A.M.CASSANDRE BY HENRI MOURON Schirmer Mosel Production
CHAPTER 1 : A NEW ESTHETIC OF THE POSTER
"A great man has only one concern: to become as human - and even as ordinary - as possible, and the wonderful thing is that thus he becomes uniquely personal." Andre Gide
Adolphe Mouron, more widely known as A.M. Cassandre, was born in Ukraine on January 24, 1901. His father, Georges, came from a bourgeois family established in Bordeaux. Instead of entering the civil service or the army or becoming a judge, Georges chose a business career. He left his native Libourne at eighteen and moved to Kharkov in Russia where one of his maternal uncles, as an importer of French wines, offered to take him on as his assistant. Georges Mouron became an able businessman and directed the firm after his uncle’s death. He made it prosper and was able to support his family in style.
Georges’s wife Eléonore Poque grew up in the gilded bourgeoisie of Czarist Russia. Though her mother was of Baltic stock, her father was a Frenchman who had settled in Russia. Eléonore bore five children. Adolphe was the youngest and was given the Russian nickname Dola. Like his brother and sisters, Dola had a somewhat nomadic childhood, traveling back and forth between Paris, where his father, who was deeply attached to French culture, sent him to school, and the family mansion at Kharkov where he spent his holidays.
These broadening journeys across Europe were cut short by World War I. Shortly after the outbreak of hostilities, Dola’s older brother Henri was killed in action. The Mouron's moved to Paris in 1915 and remained there, with the exception of Georges who continued to visit Russia in the hope of keeping his business going. But in 1917 this hope was dashed. The Bolshevik revolution permanently severed the Mouron's ties with Ukraine. All his life Dola was to feel deeply nostalgic for Ukrainian countryside of his early recollection.
After the 1918 armistice Dola, who graduated at the top of his class at the Lycée Condorcet, decided to become a painter. He began studying at Lucien Simon’s studio, then attended La Grande Chaumière and the Académie Julian in Montparnasse. He found these “free ateliers” more congenial than the hidebound academic studios at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. (After attending a single session in Fernand Cormon’s studio, Dola walked out, never return to the august institution.)
His interest in posters dates from as early as the following year. Initially, it probably reflected a desire to carry on his visual experiments while at the same time making a living. In his preface to Cassandre’s first interview, which was published in the December 1926 issue of the Revue de l’Union de l’Affiche Française, Pierre Andrin gives the following details concerning Cassandre’s beginnings as a poster artist:
ìIn 1919, while still a student at the AcadÈmie Julian, Cassandre submitted a design to a contest organized by Michelin. His project, a variation on the Michelin tire man, was little more than a tribute to the leading designers of the day; nevertheless, it came in third.î
Cassandre was quick to draw his own conclusion from his promising start. His father (writes Andrin) was prepared to support him for ten years or more if necessary, but Cassandre, who avoided the Bohemian circles where so many promising young artists were wasting their gifts, turned to the art of the poster in the hope that it would allow him to be self-supporting.
ìHe planned to drop it [poster work] once he had gained sufficient technical and intellectual maturity to make the leap into the higher regions of easel painting. This laudable ambition justified his choice of the cryptic pseudonym Cassandre, by means of which he intended to keep open the possibility of becoming a painter at a later stage under his own name.
Cassandre showed his first “errors” to Hachard, the outstandingly able head of a young publishing firm that was to outstrip several older and more established houses in the next seven years. Hachard saw the potential in the unknown young artist’s work: “It’ll never sell, but it has tremendous publicity value.”
Cassandre’s first large-scale commercial project was a design for Pates Garres. It is chiefly interesting for chronological reasons: it marks the beginning of Cassandre’s long-standing association with Hachard & Cie, with whom he had signed an exclusive contract.
This design for a food product was followed by a sporting poster: the winged genius of the Aéroclub de Bourgogne’s aviation meetings. Then, in 1923, came the much-noted design for Au Bucheron, followed, in chronological order, by his designs for Onoto, Le Nouvelliste, Turmac, Le Kid, Pivolo, Grand-Sport, Florent, L’intransigeant, La Croix Verte and, finally, in October 1926, the blue-and-black variation on the original Bucheron design.”
Yet, though Cassandre’s beginnings as a poster artist doubtless owed something to his desire to become financially independent, the reasons for his early, genuine commitment to the field which was a departure from his original ambitions are clearly to be found elsewhere. There is no question that, as early as his successful design for Au Bucheron, he succumbed to the fascination of poster art – or at least to the appeal of the kind of success it could bring. Doubtless, too it has begun to occur him that this art offered a young painter dynamics forms that might successfully be substituted for a more traditional concept of form.
Cassandre’s own writings during his years as a commercial artist make it clear that he firmly believed that the art of the poster was far more genuinely rooted in contemporary life than easel painting. It thus gave the painter a golden opportunity to communicate with a large public. Obviously too Cassandre's outstanding success sprang from the fact that his commitment went deep.
This is confirmed by what Cassandre’s friend, the sculptor Raymond Mason, wrote in 1966 :
"Cassandre's initial instinct was the right one. He went out into the street. Look at his designs of thirty-five years ago! What makes them so fresh and bright? What makes them so delightful? Unquestionably it is because they were made to be viewed in broad daylight. They were conceived to take their place in the thick of life, in the joyous tumult of the street-where they spoke to people"
This commitment of Cassandre’s, which dates back to sometime between 1919 and 1923, was in all probability the outcome of a series of moral and aesthetic meditations reflecting the main intellectual cross-currents sweeping the European art world at this time.
