Few things are more ephemeral than the picture postcard. So let’s hear it for ephemerality, since few shows this year are likely to offer more in the way of enchantment than “The Postcard Age: Selections From the Leonard A. Lauder Collection.” It runs at the Museum of Fine Arts through April 14.
Lauder is chairman emeritus of the Estée Lauder cosmetics empire (the namesake founder was his mother). The postcard has not lacked for distinguished admirers, from the poet Paul Eluard to the photographer Walker Evans. But Lauder has been acquirer as well as admirer, putting his money, and storage space, where his passion is. A demon collector, he has donated 120,000 of his acquisitions to the MFA. That figure is an estimate. With something so seemingly inconsequential as postcards, it’s hard to come by a precise count.
Note that “seemingly,” though. The 700 or so examples that are on display in “The Postcard Age” are almost without exception aesthetically pleasing, historically illuminating, or both. There are also a few books and posters. The show is smart, fun, lively, unpretentious, and wonderfully informative. Pleasure, as well as postage, is guaranteed. The MFA’s Benjamin Weiss, who curated the show with Lynda Klich, likens the selection to “a tasting menu.” So think of “The Postcard Age” as particularly delectable postal tapas.
The postcard era began in 1869, when the Austro-Hungarian Empire authorized the delivery of prepaid mail without envelopes. Thus was born the postcard. Soon enough illustrations began to appear on one side, and the postcard as we know it had arrived. Such was the postcard’s popularity that it isn’t all that much of an exaggeration to describe it as fin-de-siècle e-mail: a form of casual communication so often turned to as to be effectively indispensable. The exhibition’s website (www.mfa.org/exhibitions/postcard-age) allows users to e-mail a selection of postcards from the show.
The years between 1895 and 1915 experienced a postcard craze. In 1903, a billion postcards were sent through the German postal system. Some of the most amusing items in “The Postcard Age” are postcards not about people or places or any of the usual things we associate with postcards, but postcards about (yes) postcards. A woman can be seen in a postcard from around 1904 wearing a very fancy hat and holding up a sign that bears the words “La carte postale entrient l’amitie”: “The postcard maintains friendship.” Yes, it does.
The craze receded, as crazes do, aided in no small measure by World War I. But the popularity (and stylishness) of postcards remained strong enough that the postcard age continued for another two decades. World War II, followed by television and inexpensive travel and increasingly widespread color reproduction in print media, put an end to the age — though not, of course, to postcards.
Within these trim, unyielding rectangles, small miracles of imagination could be achieved. A commercial item, postcards were made to be sold. They did so by catching the eye and being attractive. Attractiveness can take many forms: elegance, comedy, familiarity, innovativeness, raciness (yes, there are a few examples of postcards in the ooh-la-la mode). Because of their size, postcard designs had to be clear, straightforward, and (relatively) simple. The artful use of blocks of color recurs throughout the show. Sometimes the image is a photograph, more often a lithograph. Sometimes the image is black and white, more often color (likelier to catch the eye). Often the card bears type, and the variety of fonts in “The Postcard Age” is an exhibition unto itself.
It’s in the nature of postcards that their creators are usually anonymous. This can make them all the more useful as an index of change in graphic design. Usually anonymous, but not always. The Vienna Secession, in 1898, and the Bauhaus, in 1923, promoted themselves by issuing postcards. It’s an art-historical lagniappe to see a Josef Hoffmann design featured on a postcard here, or one by Lyonel Feininger or Wassily Kandinsky.
Even the most appealing postcard can’t do much good undelivered. Virginia Durruty, the exhibition’s designer, has provided an irreproachable delivery service. Comprising so many items, the show must have been a bear to hang. But the layout is so inviting and legible as to seem inevitable. Frames contain multiple postcards, as few as two, as many as a dozen. The frames are angled out along temporary walls or on the gallery walls proper. The arrangement simultaneously accommodates such a large number of images and breaks them up into manageable groups.
To categorize postcards during this era is to categorize society, really, they offer such a window on social history. Some of the categories Klich and Weiss offer include Paris, fashion, celebrity, travel, World War I (some of the propaganda uses to which postcards were put are startling), sports, and the postcard craze. Along the way, much is to be learned. Who knew that the Michelin Man has a name (Bibendum) or that it derives from an ode by the Roman poet Horace (the name’s upshot being, “Now’s the time for a drink”).
Most of the cards are in mint condition, never having been mailed. One exception shows a photograph of a group outside of Les Halles, the Paris produce market. The sender affixed the postage in such a way that a woman seems to be holding the stamp in her hands. Makers could be no less clever. An all-access pass to the 1900 Paris Universal Exposition had a detachable portion that could be sent as a postcard. Similarly, menus on the Red Star Line of cruise ships had a detachable top half that could be mailed. Postcards produced by a Paris wallpaper company in 1925 do quadruple duty: as card, as ad, as design sample, and as attractive image in its own right.
Correction: Because of a reporting error, the name of a curator of “The Postcard Age: Selections from the Leonard A. Lauder Collection” was misspelled in an earlier version of this story. She is Lynda Klich. Also, because of incorrect information supplied to the Globe, the size of the collection was misstated. It contains 120,000 items.