A.M.CASSANDRE PAR HENRI MOURON Schirmer Mosel Production
CHAPTER 2: FROM SYNTHESIS TO THE OBJECT
The main point that will be made here is that the key to the aesthetic emotion is a spatial function (…).
The year 1927 was a turning point in the growth of Cassandre’s oeuvre. It was then, handling the theme of railroads for the first time and with what success !- that he discovered the true source of his emotion in the representation of space. This new orientation-which was more than a mere reflection of the random flow of commercial orders-manifests itself with particular force in two of his most engaging works, Nord Express and Etoile du Nord, which were both designed that same year.
This was also the year when Cassandre began designing letters, treating them not just as one of the ingredients in a given design but as characters to be used widely in advertising and even in printing in general.
All that was new, daring and awe-inspiring in the contemporary scene during that years-all that seemed to extend the boundaries of man’s world was a source of tremendous excitement for Cassandre during the late twenties and early thirties. So it is not surprising that he felt especially inspired by the theme of the great European express trains.
To stick to the chronological order, though, let us first look at a poster for a shipping company, Société Anonyme de Gérance et d’Armement (SAGA), which can be said to foreshadow the railway poster. The idea to be communicated foremost was that of maritime freight shipping. Cassandre employed a device which might be compared to the photographic technique of using a wide-angle lens to give extra prominence to the foreground. The exaggerated volume of shipping crate, its severely receding sides and the sharp contrasts between areas of light and shade (which emphasize the crate’s three-dimensional character) all play a part in expressing the principal theme. But shipping is not the whole message. The ports served y the shipper had to get across as well. Cassandre’s solution was simply to print the words Algérie, Maroc and Tunisie on the side of the crate in full light. To integrate these names into the illustration, he chose letters which resemble the stencil letters still widely used today in freight shipping. By placing the three names in perspective on the crate, he made them stand out-they seem taller than they are in actual fact-whereas the names of the two shipping companies were placed at the bottom of the illustration where they appear, in effect, as subtitles.
Thus, despite the almost diagrammatic handling of the composition’s foremost planes and the purely typographical treatment of the details, SAGA exemplifies an approach that deliberately distorts space by exaggerating linear perspective.
Nord Express and Etoile du Nord combine a highly expressive treatment of space with a second theme-speed. In both posters, the design is based on an even more idiosyncratic use of linear perspective. In Nord Express, for example, the viewpoint is level with the track (which is also the horizon and the base of the illustration). Thus the viewer looks up at the overwhelming bulk of the locomotive. This is a convenient way for the artist to express the engine’s tremendous power by amplifying its driving wheels and connecting rods. Finally, the unusual position of the vanishing point in the lower right-hand corner of the illustration-where it is easy to identify-further stresses the dramatically converging lines of perspective, from the sides of the engine to the sheaf of almost vertical telegraph wires standing out, light on dark, against the sky. This graphically constructed image thus generates its own dynamic meaning. The locomotive’s rudimentary modeling (which is merely an evocation of shading) gives it a sufficient degree of reality to sustain the illusion that the express train is plunging into bottomless space.
Yet despite Cassandre’s obvious desire to represent space with a maximum of lyrical intensity, he maintains his exacting standards of composition and creates a rhythmic and well-balanced design. Once again, the composition is based on a modular system. Except for the strip at the bottom of the poster containing the names of the cities connected by the express train, the illustration measures six modules across by eight modules high (another 3:4 relationship). The main areas of the composition are likewise established by using modules. So too is the principal text: the letter NORD are set in four equal one-module squares, and the height of the word EXPRESS is exactly half a module. But it hardly seems necessary to dwell on this aspect of the composition. After all, the illustration speaks for itself.
