Commenting on the tremendous increase in the circulation of music brought about by the microgroove record, François Michel stated in 1958: “The fact that what made this development possible was modern man’s most developed need-the need to consume-which is far more concerned with satisfying itself than with contributing to a new humanism.” These lines are underscored with an urgent emphasis in the music encyclopedia which my father bequeathed to me.
As for the following text, it was written sometime in the year 1937. the voice is, unmistakably, Cassandre’s.
“The poster Age
Born with the invention of a reproductive process-lithography-the poster as we know it today will probably have but an ephemeral existence. It will disappear with the invention of another process, another means of circulating the image. Yet though its present form is provisional, its spirit, which is an old as the street, is in no danger of dying. It even appears to be increasingly present in the manifestations of our social life, which seems to be governed essentially by exhibitionism.
Is this due to the psychosis of advertising gaining ground with each day that passes, or is it simply a consequence of tyrannical modern Law of Economy and Speed?
Whatever the case, contemporary man’s actions, while not always “billboard material”, nevertheless increasingly reflect the aesthetics and psychology of advertising. The dress worn by your wife no longer consist of colored pieces of material assembled in an artful combination which she herself has devised; it is an advertisement bearing the name of a leading couturier. The living room designed by a fashionable interior decorator is no longer a room to be lived in with enjoyment but an advertisement calculated to impress friends. The painting hanging on the wall is nothing more than a poster; it is not there for the owner’s private enjoyment, it is there to enhance his social status. The telegraphic style favored by poster artists prevails everywhere. Writing letters has been replaced by the telephone; we have slogans instead of a true discourse, swing instead of barcarolles, flicks instead of the cinema…
Modern man is always in a rush-rushing whither, one wonders? The fact remains, he’s in a hurry, he’s rushed and impatient. He hasn’t got the time to split hairs. What impresses him is the shortcut, the rapid sketch, the straight line. He prefers violence to strength, shouting to the conversation, a quick lay to love, Coca-Cola to Château-Margaux. This is why he likes posters and why advertising may perhaps be his truest expression.
The quattrocento was the painter’s century par excellence; our century is probably the sandwich man’s”.
The title of his chapter refers to the mood that cannot fail to strike the reader who compares the tone of this text to that of Cassandre’s earlier writings on the poster. The anxiety that could be sensed by reading between the lines of those texts becomes a certitude here; it is expressed in words which are at once ironic and sarcastic, and there is a perceptible overtone of bitterness. How could Cassandre possibly give himself to advertising as unconditionally as he had done in the previous decade, after reaching the conclusions we have just seen him draw? Clearly, he had now come to the realization that advertising is not only governed by the implacable laws of the marketplace but is also related to certain aspects of modern life for which he felt contempt. This being the case, how was he carry on the oeuvre he had conceived in no other terms than those of a total personal commitment?
Cassandre’s American experience was only partly a success. True enough, the covers he designed for Harper’s Bazaar appeared regularly, at the rate of one each month, and were well received. Moreover, the Container Corporation of America commissioned him to do a series of monthly advertisements in black-and-white; and the designs he produced were brilliant. But his posters did not “go over” well, and the agencies which employed him (N.W. Ayer & Son and Young Rubicam) were soon forced to conclude that the commercial results were not what they should have been an unpardonable offense, especially in America.
Yet Fortune magazine paid tribute to Cassandre in March 1937, in an issue illustrated with four posters projects on fictitious themes (never published elsewhere). The fact remained, however, that for the first time the appeal of Cassandre’s grandiose concept of the poster did not reach beyond a sophisticated elite. What had seemed so obvious in Europe in the late twenties and in the early thirties no longer held true-at least not in America. What was the reason for this? There is much food for thought in that question.
