"Promoting the Good Life" at the Wolfsonian Explores 20th-Century Advertising

AMC's Mad Men drew to a close this year, putting an end to the 1960s-themed nostalgia-induced advertising craze. Set during Madison Avenue's reputed heyday, the show captured a particularly American moment when mass advertising was new and its landscape was untamed. Americans bought what Madison Avenue sold without questioning the motives and subtle interplays between art and commerce. Yet despite our Mad Men mania, a new exhibition at the Wolfsonian-FIU reminds attendees that the Don Drapers of the world weren't a midcentury innovation — they got their start nearly a generation before the swinging '60s.

"Promoting the Good Life" features posters, flyers, and other forms of print ads made post-World War I. Drawn from recent acquisitions donated by Avram and Jill Glazer, who are Palm Beach locals with an extensive collection of art deco posters, the array of mass-produced objects is a fascinating look into the modern idea that leisure could be bought and sold. That very idea — that the "good life" itself was a market commodity — dates to the 20th Century.

"They were all interested in showing you how to have fun."

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In the early part of the 1900s, corporations were in big trouble. Under attack from an onslaught of anti-big-business sentiment — levied by union leaders and muckraking journalists — corporate leaders decided to fight back. Inspired by the work of Edward Bernays, the intellectual grandfather of public relations, they surmised that populations had gained too much freedom over the course of human history, making it impossible to control them by force.

Wielding these ideas with a commercial cudgel, corporate America determined that popular consent had to be incurred through manufacturing thought. "Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government, which is the true ruling power of our country," Bernays wrote in his 1928 book, Propaganda.

Practically overnight, a new industry was born. A whole generation of creative talent, including writers, artist, and illustrators, was plucked from universities and art schools, mostly in Europe, to create some of the most compelling posters, advertisements, and logos. Their work, largely centered on revamping the public persona of big business, was so successful that similar techniques were adapted by entrepreneurs across the world.

"This was all inevitable," says Whitney Richardson, curator of the exhibition. "What's interesting is how these artists incorporated ideas that were developing in modernism into their work."

Now the line between commercialism and art is so blurry that it's nearly impossible to make out, yet in the mid-20th Century, that division was much more rigid; Andy Warhol had not yet elevated the soup can to an iconic art form.

Still, several pieces in "Promoting the Good Life" highlight significant influences from the enterprising work of the avant-garde. In fact, many of the early graphic designers and illustrators were trained as formal artists before turning to commercial work.

A.M. Cassandre's catalog-cover lithograph Exposition Générale: J'achète Tout aux Galeries Lafayette (1928) was made to promote a department store in Paris with a distinctly modernist style. "He's trying to strip away the typographical elements in the fonts to the simplest form possible," Richardson explains.

The Ukrainian-born Cassandre is also known as one of the fathers of graphic design. His clean and direct style sets a stark contrast to the ads found in turn-of-the century issues of Vogue, with art nouveau floral decor and the like. His predilection for minimalism has carried through the advertising world to the present. Though it dwarfs the field in which Cassandre worked, the same sense of direct messaging and impactful imagery is seen in ads today.

Apart from the typographical elements, Cassandre was revolutionary in his approach to photomontage, a medium that combines elements of photography, collage, and painting to construct something entirely new. His work constitutes some of the earliest known uses of the technique. It's one of the many examples of a visual style once shunned by the traditional art establishment as kitschy commercialism but later raised to the bastions of high art.

One of the few American pieces in the exhibit, Otis Shepard's Different! Delicious! For a Change in Taste — Enjoy the Fascinating Flavor of Juicy Fruit Chewing Gum (1945), is also the show's most recent work. Though a stylistic departure from the rest of the pieces on display, Shepard's work has the same motivational aim.

"They were all interested in showing you how to have fun," Richardson says. "It was about shopping, entertainment, and extracurricular things."

"Promoting the Good Life" is in many respects a typical Wolfsonian exhibition. The eponymous museum was meant as a home for Mitchell Wolfson's extensive miscellany of modern decorative crafts, paintings, books, prints, and general ephemera. An entrepreneur, Wolfson traveled across America collecting various pieces that appealed to his sensibility.

"He was interested in the everyday objects that speak volumes about what life was like back then," says Meg Floryan, the museum's communications manager.

The items were stored in a 1927 Mediterranean-revival building, which was renovated and expanded into the current structure located on Washington Avenue at Tenth Street in Miami Beach. In 1997, Wolfson donated his collection to Florida International University, bonding the two institutions.

Recently, the museum announced it was under new leadership. Timothy Rodgers was brought in from the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art to manage curatorial efforts as of July 1.

"I want to ensure that more people recognize the fact that the Wolfsonian-FIU is a world-class museum," Rodgers said about his recent appointment, "one that intelligently and creatively engages with a vast array of cultural artifacts to help us understand our history, our present, and our future."

His efforts will take shape this fall, as locals prepare for the bustle surrounding Art Basel, with two exhibits. "Philodendron: From Pan-Latin Exotic to American Modern" will explore the overlooked cultural exchange between North American and Latin American gardens. "Margin of Error," on the other hand, will be a dark look at cultural responses to mechanical catastrophes.

"The exhibition is a reminder of how every step forward brings us that much closer to the edge of some cliff," said "Margin of Error" curator Matthew Abess.

The museum continues to highlight objects and ideas from modernity, elucidating their present-day significance. Advertisements have flooded our everyday, breaking traditional barriers about what constitutes art versus crass commercialism — art into life, life into art. Indeed, the ubiquity of advertising makes some of the work in "Promoting the Good Life" seem almost quaint. Even the sleek ads conjured by Mad Men genius Don Draper look like child's play compared with the monolithic brands that are now plastered all over our streets and social media feeds.

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Neil Vazquez is an arts and entertainment writer who works at the intersection of highbrow and lowbrow A Miami native and Northwestern University graduate, he usually can be found sipping overpriced coffee, walking his golden retriever, or doing yoga.
Contact: Neil Vazquez