We have now more or less reluctantly come to recognize the fact that the golden age of art, when a true dialogue between the artist and his audience was possible, belongs irrevocably to the past. It is equally clear that the contemporary concept of a work of art as an art object-if not a commercial item and even a financial commodity-is a poor substitute, where the artist is concerned, for the former artist-audience relationship. At best, this concept allows only those artists to survive who agree to abide by the rules of the art market.
The divorce between the artist and his audience was not an easy fact to accept and, among some artists in the first decades of the twentieth century, it even sparked a thoroughgoing revolt against the sociological phenomenon whose far-reaching consequences were only just beginning to make themselves felt.
In this theoretical writing published in 1910, the painter Maurice Denis complained that “modern artworks are restricted to narrow circles of cognoscenti.”
"They are painted for the enjoyment of small coteries. Each artistic temperament, each artist, however immature, has its own circle of admirers, its own audience. Yet a work of art ought to reach out and make an impact on all men. Either because they are an expression and a distillation of a whole civilization, or because they gave rise to a new culture, the classical masterpieces have a universal and absolute character. The order of the universe, the divine order made manifest by the human mind, appears unaltered in the diversity of individual formulations. These formulations are classical inasmuch as they express this order with greater eloquence and clarity."
There was a copy of these writings in my father’s library. He disliked Maurice Denis’s paintings but, judging from his annotations in the book, clearly agreed with his ideas on art.
In Germany, there emerged a truly collective-and constructive-school of thought that was very different from the elitist concept of “bourgeois art” with respect to the issue of the relationship between artistic creation and the industrial and applied arts. As early as 1913, Walter Gropius stated his ideas on form in industrial products. Some two years earlier he had even designed a factory. Its entirely logical and rational approach to structure marked the triumph of function over purely aesthetic consideration. His design proclaimed that henceforth true architectural beauty lay in the functional.
By the end of World War I, however, Gropius had given up hope of interesting industrialists in his ideas-at least for the time being. The stirring text that published in 1919 as a kind of manifesto is a vibrant call to the young post-war artists :
"Architects, Sculptors, Painters, we must all get back in touch with a craft concept of art! No artists merely as a profession. Let us, therefore, join ranks and form a new corporation of craftsmen. Let us overthrow the presumptuous class distinctions which raise-and were meant to raise- a wall of pride between the fine arts and the applied arts! It is for us to feel the need for, to conceive, to create together the building of the future which will combine the architecture, sculpture, and paint in a single, novel form."
Gropius’s project was important in that its primary purpose was to bring the artist out of his ivory tower and down into the street. From the early twenties on, Gropius was to attract creators in all fields and of all nationalities to his academy at the Bauhaus in Weimar: not just architects, sculptors, and painters, but craftsmen in all the applied arts. It was their task to train, in an interdisciplinary environment, plastic artists who, it was hoped, would eventually give substance to Gropius’s dream of a total architecture.
The Bauhaus curriculum naturally included graphic design. The outstanding typographic experiments of Oskar Schlemmer, Lyonel Feininger, Herbert Bayer and the Constructivists Moholy-Nagy and Lissitzky are an eloquent testimony-despite their occasional severity-to theses artists’ determination to view writing “as a work of art.” These graphic designers brought about a return to the simplicity and nobility of the monumental inscriptions of the ancient Romans. Herbert Bayer’s Universal type-not to mention Paul Renner’s Futura-reflects the Bauhaus typographers’ striving for legibility and clarity, and their indifference to strictly decorative issues.
Cassandre’s first published text, which appeared in La Revue de l’Union de l’Affiche Française (1926), shows clearly that his own thinking at the time was very similar to that of the Bauhaus artists. Though he may not have had many opportunities to study their works closely, their views are reflected in the very first lines of his article. In them, Cassandre defines the poster as a pictorial work designed for the masses and in consequence, necessarily tripped of the individual lyricism which is the hallmark of easel painting (for which there is and can only be a limited public). The concept of an “art for the bourgeoisie” is implicitly condemned. This is important, for Cassandre’s whole creative approach at the time was based on the rejection of art for the elite.
Cassandre’s opinions and those of the Bauhaus group belong to the same intellectual trend. They have numerous points in common, which can be listed as follows : the rejection of the individual and personal element in painting ; the recourse to industry’s unlimited means of mechanical reproduction ; the reference to the applied arts as the repository of a tradition of anonymity, the only tradition that can inspire in the artist the humility necessary for the creation of a truly popular art ; and, perhaps even more crucial, the repeated references to architecture, the environment par excellence of the visual work of art which draws its rules of composition, its geometric structure and its rhythms from it. There is also the return to the origins of an authentic epigraphic style of designing letters. Thanks to its clarity and architectural simplicity, this is the only style that can be used in monumental painting. But the real significance of Cassandre’s text lies not just in the aesthetic doctrine it outlines, nut in the new faith it proclaims-a faith Cassandre shared with the artists of the Bauhaus.
ìAnd to begin with: several remarks of an aesthetic order.
