The Museum of Fine Arts is usually thought of as staid and predictable. In fact, the MFA has been notably perverse of late. Mounting an embarrassment like the pair of Mario Testino shows is one thing. Promoting it with an ad barrage now entering its fourth month is quite another. But what's really perverse is how the small-scale marvel that is "The Postcard Age: Selections From the Leonard A. Lauder Collection" has gotten so little promotion by comparison — and, just before Christmas, the only marginally less marvelous "Art in the Street: European Posters" opened to no publicity at all. Worse, it's hanging in subprime real estate, flanking corridors off of the Fenway entrance. The show runs through July 21.
In fairness, such a high-traffic, low-status space is appropriate for these works. Posters aren't made as subjects of study. They put a premium on attractiveness and accessibility (though usually accessibility with a twist), since posters are intended to be seen on the fly — by passersby, not connoisseurs. They're images taken in almost unconsciously rather than scrutinized and pondered. So the 41 examples that make up "Art in the Street" fit right in amid all the pedestrian hubbub.
As it happens, many of these posters, which range in date from 1878 to 1941, do hold up to scrutiny, and with surpassing ease. This comes as no surprise, since among their creators are the likes of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Jacques Villon, Pierre Bonnard, Wassily Kandinsky, Egon Schiele, El Lissitzky, Kurt Schwitters, and Theo van Doesburg. Fine artists doing commercial art can produce very fine results.
Consider Bonnard's justly famous 1894 poster for the French literary magazine La Revue Blanche. Does the fin-de-siecle have a more vivid evocation? Here poster goes beyond commerce, beyond art even, to become visual madeleine. It both summons up and summarizes an age. And quite artfully, too: Notice how Bonnard uses copies of the magazine cover (just the title, really) as a design element in the background.
Adolph Jean-Marie Cassandre's 1927 railroad poster "The North Star (Etoile du Nord)" is like Bonnard's in being an epitome of an age: sleek, assertive, almost preposterously glamorous. The train is leaving the station: so all aboard for Art Deco.
Much of the fascination of posters has to do with just this ability to conjure up an age or style — like Art Deco or, as elsewhere in the exhibition, Art Nouveau and Constructivism. Sometimes an individual sensibility jumps out; El Lissitzky's "Beat the Whites With the Red Wedge" could only be an El Lissitzky (right down to that title). The paradox is that period styles are the sum of lesser artists' individual styles. Great artists open up possibilities for those artists (or for greater artists doing lesser work), who then consolidate those possibilities — and posters are all about possibility.
These works are case studies in the interplay of text, image, and color. Johan Thorn Prikker makes text the axis of his 1903 poster for a Dutch art exhibition, while Willi Baumeister's 1919 poster for "First Autumn Exhibition of New Art" goes further, being almost entirely typography. Conversely, Ludwig Hohlwein has color and image radically dominate text in his 1908 advertisement for a line of men's clothing.
A winningly delicate shade of blue is what powers the locomotive in Cassandre's "The Bluebird Pullman Train," of 1929. The bottle of apricot brandy in a 1920 Jacob Jongert poster looks like a cross between an eggplant and a volcano (think of it as moussaka with heartburn guaranteed?). It's not the strangest sight in the show. That would be the oversize staring eyeball in Franz von Stuck's "International Health Exposition, Dresden," from 1911. It calls to mind the baleful stare — or half of it, anyway — of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg, in "The Great Gatsby."
Sometimes the most striking element can be a matter of shape, as with the lithe elegance of the two women's curving figures in Carlos Schwabe's "Salon Rose + Croix," from 1893. It can be sheer dynamism. Georgii Kibardin's 1931 "Let Us Build a Fleet of Airships in Lenin's Name" better be dynamic, with a title like that. The pairing of von Stuck's 1893 poster for the Munich Secession and Kandinsky's from 1901 for an exhibition by the Phalanx art group highlights a shared use of the Greek goddess Athena seen in profile.
The posters' subjects range from glossy (cabaret performances, operettas, art exhibits) to matte (toothpaste, vacuum tubes, bicycle tires). The style, no matter how aesthetically pleasing, is always at the service of content. Posters are purposeful, after all, as painting, drawings, and prints are not. They're meant to intrigue and reassure rather than challenge and question. These works are literally selling something. The irony is that what they're selling is no longer for sale, since these events and products have ceased to exist. All right, there's one poster for Campari, so let's raise a glass to continuity. Nonetheless, we're still buying and what we're buying is the very considerable charm and beauty of these posters.
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.