Disposable Art for the Ages

Until an effective time machine is invented, posters (plus a touch of imagination) might be the best medium through which to visit bygone eras. Unlike fine art, posters tend to be populist rather than elitist.

The International Vintage Poster Fair, an exhibition arriving in Miami Beach this weekend, will fill the poster-scoping bill, allowing browsers to step into pre-Castro Cuba (when the island was decadently fun), to ogle the lovely lasses graphically popular during France's early twentieth-century belle epoque, or to catch a glimpse of how Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec or Norman Rockwell went about the printed sell.

"The main attraction for me, and many others, is the capturing of a single moment of popular culture," producer Louis Bixenman says from Santa Monica, where the fair kicked off its 1999 tour last week. A Manhattan poster-gallery owner, Bixenman has presented the touring exhibition for the past ten years. "Posters are amber, with a moment in time just held there. In your mind you can re-create the flapper age, or what it was like to be on the luxury Atlantic ocean liners, the horrors of the first World War, the gaiety of Paris at the turn of the century," he explains.

About 10,000 posters from the 1890s to the 1980s will be displayed by twenty dealers during the exhibition's first visit to Miami Beach. And though the placards' time-travel appeal is obvious, Bixenman says the handbill trade is also big business. "The exhibitors keep coming back because they sell posters," he notes.

That's not to say they're giving away these broadsheets, which, especially pre-electronic media, were among the most effective advertising tools. They range in price from $50 to a couple of hundred thousand dollars. One Toulouse-Lautrec poster owned by a Palm Beach exhibitor (who plans to show it in Miami Beach) is valued at $275,000. "Then again," Bixenman says, "that's a mere bag of shells compared to one of his paintings."

Plenty of other now well-known artists paid the rent via the graphic arts. Some of the posters expected to be displayed were crafted by Mucha, Cheret, Warhol, Villemot, Steinlen, and the aforementioned Rockwell and Toulouse-Lautrec. While some of these considered signage a side job, a French Art Deco artist who used the name Cassandre took a different tact. Aspiring to art-world superstardom, he initially created handbills just to make ends meet. But he discovered that graphic arts were his true love and remained faithful to the medium throughout his life. His creations are considered treasures by today's collectors; Bixenman calls them "extraordinary."

Although the fair's offerings all predate 1990 (hence the "vintage"), Bixenman says modern bills measure up. "Today's are very similar in a lot of ways to the posters of 100 years ago," he explains. "Most are unremarkable and next year you won't remember them, same as a hundred years ago. Some of the French posters from the turn of the century are so terrible you can't give them away. And some contemporary Swiss posters [already] sell for up to a thousand dollars. I think poster collectors should include contemporary works. It's about the quality of the design."

Posters are replicated many times over (even some early twentieth-century placards had press runs of two million), but because of their inherent fragility and disposability, older ones are hard to come by now. "There's been a miniexplosion of interest," Bixenman says, "for two reasons: more exposure in pop culture with TV and films using original posters on their sets, and people becoming more aware of how affordable they are versus other forms of art."

-- Greg Baker

The International Vintage Poster Fair runs from noon to 8:00 p.m. Friday, 10:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. Saturday, and 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Sunday at the Oceanfront Auditorium, 1001 Ocean Dr, Miami Beach. Admission is $20 for a three-day pass, $15 for two days, or $10 per day. Call 561-997-0084.