Last friday, I visited the exhibition ‘Affiches Belle Epoque’ at the City Museum of Brussels. I wanted to see the exhibition, but I didn’t expect very much of it. A collection of Art Nouveau posters. Maybe even some nice ones. But it was actually a surprisingly well curated exhibition!
When I first arrived, the posters appeared to be nailed to the wall. I was shocked. How could they be so careless and make holes in these beautiful posters?!? But when I looked a bit closer, I noticed the posters were actually reproductions. Pfff… no harm was done!
From 1885 until 1914, Brussels experienced one of its most prosperous periods in history. This success was not limited to economic, social, political, technological or urban development, it also included the cultural domain. Artists happily tried their hand at a new form of art: colour lithography. They all developed their own styles, drawing on personal interpretations of Japonism, symbolism, realism, the Nabis, and of the Art Nouveau that was then en vogue. Designing commissioned lithographic posters was a blessing for artists. It meant they could escape the narrow circles of art galleries and make a name for themselves with a broader audience. After all, these posters decorated the streets.
The advertising posters announced the arrival of the consumer society. They showcased a multitude of products, from biscuits to cars, through chocolate, coffee, tobacco and alcohol. From telephones via bikes to the circus and art performances. Artists focused on the liberated middle-class woman, who appeared as the torch-bearer of this craving for luxury and modernity. And each poster, in its own way, was a story to be interpreted by the viewer strolling past.
Ernest De Try
These advertising posters became immensely popular, creating a phenomenon of affichomanie or poster mania, and enthusiasts like Ernest de Try (1881-1960) compiled impressive collections. In 1934, De Try donated over 300 posters to the Archives of the City of Brussels. His collection has never been presented to the public as an ensemble. For conservation reasons, most items of this exhibition are actually facsimiles, but that didn’t bother me at all. Around twenty framed originals were presented to show the real beauty of the lithographic inks used during that period.
Strolling along Brussels’ wide boulevards
The economic progress made Brussels, like many other big cities in Europe, a modern city. Gloomy neighbourhoods made way for wide boulevards. And on the most elegant and prestigious stretch, between the Place de la Bourse and the Place Rogier, everything that makes a city modern, came together: upmarket hotels and cafés, concert halls, luxury stores and apartment buildings. Along with the wide pavements of the new boulevards a new lifestyle activity emerged: strolling. By the last third of the 19th century, strolling had become an integral part of urban life, a tribute to freedom and leisure and a luxury in which the city’s population eagerly indulged. And posters, each one telling its own story, accentuated the urban scene.
A New Style for a New Woman
The Belle Époque posters transcended the traditional codes of Western painting, being inspired particularly by photographic snapshots and Japanese prints. Also, poster designers used stereotypes and accentuated them to the point of caricature, flirting with what we would today consider racism or stigmatization. All to tell their stories and delight their Western middle and upper classes audiences.
At the turn of the century, the ideal of the woman at home was still unchallenged among the middle-classes. She had to be a good wife, a good mother and a good housekeeper. For her husband, a woman was the principal emblem of success. At the same time however, a new kind of woman emerged. These were primary school teachers, schoolmistresses, social workers, nurses, postal and telephone employees, as well as female academics, and they were all accessing new professions. With paid employment, these women were instrumental, though to a lesser extent than the more affluent classes, in the rise of hedonism and consumerism.
Advertising posters aimed to encourage potential female customers to purchase a product by nurturing the feeling they needed the product. Advertising targeted women because they held the purse strings and the image of a woman became its predominant figure. Whether she was a mother, housekeeper, sportswoman or worked for charities, she was depicted with the traits of a young person: beautiful, elegant, often joyful and seductive. The desire to look like this charming ambassador inspired a real need in female consumers, that could be translated into a purchase. Using this subtle technique of persuasion and bright colours to attract attention, the advertising poster’s first appearance met with immediate success.
Exhibition Affiches Belle Epoque
8 May – 3 September 2018
Brussels City Museum, Grand-Place Brussels, Belgium