By: Jenna Curry
Toward the end of the 1920s real estate entrepreneur Carl Fisher attempted to repeat the huge success of his Miami Beach residential development, promoting what he called the “Miami Beach of the North” on New York’s Long Island. To promote the 10,000-acre luxury resort, Fisher commissioned a poster that featured star athletes of the time posing in the foreground of his grandiose 200-room Montauk Manor. Unfortunately, the poster was probably never put into circulation; it was designed in 1929, and the Great Depression put the planned development into bankruptcy by 1932.
“The number one question people always ask is how many posters were printed, and the answer is, nobody knows,” says Nicholas Lowry, president of Swann Auction Galleries in New York. “That’s because this was not art; this was advertising.” Generally speaking, each campaign could have produced thousands of each poster design, which were then placed in stations and kiosks everywhere the transportation company traveled. The Montauk Beach poster, which New York posters and prints dealer Mark Weinbaum acquired this past summer, is rare because it probably was only displayed for a short time and was never printed in large numbers.
Whether they beckon to real or notional destinations, vintage travel posters retain their power to catch the eye and stimulate the imagination. For today’s collector nostalgia for the graciousness and luxury of the golden age of travel is an added attraction. The first travel posters were created in late 19th-century France, as advertisements to promote the railroads, and were often hung in train stations. “Posters served the dual purpose of attracting someone to a certain place and then selling them a ticket to get there,” says Lowry. According to Jim Lapides, owner of the International Poster Gallery in Boston, most of the early travel posters were designed in the “information style”—loaded with text and detailed train schedule information, with little use of images. In the 1920s, with mass tourism on the rise, posters acquired bolder texts and brighter, graphically stronger images of specific locales or means of conveyance such as trains, planes and ships—sometimes a combination of both. They needed to make an impression quickly, as viewers would often have just seconds to take them in. Lapides points out that transportation companies were making handsome profits from this “newfound freedom to explore the world,” which “sparked a golden age of travel for pleasure that lasted, despite World War I and the Depression, until the outbreak of World War II.”
After the war, the importance of travel posters began to decline, as radio, newspaper and magazine advertising assumed a larger role. The method of printing posters also changed, with a shift away from lithography toward silkscreen or photo offset (a mass production technique based on the halftone dot patterns of printing found in newspaper and magazines). Lithographic posters “had a richness of color,” says Weinbaum. “The posters of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, where things became more photographic or text-oriented, might have had more interesting designs, but they are not as appealing to collectors.”
Transportation companies—first railroads and then cruise lines and airlines—often promoted both the means of transportation and the intended destination in one poster. “There is a ton of crossover,” says David Pollack, who owns a gallery in Sherman, Conn., and is an organizer for the International Vintage Poster Fairs, held three times a year. (The Poster Fair will be in New York Oct. 16–18 and in San Francisco Oct. 23–25.) Before aviation, explains Pollack, a trip from Paris to London would take a day and a trip from San Francisco to Hawaii would require five. But that all changed when travel by plane became more affordable. He points to a Pan American poster that used the slogan “San Francisco to Hawaii Overnight!” and one from Air France that promoted a 50-minute flight from Paris to London. “What used to be a day’s or week’s travel could now be an affordable, manageable trip, and it was brought to the common man,” Pollack says. Airlines started promoting their new and improved mode of transportation through travel posters, which were often found in travel agencies.
Only a few poster designers signed their names to their work. One of the great travel poster designers of the 20th century was Adolphe Mouron Cassandre, who incorporated Art Deco influences into his lavish compositions, abstract geometric shapes and new typographic styles. Cassandre worked for a Parisian printing house but founded his own advertising agency, Alliance Graphique, in the 1930s. According to Lapides, Cassandre’s versatile style was difficult to imitate, but its worldwide influence was enormous. His famous Normandie poster (1935), which depicts the massive ship from a frontal viewpoint, captures his Surrealist approach: “Everything from the flock of tiny birds to the upward sweeping vantage point is designed to accentuate the ocean liner’s scale and stately character,” Lapides explains. Another important poster designer was Roger Broders. “His work was extremely colorful and balanced in terms of visual impact,” says Weinbaum, who is offering Broders’ Winter Sports in the French Alps poster for $15,000. Broders uses simple lines to display the French Alps in the background and bold colors to make the skiers the main focus.
There has been much discussion within the art establishment as to whether posters should be considered fine art—the main argument against being that posters were mass-produced advertising material—but dealers are seeing a change. San Francisco-based Sarah Stocking says, “Posters are just being accepted into the industry. When you look at a poster that is really well done, there’s a creative genius about communicating a message in a moment.”
There are a number of noncommercial artists, such as Picasso, Chagall and Warhol, who also worked on advertising posters. “The poster designer’s job is to serve a client’s needs,” says Pollack, “but that doesn’t mean they can’t do it with great artistic ability. So my point is, just because Cassandre was a graphic designer serving his client’s needs doesn’t mean he isn’t an artist.” Auction houses such as Swann and Bloomsbury Auctions in New York hold multiple sales each year devoted solely to vintage posters. Bloomsbury’s Oct. 21 auction in New York will feature a set of eight rare Bermuda travel posters. One, by designer Bern Hill, Furness Bermuda Liv-Abroad Cruises (circa 1960), depicts a man and woman bicycling along a Bermuda waterfront, with a cruise ship believed to be the Queen of Bermudadocked behind them. The lithograph is expected to sell for $1,000–1,500, with the set of Bermuda posters’ low estimates ranging from $500–4,000.
A poster, says Weinbaum, “either made an impression or it didn’t. Its purpose was to reinforce the name or product of what was being advertised or to inform you of something you didn’t know.” For example, he points to a New Haven Railroad poster, made in 1934, which promoted a solar eclipse visible in the Northeast corridor of the U.S. “You could travel by train and see this,” he says.
Collectors can generally purchase travel posters at prices between $500 and $20,000, according to Weinbaum, who says the high-end posters tend to be by well-known artists such as Cassandre and Broders. Some have sold in the six-figure range at auction. For instance, in 2007 at Christie’s London, Man Ray’s Keeps London Going (1938) sold for £50,400 (about $100,900). Set against a black background, the London Underground symbol is rendered as a planet in space, with Saturn floating nearby.
Travel posters tend to be collected by genre. Some people love vintage ski or Pan American airlines or Italian tourism posters. For new and established poster collectors alike, Lowry suggests going with your immediate impression, which is just what the poster designers would have wanted. “The reaction is immediate,” he says. “People should trust their reactions because the great poster makers made posters to catch your attention and make you smile.”
Bloomsbury Auctions, New York
David Pollack Vintage Posters, Sherman, Conn.
International Poster Gallery, Boston
International Vintage Poster Dealers Association, New York
Mark J. Weinbaum Fine Posters and Prints, New York
Sarah Stocking Antique Posters, San Francisco
Swann Auction Galleries, New York