Painting is evolving increasingly toward individual lyricism, toward purely poetic works rather than pictorial ones (in the classical sense of the term pictorial).
The poster, on the other hand, is moving toward a collective and utilitarian art. It strives to do away with the artist’s personal characteristics, his idiosyncrasies and any trace of his personal manner.
A poster, unlike a painting, is not, and is not meant to be, a work easily distinguished by its “manner”-a unique specimen conceived to satisfy the demanding tastes of a single more or less enlightened art lover. It is meant to be a mass-produced object existing in thousands of copies-like a fountain-pen or automobile. Like them, it is designed to answer certain strictly material needs. It must have a commercial function.
Misunderstandings frequently crop up over this question between the poster artist and the client who would like to be seen as a patron of the arts and expects the artist to give his advertisement a poetic appeal of some sort that will bring him, if not sales, at least applause from his own circle.
Even in painting, this is a poor strategy. For the artist who begins by telling himself “ I am going to paint a great work of art” end by producing a small flop.
Designing a poster means solving a technical and commercial problem which has nothing to do with the artist’s own unique sensitivity. It means communicating with the masses in a language that can be instantly understood by the common man- a language comparable to that of the medieval illustrators, the Greek potters, the fresco artist of Egypt. It means telling the crowd a story. In this respect, the modern poster is well on the way to replacing the minor arts, the collective arts, the anonymous arts that flourished in the Middle Ages in Antiquity.
Concomitant with its reforms in the moral field, the Renaissance brought a sudden explosion of individualism in the aesthetic field and ended the Christian tradition of submissiveness and humility (a knowledge of which is vital to an understanding of the voluntary self-effacement of the stone-cutters, sculptors, painters and stained-glass artists of our cathedrals).
For this very reasons, it seems to me that Cubism, inasmuch as it a reaction against individualism, is the major event of the last twenty years.
Cubism’s guiding principle-its noble and seminal idea- is to make painting once again a more general art by redeeming the object’s absoluteness, so to speak.
Impressionism up to 1900 has been defined as “Nature viewed through a temperament” that is to say, nature warped and fragmented by an individual index of refraction.
It is the opposite with Cubism: its relentless logic and the artist’s endeavors to construct his work geometrically bring out the eternal element, the impersonal element beyond all contingencies and individual complexities.
The value of Cubism lies in its superior tendencies rather than in the forms it creates. It lies in its spirit, which combats the distortions and variations inherent to the human eye. Instead of giving us a simple, ordinary photograph, a Cubist painting frames the whole magnitude of a universe and reveals its supreme harmony.
There is no denying the fact that in 1900 painters did not compose their works, whereas in 1926, after the advent of Cubism, common preoccupation with-and in some cases a perfect knowledge of- composition is evident in even the humblest pictures. This secret cadence distinguishes the most modest of Dunoyer de Segonzac’s paintings, for example.
Some people have called my posters Cubistic. They are right in the sense that my method is essentially geometric and monumental. Architecture, which is the art I prefer above all others, has thought me to abhor distorting idiosyncrasies and has inspired my love of vast surfaces which are destined by their impersonal bareness to be covered with large publicity frescoes.
I have always been more sensitive to forms than to colors, to the way things are organized than to their details, to the spirit of geometry than to the spirit of refinement (to borrow Pascal’s phrase). This might be a handicap for me as a painter. But as a poster artist, I feel singularly at ease with this predisposition of mine.
For a poster is designed to be viewed in the street. It must be integrated into architectural volumes. It must cover vaster and vaster facades. It must give life not only to scattered hoarding and houses but also to enormous stone cubes, even to immense urban areas.
The means that are available to us today correspond in no way to the new requirements. Lithography, which is a technique geared to books rather than wholes, lacks the dimensions required by our new outlook on things. The 80x120 sheet of paper is nothing more than a mere visiting card in 1926. All we are accomplishing with our blown up prints is that we are prolonging Daumier-which is futile.
What we now required is broader technical means ones that will not be confined us in the same narrow rut. Perhaps the solution to this vexing problem lies in spray painting, which has already been successfully used in painting automobile bodies.
For the oil painting executed by hand on canvas is inadequate in many aspects. What we lack fundamentally is teams of well-trained and uniformly skilled assistance like those the medieval masters had. Unfortunately, these are no longer favorable times for creating or rather resurrecting an artisanal approach (the archetype of which is to be found in the thirteenth century). The collective, anonymous masterpieces of that miraculous period presupposed a humility, a conscience, and fervor such as faith alone can produce in the heart of man. Whereas in 1926 advertising artists are, for the most part, failures from the Ecole des Beaux-Arts-inept and embittered men who “kept their hand in” by painting Baby Dum Dum’s dimples.
As things stand, there is no future for large-scale publicity painting in our country. We do not have expert and dedicated assistants who are able to express the artist’s ideas concretely so that all he has to do is to intervene here and here and there and add a few masterful strokes.
Even in Lithography, our ideas are seldom respected by the men we depend on to translate them. If we want to avoid the inevitable distortions and dilutions of our creations, we would have to work directly on stone ourselves. But what god will grant us the leisure to do that?
Sticking to my geometric or, to be more precise, architectural method, I try at least to give my posters a foundation that cannot be altered. This is what I turn over to my drafting assistant to work on. I do not allow him to use a grid. I give him a module that will be repeated and will thus rhythm the composition as a whole. This is, so to speak, the key to my system. My assistant merely carries out my instructions. It goes without saying that the choice of the message is no left up to him. Neither is its design, lettering, and position.
