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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.

Arnold Birenbaum 

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Issue No. 77
December 22, 2013

"The Moonstone" as an Aesopian Novel- Part I
"The Moonstone" as an Aesopian Novel-Part II
Earlier Issues

List Articles by Topic

The Political Ticker
The Hillary Coalition
  - November 19, 2014
Obama's Win in the Ukraine
  - April 5, 2014
"House of Cards" Politics
  - February 14, 2014
Birenbaum: The Day the President Struck Out
  - January 29, 2014
The Debate Over Inequality
  - January 27, 2014
Temporary Issues: "Stop and Frisk", Climate Change, Inequality
  - January 21, 2014

Previous Political Tickers

The Administrative President
  -January 12, 2014
Three Chronic Problems
  -December 19, 2013
Obama the Transformational President
  -December 13, 2013
"Homeland", "Alpha House" and the Tea Party
  -November 27, 2013
Off Year Election Post-mortem
  -November 7, 2013
Kathleen Sibelius and the Iliad
  -October 31, 2013
Political Impasses: 2013 and 1936
  -October 7, 2013
Birenbaum on The Tea Party
  -October 6, 2013
Fifty Years Later: The Anniversary of the March on Washington
  -September 18, 2013
The Principled Obama
  -September 10, 2013
Obama Thinks About Syria Freshly
  -September 5, 2013
Syria and the Falklands
  -August 30, 2013
Public Opinion on Syria
  -August 24, 2013
Upward Mobility Through Educational Innovation
  -August 12, 2013
The Anthony Wiener Bubble
  -July 30, 2013
Racial Issues in 2013
  -June 29, 2013
The David Brinkley Era of Journalism
  -June 5, 2013
Republican Scandal Mongering
  -May 23, 2013
Benghazi and Two Other "Scandals"
  -May 14, 2013
Lackluster Politics
  -May 7, 2013

The Cultural Ticker
A Dour Cultural Week
  - February 4, 2014
Colonial Virginia
  - January 15, 2014
Birenbaum: The Joy of Middle European Posters
  - January 6, 2014
A Jewish Nipple
  - November 28, 2013
Birenbaum: My Oral Comprehensive Examination and the JFK Assassination
  - November 27, 2013
"12 Years a Slave"
  - November 12, 2013

Previous Cultural Tickers

Pinter and Shakespeare
  -November 8, 2013
Birenbaum on "I Am Divine"
  -November 3, 2013
The Hearing Impaired Student
  -August 17, 2013
Ideas and People
  -August 10, 2013
The Weekly Roundup of Morning Joe and Chris Matthews
  -August 8, 2013
The Zen of Dishwashers
  -August 5, 2013
The Profundity of the Second World War
  -August 2, 2013
The Trayvon Martin Bubble
  -July 20, 2013
Eliot Spitzer
  -July 9, 2013
The Study of Everyday Life
  -July 5, 2013
The Zimmerman Trial
  -July 3, 2013
Le Carre's "A Delicate Truth"
  -July 1, 2013
Zucker: A Madeleine (A Memoir)
  -June 23, 2013
Von Trotta's "Hannah Arendt"
  -June 7, 2013
The Armchair View of War and Disability
  -May 30, 2013
Birenbaum's Summers
  -May 24, 2013
Old Neighborhoods
  -May 21, 2013
Jackie Robinson
  -May 20, 2013
Barbara Spun's Catskill Vacations
  -May 16, 2013
An Old Friend in Her Eighties
  -May 11, 2013


A new issue of “w. end ave.: an e-journal of culture and politics” is published once every three weeks or so. It is edited, owned, and where not indicated as otherwise, written by Martin Wenglinsky. The rights to all materials published here are copyright © 2008 by Martin Wenglinsky