But what does need to be stressed here is the fact that, presumably in order to satisfy rhythmical requirements, the illustration’s principal lines do not adhere rigidly-does it matter ?- to the logic of perspective. You might say that the illustration is a compromise between the systems of perspective and modulation (which seem perfectly compatible in this case). Thus the wheels, rendered as ovals in order to respect the converging lines of perspective, occupy squares of unequal size ; the solidly constructed connecting-rods are determined by the two orthogonal diagonals of the four-module square in the lower left corner (moreover they are made to coincide with the interplay of light and shadow) ; the pistons are represented abstractly by two perfect circles which convey their relative size without reference to perspective. The coexistence of these two apparently contradictory compositional systems unquestionably strengthens the impression that the forms in the illustration are unfolding as the locomotive hurtles away from the observer. As a result, the poster’s object-the express train is far more completely and effectively described than it would have been in a more conventional representation.
Cassandre’s early posters have been criticized for their severity and I hope that this discussion of their underlying structure has not les the reader into thinking that this criticism might be justified. Geometrical precision need not be synonymous with aridity, after all. It may also convey harmony-the supreme satisfaction of the aesthetic sensibility and the hallmark of the artist’s high standards of formal perfection.
In his 1926 text, Cassandre alluded only indirectly to his methods of composition. Clearly, he did not want the hurrying passerby to be aware of the underlying geometry of his posters. Arts est celare artem. This was always his guiding rule. But whether the geometrical foundation of his composition remains hidden or not, it is always there. It always plays a vital part in the immense aesthetic satisfaction we feel when we behold Cassandre’s work. And the fact that these works are now to be seen only in private collections and museums cannot diminish their modernity and perennial freshness. Now that we are able to look back on Cassandre’s entire production and examine it dispassionately, there is no excuse for shutting our eyes to their geometrical foundation. Surely no one would suggest today that this foundation in any way lessens the impact of the poetry it underlies.
Etoile du Nord, which I will examine more cursorily-for what purpose would even a lengthy commentary serve with such an inexpressibly beautiful design ?-seems freer than Nord Express. Looking at this poster, one feels that the artist allowed himself to be swept, to a greater extent than in the previous work, by the emotion engendered by a fictive space that seems almost uncanny in its depth. Here the perspective is tipped sharply upward. The horizon is pushed toward the upper reaches of the composition, leaving just enough room for the five-pointed star symbolizing the express train. Placed over the vanishing point where the rails converge, the star sheds its luminousness over the entire composition, dissolving the mysterious darkness lingering at the bottom of the illustration.
Who has not dreamed of distant lands, of the remote reaches so powerfully evoked by the seemingly endless flight of railroad tracks in the bygone era of the great European express trains? Who can resist the spell of that vastly poetic name, Etoile du Nord ? Which of us can remain indifferent to the poster’s foreground, with its starkly graphic evocation? The artist’s language in this work displays a stunning economy of means; it is as poetically charged as any he could have dreamed of.
Bifur, the typeface that Cassandre designed for Deberny & Peignot, made its first appearance on March 3., 1929. however, Cassandre began working on the design as early as the end of 1927. before discussing this creation, though, let us return to Cassandre’s early poster. Their lettering announces the blossoming (or bursting forth ?) of Bifur. In the earliest advertising designs - Sadac and A nous les vrais pâtes Garres (both works on a mainly anecdotal interest)-the text is set in lower case, but with Au Bucheron (1923) Cassandre began to use thick letters which are somewhat reminiscent of the Capitalis Quadrata of the 2nd to 5th centuries AD. From then on, he limited himself, like the Bauhaus typographers, to Sans Serif letters. Also he was later to extend his range to Latin and Egyptian style types, as well as to various shadowed and outlined characters; he was to remain loyal up to 1939, the year which marks the end of his great period as a poster artist, to the austere discipline of a typography restricted exclusively to capitals. The reasons for this preference which ran counter to the doctrine of the Bauhaus designers who were committed to lower case letters-which they considered more legible-have been stated at sufficient length by Cassandre himself to make any further comment unnecessary. What should be emphasized, however, is that, owing to their simplicity, capitals, and more especially Sans Serif capitals, are particularly well-suited to the modular methods Cassandre used in his early work. Their architecture is better adapted than the more nuanced lines of lower case letters to the rigorous designs he produced with a square and compass. Yet another advantage of the capital letter is that it can be deformed-its proportions distorted, its lines reinterpreted-without affecting its legibility. Though frowned upon by traditional typographers, such distortions can be extremely useful in advertising where they are justified by the need to invent a chance form that will give visual prominence to a brand name or message.