Unrecognised or underrated by our predecessors for far too long, the letter indeed plays a major role in the poster. It is really the leading actor of the mural scene, since it-and, it alone- tells the public the magic formula that sells the product.
It is vital that the poster artist should always begin with the text and that he should place it, as far as possible, in the center of his composition. The design must revolve around the text and not the other way round.
Some poster artists, constrained to submit to certain commercial imperatives, find themselves under the obligation to design omnibus maquettes serially and beforehand, not for a specific client, but for this or that product. They work in specie, as it were, and not in general - that is to say, they are obliged to work in the abstract and systematically set aside space in their all-purpose composition for a message.
My poster for the aviation meetings falls into this category. It is the only poster bearing my signature in which the title is merely a filler. Ever since this mistake dictated by circumstances, I have used the diametrically opposite approach-one that is both more plastic and more sincere.
For the poster is not an easel painting. It is chiefly a word. The word commands the viewer’s attention: it conditions and quickens the entire scene of the poster. Only the word round which the graphic elements are organized-has the power to give the poster its meaning, its unity.
In the past, the lettering was added after the illustration. It was placed at random, either superimposed diagonally or horizontally over the image or else squeezed into a convenient corner. This is no longer the case. The primacy of the letter is being asserted with increasing force as time goes by. I take some pride in having contributed within my measure to this development.
With respect to the choice of the character, my opinion has never changed. I am aware that experimental science has ruled against capitals and in favor of lower-case letters, which are more legible, it claims than the former. Nevertheless, I remain unfailingly loyal to upper-case letters. The lower-case letters are in my opinion merely a manual distortion of the monumental letter- an abbreviation, a cursive alteration introduced by copyists.
My architectural conception of the poster naturally made me incline not toward a parody of inscription, but toward a pure product of the T-square and compass, toward the primitive letter, the letter cut in stone, the Phoenicians’ and the Romans’ letter, the true letter, the only letter that is substantially monumental.
In my work, it is the text, the letter, that sets the process of mental creation into motion and sparks the association of ideas which generates plastic forms. Take Pivolo, for example, my favorite poster with L’Intransigeant, because they were both spontaneously accepted by my clients in the spirit in which I had conceived and executed them-accepted without discussion or hesitation. The famous aviation instructor’s rule “Et puis vole hautî (keep your altitude), deformed and popularised as Pivolo in all aviation schools, suggested to me the pun, Pie vole haut (magpie, fly high) and led to the stylised black-and-white bird I used to symbolize the new aperitif. A series of verbal connections led me to this formula, which was both aesthetically pleasing and effective publicity, for the public immediately responded to it with a very positive feeling of sympathy.
The fact is, such a success implies a long period of reflection: “ To find without searching” a psychologist has said, “you must first search without finding”. I carry my ideas around for weeks and it is only once they have matured that I pick up my pencil.
Together with the verbal element, the spatial element has a primordially important function in the creation of my posters. Once I have found the right word, the design is determined by the format imposed on me. The art of the modern poster artist is in this respect somewhat like that of the heraldic artist of bygone times who was obliged to fit the client’s emblems and motto into a specific area on a shield. And indeed the coat of arms with its motto, bright colors and expressive symbols-is the true ancestor of the poster.
My design for Au Bucheron had to be adapted to an oblong horizontal field. This led me to conceive the open V-shaped triangular composition which was the only way I could combine the text, the figure of the woodcutter and the symbolic setting.
To make sure that my woodcutter’s stance and gesture were convincing, I hiked through the length and breadth of the forest of Montmorency. Mainly, I did a large number of sketches of an athlete-a superbly built fellow who would exercise between sittings to warm up his muscles. Once I was thoroughly steeped in my subject, I set aside all these preparation and rendered my fellow and the tree freely and schematically, using to best advantage the space that had been assigned to me.
The blue-and-black variation (which made its appearance on the walls of Paris last October) of my original Bucheron theme was simplified even further. I treated the actor and scene as shadow figures, simple silhouettes. For I had realized that, without jeopardizing the message, I could easily remove many details which communicated almost nothing to the man in the street.
My second Bucheron poster, which was designed to refresh the passerby’s memory of the original design, is a faithful reflection of my technique as things now stand. The experience gained in three years of hard work is summed up in it. If this poster for a line of furniture had been commissioned in 1926 instead of 1923, the first “state” of Au Bucheron, which, deservedly or undeservedly, was awarded the Grand Prix at the Exposition des Arts Décoratifs, would never have come into existence.
These two posters give you an exact idea of the path I have traveled, as well as a clear notion of my approach, which is oriented on the one hand toward ever more schematic concision and on the other toward increasingly large surfaces.
For the new Bucheron was deliberately treated like a wallpaper motif, one that could be repeated and juxtaposed ad infinitum on immense walls to produce a sort of geometric rhythm, a unitary symphony blending forms and colors.
Complete freedom in the choice of the means used to solve an advertising problem-this, it seems to me, is the supreme favor you can do for a poster artist. Whereas the young painter today is reduced to slavery by the picture dealers-his benefactors, but at the same time his tyrants and task-masters- the poster artist is the slave of the prejudice and passing fancies of the client who, by removing or adding to his design, may totally disfigure the original project.
