Birenbaum: The Joy of Middle European Posters
Recently I was excited by a discovery in a periodical that I read regularly and to which I have been subscribing since the New York City newspaper strike of 1964. Yes, you guessed it: I was reading The New York Review of Books when I came across the museum and gallery listings that alert readers to upcoming exhibits and sales.
There it was, a small notice for an upcoming poster auction and a very small picture of a poster that was more than 100 years old and was estimated to sell for between $250,000 and $300,000. Although it was a great poster, in the style known as the Vienna Secession, I knew that there must be many more early Twentieth Century European posters around. Why was this piece expected to fetch such a high price? Astoundingly, I learned it was one-of-a-kind, a stencil-derived work that was never meant to be posted outdoors to reach passersby in European cities and towns; rather, it was hung indoors at the entrance to a Secessionist exhibition.
The illustration of this work by Josef Hoffmann, a founder of the Vienna Secession, was now calling attention to a masterly collection of posters that were soon to be exhibited and sold at Swann Auction Galleries in NYC. This large collection embodied a miniature social history of the vast expansion of commerce in Europe during the last thirty years of the Nineteenth and the first forty years of the Twentieth Century, along with posters that celebrated socialism in various forms or attempted to guide public behavior and morale during wartime.
I learned a great deal about the posters from the handsome, beautifully illustrated and well written catalog, which also provided a brief history of how this collection was put together and then, sadly, was divided into several parts-- an example of how Nazi Germany destroyed the culture of middle Europe.
For more than forty years, Julius Paul, a Hungarian-born Jew who resided in Vienna, collected posters. This may have been sparked by his business interests in the distribution of cigarette papers, a product widely advertised and sold in cities and towns of Europe alongside tobacco--both needed in the making of a smoke when people "rolled their own." Paul collected widely and amassed more than 6,300 posters, each carefully registered on index cards. Unlike the work by Hoffmann, most were lithographs issued in multiple copies that served as advertisements for diverse products, not just in the fiercely competitive market for smokers. He stored them with great care and they remained in mint condition.
Paul did not live to see the breakup of his collection. He died just before the Anschluss, the joining of Germany and Austria in early 1938. The poster collection passed into the hands of Paul's nephew, who fled Nazi Austria in the following year. Two notable things happened to the collection: it was reduced in size to 3,600 posters and it was sold to a Viennese bookseller at far less than its market value. V. A. Heck, the bookseller, created a catalog for the sharply reduced collection and it was ultimately sold to the world famous Albertina Museum in Vienna, along with a complete run of a highly regarded poster journal and a prized storage cabinet that had been constructed under Julius Paul's direction. For whatever reason, the museum received this collection at a cut rate price. It was well kept at the Albertina until it was restored to Paul's heirs in 2008.
Nearly four hundred of the posters were offered in a "single owner sale" at Swann Galleries on December 18, 2013. I visited the auction house on the first day of the preview exhibition and had the pleasure of seeing them all on display. The joy of the collection and the passion of the collector shone through. The colors were as bright as the day the posters were inked. Because most of them were extremely large, meant to be displayed on kiosks--street furniture that is still part of European urban life--they had been folded when stored, the resulting creases not detracting from their beauty. They were eye catching and evocative of their time. While these posters represented the marketing and advertising of a mass consumption society, I found myself responding to their non-utilitarian features. Many of them transcended their intent--sell cigarette papers, packaged smokes, clothing and home goods of various kinds.
I wondered about the people who originally saw them in passing on city streets. By acquiring these products, anyone could make an urbane impression. And at a time when revolutionary socialism was in vogue, the sophisticated artistry and exuberant display might let the viewer, though perhaps an enemy of capitalism, feel capable of enjoying a light moment in the struggle to be somebody. Such contradictions continue to this day, making me ponder how we can be moved by beautiful but obvious efforts encouraging us to consume and keep the capitalist world alive.
In case you were wondering about the outcome of the sale, according to preliminary results issued by the auction house, 218 posters sold. The Hoffmann was not among them. Nine of the top twenty lots were acquired by collectors, five by institutions (i.e. museums, libraries), and six by dealers.