ILLUSTRATION AND ADVERTISING


It sounds like a piece of ancient oriental
wisdom or a quote from Shakespare, but it turns out the expression ‘a picture is worth
a thousand words’ was first coined by American adman Frederick Barnard in 1921. This doesn’t make it any less true and it
goes a long way towards explaining the long symbiotic relationship between advertising
and illustration. Its a relationship which has had its share
of ups and downs but it’s produced some of the most compelling, attractive and amusing
illustration of the last 200 years. You can find examples of illustrated advertising
from before the 19th century, but they are invariably crudely rendered engravings, lacking
any sign of creative imagination. And it wasn’t until the 1830s when more visually
sophisticated ads such as this from French engraver Tony Johannot – and this by fellow
frenchman Honore Daumier started to appear. But most posters and press advertising continued
to be fairly pedestrian despite the direction shown by these pioneers, and it took more
than 30 years of mediocrity before yet another French artist opened everyones eyes to the
potential of illustrated advertising. The remarkable posters of French artist Jules
Cheret first appeared in Paris around 1870 and his mastery of the print process and ability
to tastefully reconcile the image with the text singled him out as the real progenitor
of the modern poster. And whatever Cheret was advertising he intuitively
realised that you could always get the public’s full attention with a cheerfully provocative
image of a pretty girl. A generation later Alphonse Mucha developed
what Cheret had begun and the fusion of figurative and decorative elements in his work made his
posters impossible to ignore. Mucha was Czechoslovakian but he lived and
worked in Paris, where he created the vast number of posters which have become the very
definition of the art nouveau style. And just like Cheret he too exploited the
power of female beauty in virtually all his work. The posters of Henri de Toulouse Lautrec were
nothing like as commercially successful but his less representational graphic approach
was to prove equally influential on many who followed. Italian advertising in the late 1800s was
dominated by german born Adolfo Hohenstein, whose ornate baroque interpretation of art
nouveau was much admired for its dramatic lighting effects. But in Britain the partnership of William
Nicholson and James Pryde – known collectively as the Beggarstaffs – had been unimpressed
by the flowing complexities of art nouveau. They had been far more influenced by Lautrec
and Japanese woodblock prints and the posters created by this partnership were revolutionary
in their graphic simplicity and design At the same time the posters of their more
humorous contemporary Dudley Hardy made similar creative use of bold outlines and large areas
of flat colour. In Germany and Austria illustrators had developed
their own more minimal but still elegant version of art nouveau which they called jugenstil,
but the movement was to be only briefly popular. In America poster artist Will Bradley and
his contemporaries Edward Penfield and Louis Rhead had been energised by these developments
in Europe and each displayed particular stylistic aspects of the influence in their work. But in America and across Europe most of the
advertising art produced was woefully lacking in imagination, style or aesthetic appeal. And thats how most of it has stayed. Luckily not everyone was content with mediocrity. Where Mucha and the continental Europeans
had favoured the erotic and glamorous British illustrator John Hassall used a more down
to earth comical approach. Others had done the same thing before him
but Hassall became by far the most popular comic posterist of the time. His relentlessly cheerful illustrations were
everywhere on the streets of British cities and their popularity and power to sell demonstrated
conclusively that humour was the second foolproof weapon in the advertiser’s armoury. By this time in Germany and Austria jugenstil
had already evolved into the art and design movement known as the secession,which rejected
what was considered to be unnecessary decoration. The leading lights of the secession were Lucian
Bernhard and Julius Klinger. And the radically modernist and minimalist
graphic principles they established in their ads were quickly adopted and adapted by fellow
German Ludwig Hohlwein, who went on to eclipse them both as one of the most significant poster
artists of the 20th century. Generally flat colour – using unexpected combinations
– along with dramatic composition were the defining features of his work, and the popularity
and influence of his posters spread quickly throughout the rest of Europe as many others
began working on similar lines. When the great war of 1914 broke out advertising
took a back seat for 4 years as many illustrators either joined the armed forces or turned their
talents toward propaganda. By this time America had largely ignored the
graphic minimalsim which had begun and ended with Will Bradley and his colleagues in favour
of representational illustration styles which could only be reproduced by the new and expensive
full colour process. But the best of the American illustrators
had by now developed their own design aesthetic which when combined with the spectacularly
skilful techniques of artists of the calibre of Joseph Leyendecker were capable of creating
posters of immense visual power and beauty. And the precise glowing fantasy art of Maxfield
Parrish was every bit as popular, using renaissance oil painting techniques to create exquisitely
detailed scenarios to sell everyday products. And there were others, including the young
Norman Rockwell who would keep this traditional painted approach dominant in American advertising
for decades to come. But in continental Europe the shift to modernism
was unstoppable and the fascination with abstraction and geometric design coalesced into what would