Of course, commercial contingencies have to be taken into account. Admittedly, too, the seminal word that engenders the association of creative ideas on which the final design is based may suddenly emerge during a conference with the client. But before the design reaches the end of its journey, so much gets lost, so much reveals itself to be unnecessary-excess baggage.
To give a concrete example-while avoiding always talking about my own work- I could cite this or that design by Loupot, whom I consider a master, and point to the parasitic forms-like vermin on a nude- which have been forced upon the artist.
This was not the case with my Intransigeant poster, where I believed I have shown the full extent of what I can do. For Monsieur Baibly, after having roughly outlined the general theme-“news”- gave me complete freedom to handle it as I thought best. Not only was I not hindered in any way, but I can say that my design flowed without the slightest alteration from my brain to the sides of the delivery trucks which made it a familiar sight throughout Paris and the suburbs.
If all advertisers were as enlightened as the director of this great evening paper, and if they had his pragmatic sense, the output of poster artists would increase enormously.
It will come as a surprise to no one if I say that barely one out of 25 posters- not 25 projects, but 25 entirely finished posters- is actually sent to the printer.
I am presently working on three new themes-new to me, that is- a linen exhibition, a heater and an automobile.
I need to emphasize that my principal and constant care is to renew myself ceaselessly.
Plenty of very well-intentioned people ask me to do posters “in the style of Au Bucheron,” as if I were free to continue turning out electrotype plates of a design once it had found favor with the public and become established!
Such repetitions are out of the question. Besides, they would amount to a kind of suicide for the artist. Each poster is a new experience, or rather a new battle to wage and win.
Success does not come to the artist who tries to cajole the onlooker with soft words. It comes to the artist who sweeps down on the public like a hussar, or rather (if I am allowed this image) who rapes it”.
This is a document of utmost historical significance. It tells us what Cassandre’s views on the poster-and his methods- were during the formatives years of his career as a poster artist (a period about which we possess only a limited amount of information). It enables us to form a better idea of how he created his first major works and why these works, with their architectural simplicity and large dimensions- so large they verge on abstraction-are so commanding. Pivolo, L’Intransigeant, Grand Sport and Sools, to mention only the most outstanding, have a majesty which grips the viewer even today. Their subject or object-really the same thing is handled with bold directness. Their effect is heightened by what Cassandre always referred to respectfully as “Style” with a capital S: style as the reflection of the intelligence and clarity that went into their conception, the uncompromising precision that went into their execution.
Style. The word is apposite. Cassandre’s style is the very opposite of the kind of stylisation so popular in Art Deco. Style and the artist’s talent transform the most ordinary phenomenon, the humblest object of daily life, into a noble, universally meaningful statement.
Within the enormously productive school of young poster artists to which Cassandre belonged-the school of Charles Loupot, Jean Carlu and Paul Colin-Cassandre’s style, recognizable in his very first works, characterizes him and sets him apart. It is rooted in his nature, his personality, his way of thinking, his ethical outlook.
And this brings us to the essential point. For beyond questions of technique and methods of composition (the “tricks of the trade”) Cassandre’s statement reveals the unique personality of a born artist-an artist who, some fifteen years after his death, may seem baffling, so diverse is his work, but who fundamentally always remained true to himself.
The quality that strikes us first in the 1926 text (Cassandre’s earliest personal statement) is the warmth and fervor of his approach to the art of the poster. Through this medium, using that essential aspect of modern life, publicity, Cassandre hopped to restore (together with a few other artists) a type of art that, it was generally assumed, had vanished for good: the large-scale monumental painting of the finest periods of art history.
Another admirable feature of this youthful text is its lucidity. This was a quality the artist doubtless owed to his Cartesian mind. He was barely twenty-five when he wrote this statement, yet he had already discovered that, far from being the kind of frothy illustration favored by the artists of the preceding generation, the modern poster is a consumer product designed for people who are in a hurry. It is also a social reality. As such, it has its own requirements, which the artist who wishes to succeed must respect.
ìCassandreís eye. It is the eye foremost, the artistís eye, that we must speak of, for it is this which determines his art and personality. His eye [Ö] imperiously governs a whole approach, a whole universe, a whole world that resembles no other and that sets him apart. It is the source of the uniqueness, originality, persuasiveness, and poetry of an art that is coherent and consistent despite the diversity of its expressive mean.
Perhaps it was this eye, gazing out on the world without the slightest trace of complacency, that allowed Cassandre to see the shortcomings of his predecessors and at the same time to find the graphic and pictorial means which enabled him to elevate the minor illustrator’s art of the poster, as it had been practiced in the first two decades of the century, into a truly modern art.
One of the aspects of Cassandre’s personality which particularly struck those who worked with him can already be discerned in the 1926 text quoted above: his creativity. Cassandre was a genuinely creative artist, an inventor-and like all inventors he had a subversive streak. He was opposed to all “isms” and refused to obey the dictates of any systems or school, except for the noblest of traditions, the mainstream of art history.
