In anticipation of our 77th Auction, our Editorial Director, Jessica Adams, asked gallery owner and poster extraordinaire Jack Rennert to walk us through the gallery. He shared his thoughts on some of his favorite works, and highlighted rare and unique pieces from our Rare Posters Auction. Direct links to all lots are in the text.
Jack Rennert, President of Poster Auctions International, is one of the world’s foremost authorities on poster art. He’s authored works on Cappiello, Mucha, Colin, and many more; posters from his own vast personal collection have been loaned for many major museum exhibitions: from the Smithsonian to the Bilbao Guggenheim, and from the Matsuzakaya Museum in Tokyo to the Musée de Publicité in Paris.
Jack Rennert: We’re all saddened by the passing this past week of Tomi Ungerer; to me he was a dear friend. My first book that I did on posters was a catalogue raisonné of his posters up to that time, in 1971. I commissioned some posters from him, and I distributed almost all of his posters. He had a very special talent and way of looking at things, both in terms of his strong political posters, and some of his erotic posters. Then he did some delightful posters for the Ice Capades, for the TRUC store in Cambridge, etc. He was active until the end of his life—as a matter of fact, he was recently commissioned and did some interesting posters for the Poster House, the poster museum that’s coming up this year. Those are probably the last posters he made.
Jessica Adams: How did you meet?
JR: I met him in the 1960s when he had a studio on 42nd Street. I wanted to do a book on him, so we just went over all of his posters and his comments. I spent a lot of time in his studio. I also wanted to do a series of posters that were simply decorative items for a child’s room, and commissioned him to do 10 fairy tale posters: Little Red Riding Hood, Puss-n-Boots, Cinderella, etc. He did these designs, but in a very special way—some would say in a dark, scary way, and I had trouble selling them. They were being sold for $2.95 retail, the lowest price I’ve ever sold. But a lot of stores would not handle it, because they said it would scare the kids. My big argument with him, as I recall, was about Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. He did that, but you see seven dwarfs in the nighttime forest setting, and I said, “Tomi, we’re missing something here—where’s Snow White?” He said, “I never liked her; I only like the dwarfs, and I have no interest in her.” So what could I do? We have Snow White’s Seven Dwarfs but no Snow White. He was very imaginative.
And of course, although I did his first book on posters, he was already by that time well known; he had come to the United States about 10 years earlier. He immediately did some very successful children’s books and was well known before I met him. But some of his posters are the kind of posters that you just don’t see anymore. When I think of the posters he did for the Village Voice—Expect the Unexpected—they were in the subways as real posters. I ride the subway every day, and I rarely see a poster and think, “Gee, I have to find out the printer, the artist, the ad agency. I’d like to have that in my collection.” That hasn’t happened in years, so that’s the sad thing—and Tomi, in a way, represents the end of an era of great poster art. He will be missed.
JR: There are a lot of people who only collect Wild West posters, and we have about a dozen of them. Some of them are really quite rare, like his famous portrait by Strobridge, Colonel W. F. Cody “Buffalo Bill.” And Buffalo Bill’s Wild West / The Bronco Buster was when he was associated, late in his life and largely for financial reasons, with Pawnee Bill—and we’ve never seen it before. We have two of his film posters, which were done late in his career; The Life of Buffalo Bill in 3 Reels has a tip-on for Barnsdale, who had the rights in the Midwest to show these. So this is again quite rare, and it shows the fight to avenge the death of Custer. These are some of our top Buffalo Bill posters, and there’s a great demand for them. Pawnee Bill also had a Wild West show; late in his career Buffalo Bill teamed up with Pawnee Bill, and for the last few years of his career, most of them are with Pawnee Bill, and then also they did a silent film.
This one is one of my favorites from a design point of view: The Life and Adventures of Buffalo Bill. I think the arrangement of the four Indian chiefs is really inspiring. This is all late Buffalo Bill, and you can see he was always very respectful of the American Indians in his troupe.
JA: What makes Buffalo Bill so attractive to you?
JR: Everything Americans knew about the West really came from Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show; he impacted the Western movement, and glorified it. Even Theodore Roosevelt acknowledged, when he was elected, that he probably would not have been elected without Buffalo Bill, because Buffalo Bill recreated the charge on San Juan Hill in the Spanish-American War. He recreated that with Colonel Theodore Roosevelt leading the charge in all of his Wild West shows. And this introduced America to Roosevelt in many ways. Buffalo Bill had a tremendous influence on the way Westward expansion was realized—some of it had to do with myth, some of it with reality. But he was important, I think, in the history of the country—and a great showman, to be sure. He was a man who was ahead of his time, who insisted the women in his troupe get the same pay as the men. He was very respectful of women, very respectful of the Indians, and he took real Indians on his European trip. And of course, from a poster point of view, what’s interesting is that he absolutely insisted on the finest design for his posters. He personally went to the printing plants, he selected the artwork, and his posters are magnificent just from a graphic point of view.