And yet there is no evidence to support the assumption that the disenchantment Cassandre was beginning to experience was a reflection of what, for the time being, was merely a relative absence of success. And there were compensations to life in New York : there was the wholehearted admiration for his work among American cognoscenti ; there was the excitement of being in the center of New York’s international colony and rubbing elbows with de Chitico, Dali, Boutet de Monvel, Herbert Bayer, Georges Lepape, Vertés, Erikson, Raymond Loewy, Jacno and a host of other European artists drawn to the East Coast by the American dream.
Cassandre’s brilliant and no doubt somewhat superficial life in New York did not hinder him, however, from continuing his reflections on art. Increasingly, his thoughts tended to focus on this track by showing him that a young artist (Balthus had not yet turned thirty) can draw from a truly authentic source of inspiration the strength needed to accomplish even a work of heroic dimensions-a work rooted, moreover, in the subsoil of private dreams, not adrift in the swirling dust of modern existence. Perhaps too Balthus’ painting taught him that, when all is said and done, there is as much justification-if not more-for heeding the metaphysical imperatives of such creation as for maintaining the intellectual position Cassandre had held for the last fifteen years, which consisted in restricting his ethical and aesthetic beliefs within certain well-defined limits and forcing himself to stick as closely as possible to the socio-economic realities of daily life. In any event, the revelation of Balthus’ work and his far from ordinary personality must have set a particularly fascinating example for Cassandre.
Indeed, during his second stay in New York, in the winter of 1937-1938, he devoted all the spare time and he had a plenty-to painting in his 59th Street hotel room. He painted figurative still lives; however, they failed to satisfy him and destroyed them, one after another. Far from discouraging him, this day-to-day struggle with painting strengthened his conviction that the moment had come for a time to design posters. The “telegraphic” aspect of his work no longer sufficed him. It was not questioned of advertising evolving in a direction he felt unable to follow; rather he was moving away from the spirit of advertising.
He left New York in February 1937. he did not feel bitter about the negative results of his American experience. Though it had failed to bring him widespread public recognition, it had been an enjoyable interlude; above all, it had given him the distance he needed to carry on his reflections on art.
On his return to France, he moved out of his Versailles home and took an apartment on the Quai Voltaire across the river from the Louvre. He worked in a studio overlooking the Luxembourg Gardens. It was there that he designed the series for the Container Corporation of America and, more significantly, the covers for Harper’s Bazaar. (He continued designing these covers up to 1940), when World War II put an end to this line of activity). He designed several posters as well, but by now easel painting was taking most of his time. A number of still lives and a large portrait of his mother were painted around this time.
More than ever before, he felt captivated by Balthus. He commissioned another painting from the artist-the landscape at Larchant-which was completed in the summer of 1939. the same year saw the beginning of Cassandre’s friendship with Lola Saalburg’s brother-in-law, René Sauvage.
The first two years of this brief but crucial period were especially difficult ones where Cassandre’s domestic affairs were concerned. In February 1939 he left his first wife, putting an end to a marital situation which had become intolerable. On the outbreak of World War II, he asked to be mobilized. He was sent to the fort of Domont as a gunner and spent several idle weeks there waiting out the “phony war”. In the winter of 1940, he was transferred to the French army’s geographic service in Paris-a post which gave him the leisure to pursue his own work. He was demobilized in September 1940 and settled on the Left Bank, first in a studio which had once been occupied by Delacroix and later in an apartment on the Rue de Bellechasse. The latter was to remain his address for close to twenty years.
His production at this time was split between two tendencies. Clearly, his vision of the poster had narrowed to two types of approach. While the ideogram remained the mode that best satisfied his requirements in the domain of the sign-as exemplified by several of his covers for Harper’s Bazaar, most of the CAA advertisements, the American poster of 1937 (Say it with Teleflower, Newspaper, With You Everywhere, Dole Gems, Watch the Fords Go By, Sensation) and the French and Italian posters of 1938, Ambre Solaire and Motta-another tendency began to make its appearance, and it led him to work along more figurative lines.