later become known as art deco. And across Europe advertisers were keen to
exploit the style for its association with glamour and sophistication. And illustrators such as Roger Broders were
abandoning more painterly techniques and creating dynamic graphic images with mostly flat colour, The most significant posterist of the art
deco movement was A. M. Cassandre. His first poster appeared in Paris in1925
and all the work that followed demonstrated geometrically precise composition and exuded
the optimism and excitement of the new mechanised age and all its possibilities for a suitably
fashionable fast moving lifestyle. And it wasn’t just France which succumbed
to the sleek appeal of modernism. Spain’s most successful poster artist at this
time was Federico Ribas who created many stylish ads which exhibited varying levels of art
deco influence. And Erberto Carboni had similar success in
Italy with his radically abstracted poster work and he would continue to be a highly
influential illustrator and designer in the following decades. But in the 1930s Italian advertising was actually
dominated by the more representational melodramatic paintings of Gino Boccasile, which owed more
to what was happening in America. Britain had its fair share of converts to
art deco such as the poorly remembered Frederick Herrick but his contemporaries Frank Newbould
and Tom Purvis were creating stylistic hybrids which owed a lot to Ludwig Hohlwein. But it was humour which continued to be Britain’s
definitive selling strategy and some of the most successful advertising of the 30s such
as this comical series of ads for petrol by cartoonist Willuam Ridgewell were British
advertising’s stock in trade. And starting in 1930 James Gillroys cheerfully
absurd images were used extensively on posters and press ads to promote the supposed virtues
of drinking Guinness for over two decades, and this campaign was instrumental in making
Guinness a household name. Predictably just as it had in the great war
advertising in world war two faded into the background while more pressing matters were
dealt with. And even when the war ended the devastation
and food rationing throughout Europe didn’t make for particularly fertile ground for advertising. The generally utilitarian post-deco styling
of many of the wartime propaganda posters extended into the 1950s and even the 60s.
But it was somewhat generic and anonymous in stylistic terms and only one or two such
as Jaques Nathan Garamond in France and Abram Games in Britain managed to be at least a
little more distinctive and memorable than most. Unlike Europe the U.S.A. experienced no postwar
austerity and the 1950s was a period of unprecedented growth which the admen of Madison Avenue were
only too happy to exploit. A quarter of a century after his debut Norman
Rockwell was still creating wholesome posters and press ads for everyday products and Haddon
Sundblom’s hyoer-realistic manically upbeat campaign work for Coca Cola seemed to be everywhere,
setting the tone for a new American dream. Others such as pinup artist Gil Elvgren were
bombarded with commissions to portray every aspirational aspect of that dream for posters
and magazines. By the mid 50s ads by slightly younger, more
modernist illustrators started to nudge their way in. The work of Al Parker was clearly figurative
but it wasn’t overly concerned with painterly realism.
And Austin Briggs developed an expressionistic technique of creating images which the likes
of Rockwell and sSundblom would have considered mere sketches. The 1960s did produce some innovative and
exciting illustration but it was largely confined to posters for hippie rock concerts such as
these by American Rick Griffin and Britain’s Martin Sharp. But mainstream advertising didn’t want to
associate itself with drug culture so it remained underground and what little illustration was
being produced in advertising was extremely dull. Occasionally a decent campaign might surface
briefly, such as Ronald Searle’s spidery cartoons for Lemon Hart rum or this cheerful abstracted
Italian campaign by eErberto Carboni for Pirelli but by now it was obvious that on both sides
of the aAtlantic the camera had become advertising’s weapon of choice. And it’s relationship with illustration had
become distant and disconnected. Of course there are always exceptions to the
rule and one such was the British ad campaign for Heineken beer which first appeared in
1974 and ran for the next decade. It was based on the slogan ‘Heineken refreshes
the parts other beers cannot reach’. But what made this campaign unusual if not
unique is that it deliberately used a wide range of illustrative approaches, many of
which were pastiches of earlier illustration and art styles. This was the polar opposite of earlier campaigns
which had relied on their association with a particular illustrator or style. And the thinking behind this campaign seemed
to filter through to others and by the turn of the millennium quite a few ad agencies
realised the public had become extremely visually literate and they started to exploit the consumer’s
familiarity with every conceivable artistic and illustrative style. So now you could sell a car with a pastiche
of a children’s book or maybe a surrealist painting. Or advertise a yoghurt brand with parodies
of victorian medical engraving. Or associate a fizzy drink with 50s retro
style hyper-realist nostalgia. And around the same time advertising discovered
the potential of the entirely new phenomenon of digital painting and photo-manipulation,
which in the right hands could create impossible but absolutely believable and memorable images. But it’s unlikely this represents a true renaissance
for illustration and photography’s grip on advertising won’t be loosened any time soon. Even so maybe these developments justify a
small note of cautious optimism for the potential future of what was once a perfect partnership. It would be nice to think so.

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