A. M. Cassandre (Adolphe Mouron, 1901-1968) was born in Ukraine to French parents. He later moved to Paris and studied at the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts and Académie Julian. He began designing posters influenced by Cubism and Surrealism, which were received with great acclaim. Throughout the 1930s, he created dynamic images at the studio he co-founded, Alliance Graphique. He was pioneering in many ways: he championed airbrushing, conceptualized posters meant to be seen from moving cars for Dubonnet, and professionalized the art of typography by creating several innovative typefaces. The success of his work is largely due to its timelessness: a poster by Cassandre feels fresh and inventive even today.
In this magnificent poster, Cassandre perfectly portrays the two most important factors in early rail travel: romance and speed. Our eyes are both focused on the geometric whirl of the wheels and the seemingly endless far-off horizon. The size and power of the engine is so brilliantly executed that one can almost feel that solid wall of hot air hitting you as it races by.
The North Star was the name of a Paris-to-Amsterdam express; Cassandre gave it glamour by catching the purely sensual enjoyment of rail travel: the rhythm of the wheels, the fascination of the endless perspectives of converging tracks, and the North Star itself. In their book on the artist, Brown and Reinhold claimed that this poster “May be his most audacious… Cassandre solves the problem of having to advertise a daytime service that uses a nocturnal image as its name. He achieves his solution by using the somewhat surreal device of turning a night sky into the ground of the poster and having the star hover above it. In what could have been a static arrangement, the rails are laid out so that they imply forward movement… Even though such an arrangement is mechanically false… it is precisely because of it that the poster attains a dynamic realism more compelling than ‘reality itself,’ which is why Étoile du Nord is one of Cassandre’s best images” (p. 13). Hillier declares this work “his masterpiece,” and we couldn’t agree more: it’s a truly mesmerizing achievement, and arguably one of the best posters ever created.
Air mail, it could be said, was invented after World War I by former wartime flyers looking for new lines of business. Posters helped to sell the outlandish concept to the public. “Speed is the theme of Flèche d’Argent (Silver Arrow).” Indeed: the wing of the cloud-like plane seems to tear a hole through the sky. Although at the time of this poster’s production this was one of the largest and most successful French airlines—with 131 aircraft and a network not only throughout France, but reaching Africa and South America as well—it could not withstand the pressure of the Depression. It went bankrupt in 1931 and what was left of it was amalgamated into Air France in 1933.
“Instead of ‘a sleek oceangoing vessel,’ as writers often describe modern ships, Cassandre’s rendition [of The Atlantic] becomes a mammoth wall of steel that towers in fantastic and unreal fashion over a minuscule tugboat. He further adds to this startling effect by collapsing the upper decks and the three smokestacks so that they appear almost flat. [He] also distorts perspective in an ingenious way; the stern of the ship extends into the front of the top decks as well as down from them… into the ocean to form a reflection. When taken together, all of these elements, along with the block of text, form one awesome rectangular shape that passes through a ‘wreath’ formed by the coming together of the smoke from the tugboat and the steamship” (Brown & Reinhold, p. 16).
In one of Cassandre’s classic object posters, we come face-to-face with a pair of shiny brown lace-ups. Crossed in dapper nonchalance, these wool-socked feet are the ideal advertisers of the product—faceless, the wearer of these fine specimens can be anyone, any age, anywhere. And who would not want to be this suave?