JR: Alphonse Mucha is of course the master of Art Nouveau; le style Mucha and le style Art Nouveau were synonymous in the 1890s, even up to World War I in France. He wrote the text book on how to design Art Nouveau. His whole philosophy was that if you bring Art Nouveau into your home, it would make you a better person—so you have an awful lot of these—what the French call panneau décoratif—which didn’t have to do with selling a product or event or service. We have the Four Seasons, and the Plume et Primevère; these are decorative panels meant to beautify a home. He was the master, and we have some of his finest. Maybe he’s best known for something like Job—for something as ephemeral as cigarette paper, it shouldn’t really warrant that kind of treatment, but it does.
In this auction is we have not only some of his finest work, but with rare exception, they’re all in the finest condition we have ever seen. That applies for the Moët and Chandon, for the Job, and the two different versions of the Reverie. We also have the Bières de la Meuse in the regular, larger size, but we rarely see it in the smaller form.
JA: Can you explain Mucha’s visual approach to sales? Often, the product may not be immediately obvious.
JR: Sometimes it’s relevant, but in a subtle way. We have a poster that’s meant to promote the work of a printer: F. Champenois / Reverie. Now, you could include a printing machine, I suppose, like Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec did, but Mucha only shows a sample book of Champenois’ printing in the woman’s lap—that’s the extent of a relevance to the printer. But people don’t really associate that; they just look at what a beautiful woman she is, and all of the great floral embellishments, the halo all around her… it’s a classic work. Sometimes it’s very obvious, of course; in Bières de la Meuse we’re selling beers from the Meuse Valley, and so you have a beer stein. In Flirt, the biscuit is called Flirt, and it’s the only poster in which there is actually a couple, and they’re obviously flirting here. It’s extremely appropriate to the name of the brand, and you don’t really have to show the biscuits. But the important thing is that it was called Flirt.
JA: And what about the original Mucha drawings?
JR: It’s rare to be able to have an original drawing, and what I like about Allegory for the New Republic is it shows you what a fine artist he was—he didn’t need splashy colors; just give him a pencil—and with the detail and the feeling, I think that’s just a great work of art, period. Nothing to do with his commercial ventures. In the end, Mucha is probably the single-most popular artist—I would say he shares that with Cappiello, maybe.
JR: Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec is top of the line—the Rolls-Royce of the world of posters, and for a variety of reasons. First of all, unlike almost any other artist, he was a great impressionist painter. And he still would be, even if he hadn’t done a single poster. The interesting thing about Lautrec is that he knew the difference—which most artists don’t know—between the needs of being a painter or being a poster artist. In many of his paintings, where you see Jane Avril, for instance, they’re full of details, and he searches for the soul, really. But when it comes to showing her in a poster, it’s all flat colors, and he knew the differences between needing something quickly recognizable and compelling as a poster, as opposed to showing the details of a painting. He revolutionized posters in many ways. One of the things he did, which was very unusual, is that he used what they called the reserve—the paper—as a design element. He didn’t have to fill it in, like you’ll see with Chéret, who filled in every square centimeter with some ink, some color.
JA: Can you tell us what is unique about La Revue Blanche?
JR: Here there is movement, but you wouldn’t know it—La Revue Blanche was a very important literary magazine. He was involved with the editor and the staff. And the interesting thing is that you would never know it, but Misia Natanson, the wife of the editor of the Revue Blanche, who was quite a lady in her own right, is shown ice skating in the Palais de Glace in Paris. But you only would know that because in the version with the remark— the additional little drawing that he made on some of them—she is in fact shown ice skating. He loved to just cut her off, and you have to guess what’s happening. This is always mentioned as being a two-sheet, and it looks like a two-sheet, but in fact it’s a one-sheet poster. Lautrec very much liked Ancourt, the printer who did this, but Ancourt didn’t have a press that was big enough—so he said “No problem, we’ll just fold the paper in half; today we’ll print the top half, and tomorrow we’ll print the bottom.” It’s pinched here because it’s folded, and that’s the way it was printed.
JA: Similar to Mucha, Lautrec sometimes uses images that don’t relate directly to the product.
JR: Some of his posters are totally irrelevant in terms of the subject matter. For instance, we have an American publication that wants to start distributing in France: the Chap-Book out of Chicago. They commission Lautrec to do a poster for The Chap Book. Again, I don’t know what this has to do with the magazine, which was sort of a literary political magazine that just lasted a few issues. But it’s one of his great designs of the American Bar in Paris. Totally irrelevant to the subject matter—one tries to get some far-fetched notion to tie in the image and the Chap-Book, but I can’t think of one.
JA: Lautrec made many posters for his friends—can you tell us about some of those works?
JR: This is an iconic poster for Jane Avril, his closest friend, and she appears in 5 or 6 of his posters; and this interesting, because this poster is hand-signed and dedicated to a Mr. A. Alexandre by Lautrec. Maindron mentions that she seems to dance only for her own pleasure, so it’s sort of a sad-looking person, but she was famous for doing the can-can, as you can see here. She was part of the Troupe de Mlle Églantine with Cléopâtre, Églantine and Gazelle, and that’s her on the left. She was going to be doing a show in London, and she writes a letter to her friend Henri: “I’m with these three other ladies, we’re doing the can-can in London,” and he sends her the poster for it.