The text of Pivolo is designed in Bifur. This poster furnishes us with as good an opportunity as any to assess the significance of this letter form. For it is in Pivolo that Cassandre uses letters for the first time for their visual impact, as a way of echoing the illustration, rather than for their semantic value or their architectural qualities. By treating them as surfaces, graduating them from black to blue-a device repeated in the illustration- and filling in the open triangle of the V with grey, he transforms them into active plastic elements in the poster. He thus turns the text-which his no longer, strictly speaking, mere writing-into a rhythmical interplay of lines, surfaces and connecting spaces. Moreover, he achieves a remarkable and rather unexpected synthesis of upper-and-lower case letters. Questionable from a purely typographic viewpoint, the word aperitif fits into the composition and makes visual sense. As for the name piVolo, it is a dynamic poster in its own right.
Designed for advertising, Bifur was intended to surprise. Its characters impress themselves on the viewer’s mind because they do not have the appearance of conventional letters forms. They almost look as if they had been produced by a typographic accident. Adopting the principle he used in designing the word piVolo, Cassandre created Bifur by simplifying the architecture of the alphabet. He stressed its geometric qualities, eliminated all horizontal lines that were not absolutely necessary (flattening his letters instead to suggest them) and filled in the spaces inside the letters with grey or some other colors.
Thus each letter catches the eye. It seems to expand on the page, composing, in a rhythmical interplay of forms and colors, unforgettable words. To render Bifur instantly legible, Cassandre based his design on sans serifs, stripping them down to their essence, to what characterizes them and sets them apart, to what is left in the reader’s memory when all that is inessential has been forgotten. Or to put it another way, one might say that Cassandre reinvented the sans serif. By giving it a novel, remarkably vital appearance, he restored its original identity.
This daring typographic experiment was successful. Proof of this is the fact that Bifur is still used on occasion in posters today. The truly majestic specimen proclaiming NE LE REND PAS ILLISIBLE (KEEP IT LEGIBLE) recalls the great Roman and Carolingian inscriptions.
Bifur was introduced by Cassandre himself in the review Arts et Metiers Graphiques as follows :
“Advertising. Kilometres of vermilion firing point blank at the retina. All that remains in the end, once everything has been swept away, is a single word: Cadum, Citroën…
Bifur is a word, a single word. But a star word. It enters a page like a leading ballerina sweeping into the radiance of a spotlight while the other dancers sink into the background on either side.
Bifur was not designed by a freakish imagination; on the contrary, I worked out a precise problem and then endeavored to resolve it while staying strictly within the bounds of typography. I want to stress the fact that Bifur is not an ornamental letter.
Bifur was conceived in the same spirit as a vacuum cleaner or an internal combustion engine. It is meant to answer a specific need, not to be decorative. It is this functional character that makes it suitable for use in our contemporary world.
Initially, a letter is a pure form, but it is gradually distorted by the woodblock carver’s chisel, the scribe’s alcoholic pen, the etcher’s needle used by the first punch-cutters who delighted in imitating the pen. I have tried to restore to the letter that which originally belonged to it, and to it alone.
Therefore, it Bifur looks unfamiliar and strange, it is not because I have dressed it up eccentrically but because, in the midst of a fully clothed crowd, it is naked.
I have simply tried to revive the word’s original power as an image. Reduced to its barest expression, its simplest form, the word becomes more “photogenic” to our tired retinas, I believe.
DANGER. Bifur was designed to function like a railroad signal-a peremptory stop sign. If by accident it does not function as it should if it is mishandled, say, by an inexperienced typographer-disaster is inevitable.
Bifur was designed for advertising. It was designed for a word, a single word, a poster word.
As Blaise Cendars once said in reply to a questionnaire on advertising, “I wish that you would find you who are today calling on writers-a spontaneous poetic genius who will come up with a simple, gigantic word that can take its place above Paris along with the gigantic Bébé Cadum poster”.