This explains the violent character of the attack made by Ozenfant and Jeanneret (Le Corbusier) when Au Bucheron first appeared. Their criticism centers on this very question of authenticity :
ìThere is tumult in the streets. The woodcutter bedecks the walls along the Boulevard Saint-Germain. In ten days Cubism has blossomed over a kilometer-a display for the masses. The masses take it in and are amused. But there is nothing amusing about this particular Cubism. It is a fake, a crude mark-down of serious work (is LÈger rejoicing in or deploring this development ?), a formula purloined and massacred by a dauber.
A poster can perfectly well stand daubing with garish colors. Colours screaming and exploding all over the place. Like a heap of shattered windowpanes! The advertising department of Le Bûcheron has really made a splash. But will the furniture displayed at the address given on the poster turned out to be as bogus as the bogus Cubism of the design? Doing “something modern” can lead to abysmal results. Provided one has a lively enough intelligence, it can also produce a coherent way of understanding, appreciating and acting.”
How extraordinarily wrong this is! To be sure, Au Bucheron is probably the most “simply” Cubistic of Cassandre’s posters and obviously the “shattered windowpanes” are the triangular planes with their gradual yellow-to-white tints which echo the falling tree trunk. As we have seen Cassandre makes no secret of the Cubist influence on his work. Yet he makes it clear that it is the Cubist aesthetic and doctrine that matters to him, rather than the “forms it creates.” What counts is the spirit of Cubism, not the letter. It is worth noting that Cassandre’s definition of this spirit coincides perfectly with the description of Kandinsky’s method of teaching drawing at the Bauhaus a few years earlier: “It is a training of perception. The student learns to observe precisely and to represent an object’s structural elements, its laws of tension, rather than its external appearance.”
Nor is it surprising that, in beginning, his career as a poster artist toward the end of a long period characterized by an absence of interest among designers in the products being advertised-crucial as this interest is in advertising-Cassandre felt it necessary to emphasize the object. This inclination was naturally in harmony with the experiments of Cubism, which shared the same orientation, for strictly aesthetic reasons.
The desire to take the object and make it the poster’s centres of attraction naturally also led Cassandre, as can be seen from his comments on the Intransigeant poster, to anchor his works in a very solid construction by giving then the kind of rigorously geometrical foundation that is more often encountered in architecture than in painting. Another allusion to an architectural approach is the term “module”. Cassandre uses it in the sense that Vitruvius, Vignola, and Palladio gave to it: i.e. a spatial unit (equal to half the diameter of a column at the base) governing the overall structure and rhythm of a building.
As early as 1910 Le Corbusier had sought to demonstrate the existence of a geometric principle of construction in the masterpieces of classical architecture. From 1920 on, he wrote abundantly in the review L’Esprit Nouveau about the need for applying strict mathematical standards to composition :
"The module is a means of bringing uniformity to the imagined rhythm: it acts as a regulator in the creation of a work. Once the different components have been selected, they are assembled in accordance with the appropriate module governing the composition.
A module measure and unifies; a regulating line constructs and satisfies […].
A regulating line is a safeguard against arbitrariness. It is a way of shaking a work created in enthusiasm; it is the schoolboy’s proof positive, the mathematician’s QED.”
In all the fields in which he exercised his talents, Cassandre too felt it necessary to establish his composition on geometric figures and “regulating lines” based on numerical rhythm. This need is most spectacularly evident in his early posters. They reflect an interest in street art-an art accessible to all- which obviously led him to search for structures that could give his work the anonymous appearance of formal perfection. Like Le Corbusier and the Italian fifteenth-century artists, it clearly aspired to be at once an architect and a painter.
The geometrical structure of L’Intransigeant casts an interesting sidelight on Cassandre’s approach to composition. The design consists of a rectangle having a base equal to four modules and sides three modules high. The composition combines a pair of three-modules squares, two-thirds of each square overlapping on the other. It is governed by a series of right angles between diagonal lines intersecting these squares. The module on which the composition is based is subdivided into four equal parts, of which two determine the width of the telegraph pole coinciding with the vertical side of one of the squares. The based of the nose, the opening of the mouth and the position of the chin and eye are all determined by either one or two subdivisions of the module. The top of the letters forming the newspaper’s title is lined on the diagonal intersecting the left-hand square. A half-module regulates the line of he forehead which is tangential to the top of the ear.
The geometrical basis of this composition is so evident that it does more than regulate the design: it actually dictates the poster’s forms. It might be objected that it is simply to systematic to provide a good example. How then does it compare with other posters Cassandre designed in the same spirit and around the same time?
In Pivolo (1924) Cassandre introduces the golden section so often used by Le Corbusier as well as many earlier artists. The rectangle enclosing the composition is obtained in the usual manner by taking a square whose side is equal to the smaller side of the rectangle (in this case the base) and then subdividing it into two equal rectangles. One of these rectangles is further subdivided into two right angle triangles. Their hypotenuse determines the length of the longer side of the initial rectangle. The base of the illustration (a stylised magpie) is established by a repetition of these half-squares, while the upper side of the first half-square establishes the upper limit of the figure (the tip of the bird’s tail). The horizontal sides of the second square produced in this manner established the height of a new golden section rectangle which stands in the vertical axis of the poster. The vertical sides of this rectangle determine the width of the illustration. One merely has to continue dividing the poster rhythmically into further golden section rectangles, and into the squares that determine those rectangles, to get the structure of the other major elements in the design : the line on which the letters “piVolo” rest, height and width of the glass, the width of the V crowning the composition, the centers and radii of the circles representing the bird’s abdomen and wing. The diagonal lines in both the illustration and the text are established by the various diagonals intersecting the aforementioned figures.
