as shockingly new through Modernist aesthetics.
Murphy’s Boatdeck survives only in a black and white photo from the 1924 Salon, and in Cassandre’s interpretation of the painting for the Statendam.
Sea, Sand, Sun
Trying to capitalize on the new caché of the post-war Riviera, destination for the Lost Generation’s smart set, towns on the French coast began to compete for well-heeled visitors, leading to what many consider the greatest Art Deco travel poster of the 1920s: Trouville.
This 1927 work by the virtually unknown Maurice Lauro (French, born 1878) perfectly epitomizes the fusion of travel and fashion. Trouville had been France’s first resort town, a favorite destination of Monet, Flaubert, Proust, and Duras — but had become overshadowed by Deauville, a preferred haunt of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. Lauro’s poster pays homage not to the fashionable celebrities, but rather to the growing cult of sunbathing. At the dawn of the twentieth century, John Harvey Kellogg, the inventor of cornflakes, had strongly promoted the health benefits of exposure to sun and water in his sanatorium. His advocacy of sunbathing sparked a movement that truly began burning brightly when, in 1923, Coco Chanel stepped out with a tan. The age of the beach vacation had begun.
Le Tour du Mt. Blanc, 1927, Roger Broders (1883-1953), Printer: Imp. Lucien Serre, Paris
Vichy/Ses Sources, 1928, Roger Broders (1883-1953), Printer: Imp. Lucien Serre, Paris
Probably the most stylized Deco example of beach worship from the entire period is the 1929 La Plage de Monte Carlo by Michel Bouchaud (French, 1902-1965). Like so many other commercial artists of the period, Bouchad served in World War I. Unlike so many others, however, he demobilized in Algeria, where the crispness of the Mediterranean light inspired artistic epiphanies. The Monte Carlo poster is one of only a handful he designed; he normally worked on far smaller scales such as labels for jewelers and chocolatiers.
As Fred Gray suggests in Modernism on Sea: Art and Culture at the British Seaside (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2009), the beach-and-poolside scene was marketed — and in essence, became — a stage for those who would have previously been in the audience. Nothing better displays that trend than Southport by Fortunino Matania (Italian, 1881-1963). In this poster, Matania fuses classical forms with Renaissance ensemble figure arrangements to present a classic piece of Art Deco, one in which each individual figure and interaction is meaningful and emotive.
For escapes to the Mediterranean seaside or to the mountains, however, the unrivaled master of the Deco “destination” poster is Roger Broders (French, 1883-1953), who, more than anyone else, balanced the flat color panels and composed geometries of typical Art Deco styling with spots of detail, creating an intense, almost hyperreal effect.
La Plage de Monte Carlo, 1929, Michel Bouchaud (1902-1965), Printer: Publicity Vox
Southport, c. 1928, Fortunino Matania (1881-1963), Printer: London Lithographic co., London
Broders had several "periods" over a stunningly short ten-year-long career working as a poster artist, 1922 to 1932. His earliest work, from 1922 through 1924, is largely landscape impressionism in a Modernist frame. But by 1927, he reached the graphic avant-garde with works such as Le Tour du Mont Blanc, which seizes the cut-out geometries of Soviet Constructivism. His 1928 Vichy ses Sources sources its own energy from Italian Futurism. Broders is at his best, however, at the L'Ete sur la Cote d’Azur, which fluidly communicates a continuity of artistic styles. In this work, Broders reached the apex of his style: the graceful organic forms of trees with the ideal geometries and primary colors of the coast — as if to say, "travel itself is an art, if done well: seeing things in a new way."
About the Author:
Jack Rennert, recognized as the foremost authority on poster art, has lectured and published widely on the subject, organized poster exhibitions, and in 1984 founded Poster Auctions International (PAI). He owns and operates Rennert’s Gallery, specializing in posters, at 26 West 17th Street in New York City.
David A. Schneider is the Editorial Director for Rennert’s Gallery / PAI, where he researches and writes PAI’s auction catalogues.
Article originally published in the Art Deco New York journal, Vol. 3, Issue 2, Winter 2018. View a digital version of the full journal here.