Bifur was cast to print that word.”
It seems important to analyze Cassandre’s early works because they embody with great simplicity the fundamental aesthetic options which determined the directions his art was to take in later years, but, given the physical limitations of this book, it is impossible to continue doing so with his later work. In the period discussed in this chapter, Cassandre, who had thoroughly mastered his craft and was now anxious to renew himself and keep his work from going stale, dew upon all his resources and experimented widely, especially with more pictorial techniques (though always subordinating his explorations to the graphic imperatives of the medium as he conceived it in relation to the reproduction processes available at the time).
But before proceeding any further, let us hear what Cassandre himself had to say at this point about the art of the poster. The following quotes are taken from a text published in 1929 in L’Art International d’Aujourd’hui. It is interesting to note that the title of this statement-one of several Cassandre made in this period is set in Bifur.
“Advertising can no more be summed up in a snap judgment than it can be viewed in “Museums” and “ Collections”. It is like love: one does not JUDGE it, one EXPERIENCES it. It is not a game but a natural phenomenon like night and day. It is one of the finest expressions of contemporary life; it is LIFE itself.
Blaise Cendars has written somewhere: “A circle is no longer just a circle but a wheel, and this wheel turns.”
A poster is no longer a painting but a “broadcasting device.” Catalogues, posters and luminous signs are all vital objects. They are as much a part of our daily life as the telephone and the typewriter.
The language of advertising is as yet in its infancy-but it has been born. A whole generation of artists recognizes it as its most vital means of expression. A thousand psychological and technical problems confront it. The materials, processes and techniques of advertising are limited by one thing alone: the mechanical means. Typography, offset printing, lithography, rotogravure, the collotype, photo-engraving, the direct positive-these processes are far more exciting than the obsolete aesthetic notions of our predecessors.”
The following text is even more explicit :
“Defining the poster’s role and the place among the plastic arts is no easy matter. Those (in my opinion) who lump it together with the applied arts. The poster is neither an easel painting nor a stage set. It is “something else,” although it sometimes employs the means of one or the other art.
The poster requires total self-effacement. The artist cannot EXPRESS himself in the poster-and even if he were able to, he would have no right to do so.
Painting is a GOAL in itself. The poster is only a means, a means of communication between the seller and the public-somewhat like a telegraph. The poster artist is like a telegrapher: he does not DRAFT messages, he DESPATCHES them. No one asks him what he thinks; all he is asked to do is to communicate clearly, powerfully and precisely.
Of course, a poster is a plastic message. Yet even though the poster artist uses the methods of painting, he does not use them as a means of individual expression. To him, these methods are an anonymous language, a sort of international code like the Morse code.
These may come a day when our telegrapher will have to send out an SOS, and no doubt his anguished message will then contain something of himself-he will not be able to prevent this. But in the tumult of the city, in the bawling, inchoate, inhuman voice of the loudspeaker on the other side of the world, who will hear his thumping heartbeats ?”
Finally, the most significant statement of all and the most interesting because it is the breviary of an artist at the height of his power was probably written shortly after the paragraphs quoted above. There is no indication of whether Cassandre intended to publish it; he may have drafted it merely from a private need to put his creative thoughts down on paper.
“A poster has to contain the solution to three problems :
1. an OPTICAL problem,
2. a GRAPHIC problem,
3. and a POETIC problem.
1. The OPTICAL problem. A poster is designed to be SEEN. A truism, but if the poster does not possess these primary virtues of being visible, its merits cannot save it. An orator, no matter how well he speaks, cannot persuade his audience if he has lost his voice.
This -visibility- is the result, not of a simple color contrast, but of a relationship of values given prominence by colliding forms - a formal accident.
2. The GRAPHIC problem. One does not put signs along a railroad track saying “Please come to a stop.” Instead, we have very sensibly devised colored signals, which are kinds of ideograms and are infinitely more expressive and more readily understood than verbal messages. Obliged to get its message across rapidly, the poster uses the same language-the image, the true vehicle of thought. The vocabulary it draws on the same vocabulary as in Painting and all the Graphic Arts-is limited by the technical requirements of printing; moreover, the poster has to respect the laws governing these other arts. It is obliged to use the same grammar, the same syntax, in order to achieve the same harmony. You can never be too seductive!