Some of his posters in this figurative vein undeniably reflect the influence of Surrealism; another exhibit a more expressionistic manner. But what is immediately clear is that these two modes tend to resemble and complement each other. Cassandre’s evolution toward a lyrical pictorial expression-his dominant preoccupation at the time-could is not more evident. So much so, in fact, that even in his poster work he now tended-for the first time to look for his inspiration beyond the limits of an assigned theme.
The Ford poster is a particularly eloquent example of this. To make its impact, it does not draw on the concept of the automobile-which is alluded to indirectly via monogram V8-but on the off-beat character of the huge eye, which is the design’s true pretext. Cassandre hoped that the eye, displayed on highway billboards, would have such an arresting effect that it would induce passing motorists to stop at the first Ford dealer they came to. Something of the same approach is to be seen in Newspaper. Cassandre again uses the device of surrounding an ideogram with a poetic atmosphere, which arguably diverts the viewer from what ought to be the poster’s main thrust. Both works are a far cry from the unobtrusive presence of the artist concealing himself behind a telegrapher who steadfastly ignores all messages of a strictly personal nature.
As for the emblematic compositions which Cassandre designed in this period, one is forced to admit that, with the exception of some of the Harper’s Bazaar cover designs, the CCA Diversification advertisement with its return (though under a different light) to the descriptive style of La Roche Vasouy and Italia, and the Dole Juice poster, they form a rather uniform series, despite their intensely graphic style.
With the declaration of World War II in 1939, when the only admissible posters were those that served the purpose of political propaganda, Cassandre’s activities as a poster artist virtually ceased. The few posters he designed after this have only very little connection with the qualities that had made him a leading poster artist in the twenties and thirties.
To take yet another liberty with chronology, it is interesting to note what Cassandre writes in a text published only in 1947, for it sheds some light on the years under discussion here :
“I do not believe in art as an absolute. The fact is one can do anything artistically.
But for the past 150 years, people have tried systematically to create art as if the existence of a theory or the mere will to create a work of art was all that was required. And yet, what counted above all in the past was proficiency, skill.
The real problem is that the painter no longer has a place in society. Henceforth, he is one of the “accursed”, one of the “zanies”. For that matter, no one has a place in society anymore. Reverdy was right when he declared, “If the great men of the Renaissance were alive today, not one of them would be a painter”.
Each period has its means of realizing itself. The eagerness with which painters today are turning toward tapestry proves that they are seriously searching for a way to justify their existence.
As for me, I once felt that advertising brimmed with life. I thought that every time I designed a poster I would be able to break into the flux of days and society. I thought I would be able to express a certain form of activity.
Unfortunately, I have gradually come to the conclusion that in fact the poster is governed exclusively by special interests and that at all moments it interferes with the question of propagating an idea. Occasionally a form that is relatively satisfactory from the aesthetic viewpoint coincides with the idea to be conveyed, but this happens rarely, and in general, advertising is dependent on too many requirements-and the painter is obliged to take them into account. Now art’s triumphs are scored against rules. Rules are therefore not the worsted constraint.
Advertising is reduced to using art the way it uses other means, for example, eroticism, etc. Art is always the dupe. I remember a display in a department store on Fifth Avenue in New-York: a complete dinner setting, with plates, linen, etc.-including reproductions of details from Cezanne’s paintings. This was simply a selling gimmick. The tastelessness of this was as complete as that of another advertisement, which was immensely successful in America. It showed a young married couple standing in front of the latest model toilet; the woman was saying: “At last we’ll be able to have the high society in”.
The reason why I have virtually abandoned advertising and now devote myself entirely to painting is that I felt nauseated by the perpetual confusion of values which is inevitable, given the present state of affairs… and so I renounce what I had believed for a time: that one can utilize the crude means of the poster to reach the viewer’s innermost fiber, that one can reach him in his sensitive and emotional existence and awaken his intellect. That was no doubt asking too much”.
Henri Mouron, AM.CASANDRE.1984
Translated by Schirmer / Mosel Production
Schirmer / Mosel Production © Mouron.Cassandre.All Rights Reserved.