Onoto (1925) is based, like Pivolo, on a 3:4 relationship, but here the module is subdivided into five equal parts. The severely geometric treatment of the composition emphasizes the “regulating lines”- and obviates the need for any further comment.
Réglisse Florent (1925) is based on a half 3:4 rectangle- in other words, on a 2:3 rectangle. Cassandre uses the porte d’or proportion for the first time in this composition. The diagonal of the square, which divides the illuminating area from the shadow determines the position of the word Réglisse (it stands on top of an invisible rectangle whose longer side is equal to the length of the diagonal). Thus relegated to the very top of the poster, this word acts as a visual echo in the background to the tin box and its characteristic lid. Instantly recognizable thanks to its frontal presentation, the label on the lid is further emphasized by the trademark Florent in the foreground and by the curved red band, which acts as a visual rhyme with the lid.
While it is true that at this point of his career Cassandre does not appear t have used the golden section very often, there is little difference between his need for geometrical structures and that of Le Corbusier. The actual arithmetic quantity of the relationship they used-whether they were 2:3, 3:4, the golden section or La Porte d’or- is of secondary importance. The important thing is that both artists used the same method: breaking up their compositions into rhythmic units based on a single proportion. Cassandre calls the resulting construction the poster’s “foundation”, while Le Corbusier terms it the “load-bearing walls” of his composition. However the underlying idea is the same in both cases, and so is the visual effect-that “secret cadence” which Cassandre saw in Cubist paintings and, perhaps more subtly, in Dunoyer de Segonzac’s canvases. There is no question that in Cassandre’s case, as in Le Corbusier’s, these structures merely serve to provide a visual equilibrium. All of Cassandre’s early posters-reach as they are in plastic ideas- where almost certainly conceived intuitively
In the twenties, Cassandre, who viewed the poster primarily as a form of monumental painting, strove to give his posters as flat an appearance as possible. It considered flatness one of the cardinal virtues of the poster, which must espouse the whole on which it is displayed and be thoroughly integrated into urban architecture. He made a rule of never-or almost never- using any of the advice primarily associated with the three-dimensional representation. He avoided modeling and shading. He relied exclusively on lines enhanced by flat tints and colors (as they are in popular prints, medieval tapestries, and the early fifteenth-century Italian frescoes). As a rule, he used colors for their evocative powers rather than to build chromatic contrasts. It was always the line he emphasized-the line that was impersonal to the point of being abstract, the line in all its geometric purity.
Grand-Sport (1925) is the one exception to this rule. Here the subject-a cap- is rendered in a fairly figurative manner. In its graphic context, it seems remarkably real. But except for this design, Cassandre’s early works display an extraordinary degree of flatness, owing in part, no doubt, to their virtually mathematical construction. Yet theirs is the kind of flatness that made Degas exclaim over a picture by a master: “It has the flatness of truly beautiful painting! “
In 1925 a new element made its appearance in Cassandre’s work. This was perspective- the notation of a suggested three-dimensional space. It was to become one of the vital components of his oeuvre. It is first present in La Croix Verte and Onoto (where Cassandre seems to use it almost tentatively). In L’Intransigeant and Golden Club it is already clearly stamped with his characteristic manner. In L’Intransigeant it serves to indicate the concept of news converging from all quarters on the vanishing point (the dot representing the crier’s ear). This remarkably expressive formulation occupies one of the four right triangles in the square defined by the crier’s head. It is thus perfectly integrated into the poster’s geometric construction. In Golden Club the figurative representation of three-dimensional space is more emphatic, though his main purpose remains that of associating, though one of the graphic ambiguities that Cassandre delighted in, the stylised clover trademark in the foreground with the tobacco shown frontally at the tips of the three cigarettes. In both works, linear perspective is used to convey an abstract idea of space. It is treated with such graphic purity that it retains its strictly linear character.
L’Intransigeant, by far the more interesting of these two posters, calls for one last comment. It signals the appearance of a technique which Cassandre borrowed from the Cubists and which he was later to use in a uniquely personal manner: collage. Here it serves to emphasize the crucial element in the poster-the newspaper’s name.
To appreciate fully the novelty of the posters discussed in this chapter, the advertising of the period must be reviewed. It is the norm from which they are such a radical departure. The great poster artist at the time was of course Cappiello. Born in Leghorn, Italy, Cappiello settled in Paris early in life and was twenty-four when he signed his first successful poster, Le Frou Frou, in 1899. The truly impressive number of posters that followed this work belongs, with their distinctive Parisienne who promised to sell anything and everything with her smile, to the tradition of Chéret, that “mural Wateau”. In a period notable for the poverty of advertising, they were hailed as masterpieces. Their ebullience was perfectly in tune with the frivolity of the turn of the century and it seemed enough for their witty creator to put his enormously popular Parisienne through her pace without bothering much about the product being advertised. But in 1907 a new concept of the poster began to take shape in Cappiello’s thoughts. It was a daring concept for the times. Cappiello himself has summarized its main point as follows :
" The purpose of the poster is to be seen in broad daylight and from afar. It must never blend in with its surroundings. I have given priority to the search for the splash of colors that stands out ."