3. The POETIC problem. The poster is an image combined with a word (or a name). Its goal is to create, around this image-word, a series of very simple mental associations. What is more, these mental associations must be unforgettable. Therefore it is not enough to give the viewer an ephemeral visual sensation. The poster has to trigger an emotion. And this emotion, whether or not the viewer is conscious of it, has to be an obsessive one.
Without this emotional power, the poster would be merely like a woman without sex appeal.
The poster’s only chance of making everyone hear it instantly is to use poetic language.
You cannot stop people in the street and explain the advantages of this or that product. You must catch them by surprise and buttonhole them without their even realizing it.
And thus, provided it sparks an emotion, the poster need not necessarily be pleasant or congenial. Its task is not to make itself loved or understood but to hold the viewer in its grip.
The poster is to Painting what rape is to love.”
These three texts bear witness to the seriousness with which Cassandre reflected on what he considered to be the fundamental principles of the art of the poster. Like his 1926 statement, the first of three texts quoted above is still colored by a sense of wonder inspired by the radiant birth of the new language which, in his view, modern advertising offered. The second text, on the other hand, reflects something of the lonely creator’s uneasy, quasi-monastic acceptance of a demanding discipline, an acceptance possibly tinged with nostalgia for a means of expression having a wider range of poetic possibilities. The far from optimist sentence about he telegrapher’s anguish may well echo the feeling of isolation of a poet who, paradoxically, has made a Faustian pact with a society prepared to stab him in the back.
But, as I have already indicated, it is the last text that is the most illuminating. Whit its neatly articulated points, it amounts to nothing less than a discourse on method. It is also a mirror. A mirror that reflects the image of an artist wholly committed to his art and who, like the Renaissance sculptors and painters, is able to establish an equilibrium between the intellect’s humanistic requirements and a thirst for lyrical expression-the rare equilibrium that characterizes fifteenth-century Italian art. Like these artists, who found it natural to excel in all fields, Cassandre scorned the barriers modern society has raised between architecture, sculpture, and painting.
To limit ourselves to the poster-the area in which Cassandre did his most important work in the late twenties and early thirties, though it hardly encompasses all of his activities-we cannot help but be struck by the diversity of his approaches to advertising. The variety of face he gave to his designs while never allowing his intellectual standards to slacken, makes it a difficult task to analyze his different styles.
If, on the other hand, one tries to make a synthesis, one has a better chance of arriving at a perception of his advertising work as a tightly-knit texture combining richly dissimilar themes with the different moods and veins he played on with such intelligence and appropriateness.
What exactly does this texture consist of? What are its different strands? (They must not be confused, in their abundance, with the branchings of Cassandre’s style over the years.) Setting aside the strictly typographical posters, there are, it seems to me, five basic modes he uses-which is plenty compared to the much narrower standards of advertising today. The task of identifying these modes is complicated by the fact they are not always clearly distinct from one another. Cassandre sometimes plays on several of them together, and this is indeed a characteristic feature of his electric approach.
The reader has already encountered the first of these modes in the discussion of the three 1927 posters, SAGA, Nord Express and Etoile du Nord. They all exemplify an authentic POETIC OF SPACE, one that Cassandre handled in an intensely personal way by dramatically heightening linear perspective. In London, via Harwich (1928) and La Route Bleue (1929), the spirit of synthesis underlying the profoundly logical treatment of space produces an image that is as coldly schematic, or almost, as a blueprint. In the 1928 LMS poster published by L. Danel, the treatment of space is so wonderfully rich, on the other hand, that it almost recalls the lyrical qualities of the three 1927 posters. Cassandre uses a plunging perspective, as in Etoile du Nord, but here the tracks, which vanish toward the right, are treated as a continuous sheet of ribbed metal merging in the distance with the horizon bounding the image at the top. Linear perspective is only one of the components of LMS, however. It is skilfully combined with a three-dimensional close-up of a switch bar in the foreground. The switch bar’s disproportionately large dimensions and its realistic rendering accentuate the poster’s depth with great effectiveness.