There’s very little evidence that he made any money on his posters. He did maybe run up a bar tab here and there, but he mainly did posters for friends. And for instance, his friend Victor Joze wrote a couple of books, and for each, Lautrec did a poster. For Babylone d’Allemagne, Joze and the publisher wanted to stop distribution—they thought the image was anti-German. So I don’t think Lautrec made a dollar or a franc for that poster, but it’s a great image there. And he only did 30 posters in a very brief career for 9 years—he started at the end of 1891 and goes to 1900. 30 posters, and that’s it—his whole reputation is based on it.
JR: Lautrec is unlike Chéret, who certainly did close to 1,000 different posters over a 50 year career. Chéret is the father of the poster. He’s important because he was an innovative printer, as well as a great artist. Lithography existed before Chéret came along, but color lithography was only for a very expensive print—maybe the cover of a book, or something rather special, like a diploma. But you wouldn’t use it for something as ephemeral as a poster that was supposed to last for a couple of weeks out on the walls in the rain in Paris. He came along and he showed with various techniques—overlaying color using different inking, etc.—that you could do every color in the rainbow you wanted with three or four stones, and you didn’t have to have 12 cumbersome Bavarian stones to do 12 different shades of colors. You have the basic blue, yellow, red, and you don’t even have the black outlines—there’s no black there in the Palais de Glace, no black in the Eldorado. He was able to show that you can get all the range of colors you want. He was the one who made it economically possible to market full color illustrated posters. Without him, we wouldn’t have these posters—eventually I’m sure we would, but at that time we didn’t.
JA: Who are the people depicted in his posters?
JR: He is unlike Lautrec, all of whose portraits are specific people; there’s no anonymous person, even in the Chap Book—we know who the bartender is, we know who the two people drinking are. Every single poster of Lautrec is of a specific performer, artist, friend, writer, whatever. We don’t know that with Chéret. Sometimes his model is called a chérette because they all basically have the same feeling, the same style to them. And they’re all usually very vivacious and joyful.
JR: Cappiello is probably the single-most popular artist in the world today—certainly in the United States. I base that on the sales of Cappiello, and I base that on the fact that if you go to places where they do reproductions, there’s probably more reproductions of Cappiello than any other artist. The positive thing about Cappiello is that he realized that these were going to be on the wall competing with other posters for your attention, and he had to have something very compelling. You have the Campari—always exaggerations of course—for Shampoing du Dr. Roja: endless streams of hair. Pissis-Noilly, for vermouth, is a very rare poster that we’ve never had before. Obviously, if you drink the vermouth, the guy on the left is quite happy with it, but the guy on the right doesn’t have any, and he has a sour face. He’s very much upset.
JA: We have several maquettes from Cappiello; what excites you about those?
JR: We are fortunate to always have some good maquettes, or preparatory drawings—some are very rough, and some are rather finished. I’ve never seen the maquette Cooperation Maritime Franco-Americaine. It celebrates the shipping cooperation between France and the United States; so of course, you have ships, and you have the symbols of France and the United States as women on either side. It’s nice to have original art as well. But again, he was someone who knew exactly how to draw your attention to a product, to a service, to an event, to whatever it was he was selling.
JR: Georges de Feure is known largely as a great symbolist painter. He didn’t do all that many posters, but they are representative of the best of Art Nouveau. A couple of my favorites are here. We have Affiches et Estampes / Pierrefort—Pierrefot was a print and poster dealer who had a gallery and was a friend of Lautrec’s. This is a rare poster, and made all the rarer by the fact that it is before letters; Pierrefort’s name, Affiches et Estampes, and the address would be in that area there to the left. I don’t think there are more than five copies in the world of this before letters.
Another one that I like, because it’s for an auctioneer’s magazine, is Le Journal des Ventes. De Feure designed not only the poster, but actually designed the costumes. He did a lot of costume design. She is wearing a De Feure creation, and this is before letters, with a remark of the fox, and it is hand-signed—so it’s got all the bells and whistles that you would want a poster to have, and it’s in amazing condition.
JR: We have the ever popular Sutro Baths poster from 1896. This is in San Francisco—a public swimming and bathing area—and there was also a panel with text at the bottom originally. The tremendous details that you get in there: you can almost see every person lined up or ready to dip into the water. Unfortunately, the building burned down and doesn’t exist any more. There are probably 20 or 30 copies that still exist. We’ve had this a half dozen times in our auctions over the years, but I don’t think we’ve ever had it in as good a condition.
JA: Tell us about one more poster that you’re really excited about.
JR: I’ve been involved with a lot of Josephine Baker posters by Paul Colin and others over the years, but I’ve never come across this Hungarian poster for Josephine Baker, and it’s actually for her in a film called Mulatto in Paris. It’s quite interesting, and I think there’s going to be a lot of interest in it, because there are people who just collect Josephine Baker posters, memorabilia, and what have you.