A surprise is the basis of all advertising. It is an indispensable factor […].”
Cappiello’s third proposition concerns the image that is permanently associated in the viewer’s mind with the product.
ìAll the posters that stick in your mind do so thanks to an image invented by the artist, an image that cannot be dissociated from the product and its name.î
Cappiello relied on color and more especially on what he called the “arabesque” to create his truly memorable images. His chromatic harmonies were based on daring contrasts and in some cases even on clashing colors. He used black as a colors-a great innovation at the time- to make his polychrome posters stand out more effectively. Even in his monochromes, he contrasted black with a single uniform tint to increase the visual impact of the design. Nevertheless, it was chiefly the arabesque that gave his posters their power.
"A line! The line is the basis of all the arts. Only a line can express greatness, nobility, sensuality-it is a synthesis of all our sensations, a condensation of all our knowledge. The line is what we must strive for. We must give less emphasis to color and to the details which should merely enhance the line, embellish and enrich it. The line must always be able to stand by itself, like the soul of everything.
I work out my large-scale compositions in small drawings. I search for, draw and redraw the arabesque that will enclose subject, and once I have got it down to my satisfaction I do not change it.”
The reader must not assume that since the young poster artists of the twenties chose not to follow in Cappiello’s footsteps they did not recognize the value of his innovations. On the contrary, even though they considered his style somewhat passé, they had a deep respect for his gifts and they listened to his always pertinent statements on art. They learned from him and considered him a pioneer of the modern poster.
And yet, it is enough to look at Cappiello’s posters to realize just how great was the step taken by Cassandre and his young fellow designers. Though Cappiello deserves to be remembered as the first poster artist to understand that a poster must be something more than merely an enjoyable illustration and for having fleshed out his novel ideas through an extremely skillful use of line and color, it cannot be denied that his art is essentially decorative rather than expressive. And that is precisely where the difference lies. For with Cassandre what we have is no longer decorative art but, notwithstanding his protestation to the contrary, authentic painting. Not, of course, the kind of painting that is displayed in a museum, but a monumental painting, an expressive painting and, as I hope to show, a painting with a poetic message.
For those interested in Cassandre’s private life during the early part of his career, the few details I have supplied here will no doubt seem insufficient. For continuity’s sake, I have omitted Cassandre’s two years of military service (1921-1922). They were not unimportant years, however. It was in the army that Cassandre met Jean Puech, with whom he struck up one of those deep friendships that men often form at twenty. This friendship was undoubtedly founded on an unusual degree of mutual respect. I remember Jean Puech well from my childhood. He and my father remained loyal friends and his family was frequent guests at our house in Versailles. I recall him as a man gifted with a shrewd, distinguished and subtle mind. In appearance he was austere and was rather taciturn, speaking only when he had something worth saying and always expressing himself in an impeccably elegant French, but his reserved side-which he had presumably inherited from his native Cévennes and his strict upbringing- was in fact merely a façade behind which lurked a puckish sense of humor. He was tremendously gifted and it is a pity that after a very promising start as a poet he did not pursue this art further. But who can say? Perhaps he continued to write for his own enjoyment in the silence of his reserved nature. In any event, his gifts as a poet, his passion for painting, his sensitivity and intelligence were surely the mainsprings of his close friendship with my father.
As for my father’s love life, before he married my mother, I know nothing about it. There were certain things he simply never talked about. In 1923, though, he fell in love with one of his older sister’s friends, Madeleine Cauvet. Twelve years his senior, Madeleine had been widowed twice and was raising four children from her two marriages. Her father, Max Richard, was a wealthy industrialist. He belonged to that constellation of daring and dynamic men who were involved with the beginnings of the French automobile and aviation industries. Cassandre married Madeleine in 1924 and I was born the following year.
This love match brought Cassandre the ease and security he had been accustomed to as a child. He decided to have a house built that would reflect his advanced ideas on aesthetics. He commissioned Le Corbusier to design it but was not satisfied with the famous architect’s project. He then turned to the Perret brothers, the pioneers of reinforced-concrete construction, at the time a radically new technique. He was particularly taken with Auguste Perret’s daring yet classical style and had him design our home at 11, rue Albert-Joly in Versailles. The courageous simplicity and geometric severity of the façade shocked the citizens of Versailles, who promptly christened it “the black man’s house,” but architecturally it was successful enough and undoubtedly it gave Cassandre the kind of environment for the domestic and professional life that he found stimulating.
If I am not mistaken, it was at the Exposition des Arts Decoratifs that Cassandre met Charles Peignot, the driving force behind the firm of Deberny & Peignot, the type founders who were then at the height of their renown. And it was around this time too-unless it was the following year that he met Blaise Cendrars.
Cendrars and Peignot soon became regular visitors at our home in Versailles. Cassandre’s friendship with Peignot was to be outstandingly productive. As for Cendrars, the famous poet and novelist were such a brilliant conversationalist that his visits to Versailles were truly feasts for the mind. He is an integral part of the almost legendary atmosphere of the almost legendary atmosphere of my childhood-one of the marvelous figures that my father attracted to our home- and his inexhaustible verve made a deep impression on me as an adolescent.
Henri Mouron, AM.CASANDRE.1984
Translated by Schirmer / Mosel Production
Schirmer / Mosel Production © Mouron.Cassandre.All Rights Reserved.