Notice, too, the vermillion lettering of LMS outlined by a frothy while fringe that makes it stand out from the image (and that seems to make it vibrate also)-a device one sometimes encounters in Loupot’s work but never before used by Cassandre.
Designed to associate a service or product with an image that characterizes it indelibly, advertising frequently relies on the EMBLEMATIC mode to achieve its effect. This is the approach underlying the graphic process that leads to the logo, the most elementary of advertising’s mnemonic devices. It is the approach Cassandre uses in some 40 posters designed around this time. The language of these works is vivid and full of an imagery-a unique blend of geometrical schematization and realistic expression.
Several of these designs are humorous in tone. Two prime examples are the Oranjeboom poster of 1927, with its graphically rendered billows of foam standing out against a beer drinker’s black silhouette, and the Dubo Dubon Dubonnet sequence with its seated figure darkening progressively from left to right. The figure’s characteristic silhouette and gestures, which were to lend themselves to a number of comical variations, have immortalized the typically French aperitif.
Equally jocular is the tone of two 1933 posters, Wagons-Lits Cook and Bonal. In the former, the abstract concept of -At your service- is expressed in visual terms by two stewards whose blue-and-brown silhouettes echo the colors of the text. Their caps are raised in an identical gesture releasing, in an impish graphic by-play, the word partout (everywhere) printed in vermilion. The thoroughly British - looking figure of the traveler hurrying along the top of the words a votre service (at your service) contributes to the poster’s cheeriness. In Bonal an eye-catching white figure silhouetted against its black shadow seems to balance a realistically rendered bottle of Bonal against a vibrant warm background of luminous yellows. The vigorous graphic treatment of the bottle spilling its stream of pink stars is in sharp contrast to the abstractness of the figure poised like a tightrope walker on the brand name at the bottom of the poster.
The range of feelings displayed in Cassandre’s emblematic works is not just limited to the humorous. In Le Bal des Sourds-Muets Aveugles (1927), the artist gives us a striking image-one that is rendered figuratively rather than emblematically-of the tragic mask of infirmity. In a poster for the Galeries Lafayette (1928), he captures the magic of dreams : Santa Claus, the basket on his back overflowing with toys, is shown sweeping down from a star-studded sky toward the warm colors of Christmas celebrations to urge prospective shoppers to buy all their gifts at the snow-frosted Parisian department store.
A number of emblematic posters designed around this time-some ten in all-are more serious in tone. Although their themes are widely different, they can be grouped together for the purpose of discussion, for they all exemplify the same approach.
Consider the two posters for the letters Sools. In the 1926 poster, the artist has designed a three-headed figure wearing a top-hat, a derby and a fedora silhouetted in black-and-white on three hieratic masks which gaze out on the world with frigid urbanity (in one the eye is reduced to a monocle’s perfect circle). The 1929 poster, on the other hand, is streamed more realistically. It owes its impact to the fact that the artist concentrates on a single detail-a hat-and blows it up. The brim of the hat is tipped upward to reveal an eye as fixed and anonymous as the eyes in the 1926 poster, though the Pointillist treatment of the face makes it more life-like.
La Casquette Grand-Sport (1931) is lighter in tone, though it too is hieratically emblematic. As in the 1925 poster for the same firm, Cassandre plays on the contrast between the realistically rendered product and the schematic ca-wearing figure. The brick red spot blending in with the paper is roughly defined on one side by an angular line suggesting, in the Cubist manner, ahead seen simultaneously full-face and in profile, and on the other by a line of text. The composition’s expressiveness is heightened by the fact that the figure’s head is titled. While the image is not as emblematically concise as the previous version, it is far more evocative.
In the same mode, Gazelle (1928?), Savon le Chat (1932), L’Union (1932), Société Agricole (1933), Leroy (1933) the anecdotal poster for Mademoiselle Paris (1934), the second version of Au Bûcheron (1934) and Paris 37 (1936) exhibit a stunning variety of techniques.
In BK Emaille (1930) the firm’s initials display, in tones recalling enamel, what appears to be an industrial design of a metal kettle. Printed in boldface, the letters remind us the sturdy puppets in characteristic costumes which appear in several of Cassandre’s posters from the early thirties.
In Bernot (1930) for example, a puppet of a robust woo and coal seller carries a chimney under one arm. The ruggedness of the poster’s style is wonderfully effective and is a delightful evocation of the coal merchant’s gruff manner. In Savo, which was designed the same year, the worker’s uniform brandishing a hammer is a sort of petrified puppet; its stiff, angular gestures relate it to the brick wall of the background.
The sturdy sailor with a red pompon on his cap in Par Calais-Douvres (1931) is a less serious figure. Modelled in blue tones which blend with the burnt sienna of his flesh, he is identified chromatically with the slightly out-of-kilter rectangle of sea suggested by ripples scrawled on the eye-catching transitional areas between the raw green and the navy blue illuminating his costume. Though Cassandre was later to re-use the ideogram of the rectangle-and-ripples to evoke the sea, it is a pity that this poster was never published.
Other posters in this group include Le Touquet (which is undated and signed “Atelier Cassandre”) and, of course, Seager’s Gin (1935) with its witty, explosive Spirit of Trafalgar.
But rather than dwell on these works, let us pause briefly to look at three designs which all rely exclusively on color memory. In Casino (1931), Nicolas (1935) and Kinanectar (1936), the human figures associated with the advertised products-and popularised in earlier advertisements-merely serve as pretexts for organized chromatic displays. In the first work, a composition of elementary simplicity, the bright green flood engulfing the poster gives relief to the awning’s rigid orange-and-white stripes. In the second-a far more elaborate composition-yellow, orange and bright red stripes revolve around a simplified, brightly lit delivery boy. The delivery boy’s shadow is defined by the tonal changes between the colors in the light and those in the quite shadow-the cool green, mauve, and violet. Owing to the variety of combinations, the colors, although limited in number, seem to proliferate-a striking optical effect that foreshadows Op Art.
In the third poster, the delivery boy’s familiar silhouette has lost not only its objective status but also its famous fan-like array of bottles. The figure is reduced to a flat white shaped behind the oversize dual-purpose N of Kinanectar standing out against a strongly shaded background where the colors of the previous Nicolas vibrate more quietly-a simple logo!
Simultaneously Cassandre designed some thirty posters in a very different mode-the PICTURESQUE. It should be noted, though, that he always made a point of keeping the picturesque-such were the requirements of advertising-within certain bounds compatible with an abbreviated form of expression, one that could be readily grasped at first glance. The traditional reference of the picturesque-Nature-is extended to include anything that captivates or delights the eye: locomotives, the female figure, the blurrings of speed, urban or country landscape, the seasons, the elements, historic monuments.
Published in 1928 by McCorquodale & Co., the second LMS poster is based on a 1927 composition originally designed for Nord Express. Its origins go back further, however, to Cassandre’s first experiment in the picturesque, the 1925 Chemins de Fer Francais poster (which, despite its descriptive aspects, is not unrelated to the emblematic compositions discussed in the preceding paragraphs). At all events, the 1928 LMS is a superb Cubistic painting on the theme of machinery-a close up showing the essential planes of a locomotive’s connecting rods in action. The vermilion aura around the two driving wheels evokes both speed and the flames that used to roar in the bowels of the old steam engines. The artist’s pictorial intention is so clearly stated that one wonders whether Cassandre has not for once chosen to ignore the rules of restraint he is always prescribing to poster artists and is not yielding unreservedly to the pure and simple joy of painting. He even allows the text to be overshadowed by the dynamic image-a rare exception to his rigidly observed principles.
Firmly resolved to avoid the facile frothiness of his forerunners, Cassandre broached the theme of women-or rather, woman-in four posters for the Galeries Lafayette (1928-1929). The first two are tasteful Cubistic nudes; notice how lovingly the fragments of stylised lace are rendered. The third poster uses the expressive potential of the photographic collage. The “peephole” in the vermilion background reveals the features of an anonymous female face. There is something mysterious about it which catches the eye and holds our attention. Can we begrudge the artist the poverty of the graphic writing framing this face? Can we begrudge him the fact that this poster-which had a considerable impact at the time, so novel was its conception-has only a limited plastic appeal (its aesthetic requirements having clearly been sacrificed on the altar of “communication”)? The last of the Galeries Lafayette posters is a celebration of summer in the guise of a young woman whose torso is modeled in earthy tones which reveal a draftsman’s sensitivity hitherto unsuspected in the artist. In yet another poster on the same theme, Dr. Charpy (1930), Cassandre alludes to classical sources and plays on the contrast between the broadly modeled face and the dryness of Jean Cousin’s studies of the human body’s proportions.
Speed is the theme of Fleche d’Argent (1929) and L’Oiseau Bleu (1029) with its cloud of smoke swirling around the checkered red-and-white signal-the only fixed point in the image-standing out against a background of converging telegraph wires. In a highly effective metaphor for speed, a purple martin (oiseau bleu) is substituted for the express train hurtling past at full steam. Yet another design based on the same theme is the Sweepstake poster of 1935 showing two thoroughbreds mounted by jockeys whose multicolored jackets billow in the surge of a photo finish as the horses lunge neck and neck past the winning post-a simple white line extending vertically upward from the text.
One of Cassandre’s many posters for streamers lines, the Statendam design of 1928 brings us back to the theme of ocean travel-a theme the artist delighted in, constantly renewing himself, constantly varying not only his point of view and angle but also his style, from the almost diagrammatic handling of SAGA to the objective realism of Normandie. The comparison between SAGA, with its planes treated as flat surfaces, and Statendam, where the close-up technique is used to give concrete reality to the picturesque, is especially revealing. Cassandre’s determination to “stick to the wall” is evident in the vastly simplified modelling of the funnels and ventilation cowl (their designs is so manifestly simplified that it avoids the pitfall of trompe l’oeil) and in the rhythmical treatment of the smoke in successive waves ; it is also apparent in the spare lines of the ringing. This poster is a prime example of Cassandre’s attention to tonal values. The color scheme, which is limited to blacks, grays, sepias, and ochres, enhance the plasticity of the image and brings a wonderfully sober equilibrium to the composition. The Statendam design is clearly a refinement of an earlier design for US Lines which places more emphasis on color and three-dimensionality.
With the SS Cote d’Azur poster of 1933, Cassandre resorts to yet another technique-chiaroscuro. Like the old masters, he uses chiaroscuro to express shadows rather than light. He is able to make us overlook the mechanical character of the image, which is virtually a blueprint of the streamer’s superstructure, so faithful is it to realistic details.
One is inevitably tempted to compare the designs for L’Atlantique (1931) and Normandie (1935). Indeed these two posters share a specifically modern approach to the picturesque and have naturally come to be viewed over the years as especially representative of Cassandre’s oeuvre.
The liner in the 1931 design is viewed from an angle. Its looming hull and superstructure are reduced to the clean lines of a perfect rectangle. The 1935 design, on the other hand, is based on a frontal view. The composition’s lofty symmetry and steep upward angle emphasize the ship’s gigantic scale. In both posters the viewer’s eye-like the smoke pouring from the liners’ funnels-is drawn irresistibly upward. In the earlier work the sea is evoked by the shadow extending the hull and emphasizing the rectangular character of the composition, but in the later poster, it is expressed by a gradually darkening plane which contrasts sharply with the luminous sky at the horizon. The sky’s luminousness is further emphasized by the dramatic shift to Prussian blue at the top of the poster. The scale is conveyed, in the first case, by the miniature size of the tug-boat and, in the second case, by the flight of tiny gulls and the foamy moustache outlined against the vermilion floating-line. But these are really minor differences compared to the emotional unity of these two works.