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English 19th-20th century posters at the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts
Text Alevtina Kalinina

The more you see, the more you know’ – this saying by Aldous Huxley best describes visual art as a means of communicating information. Visual communication gradually evolved as humans grasped at new meanings, from illustrations like early rock engravings to letters, then letters plus illustrations, seemingly culminating in a return to the illustrations without letters. This is particularly true of the print advertising that emerged in Great Britain and France in the second half of the 19th century.

Text posters in the form of placards had been used in Europe since teh earliest times. Shakespeare’s plays, for example, were often advertised with posters in the streets near the Globe theatre. However, the great revolution happened in the second half of the 19th century when the technique of lithography and later chromolithography came into its own.

It is worth remarking how different the approaches in France and Great Britain (the two major players in this field) of print advertising were at that time. Whereas in England, advertisers remained faithful to the two existing paper formats – Double Royal and Double Crown, in France Jules Chéret (the ‘father’ of advertisement placards) used to horrify his printers with 6x3 metre works which they somehow had to print.

The problem was not only in formats. The social attitude towards painters who undertook advertising commissions was dramatically opposite in the two countries. Would Mucha or Toulouse-Lautrec have been what they were in England? In England at the same period painters scoffed at advertising. Advertising was seen (and still is, some would say), as showingoff, selling yourself, not deserving of a gentleman’s time. On the other hand it is in England that the French ‘comme il faut’ advertisement for ladies and gentlemen worked best.

So, despite all this confrontation with society, new trends in arts such as Art Nouveau, Fauvism, Cubism were successfully tested in posters and eventually made their authors famous.

Another difference lay in the roots of print advertisement in these two countries. Whereas French placards originated in painting, English poster illustrators relied on book illustrations. That is the principal factor why large-scale fonts for posters appeared in England first. In France, the norm was to paint letters – quite a dilettantism from the point of view of the Englishmen. Be this as it may, it was English illustrators who reached such a level of recognizable images that made texts and all the earlier vignettes almost irrelevant, thus making the visual communication in advertising almost wordless.

After a successful exhibition of Mucha posters exhibition a couple of years ago, the Pushkin Fine Arts Museum is now presenting an impressive collection of English posters. This museum actually possesses one of the largest collections of applied graphics in Russia, having inherited it from the Soviet State Museum of Modern Western Art and a private collector Paul Ettinger, who collected more than 60,000 items from business cards to posters.

Out of these graphics riches, the curators of this exhibition have put together about one hundred works that perfectly illustrate London’s transport, political propaganda, a special series for Shell and British Petroleum, magazine and theatre posters by the acclaimed designers: Fred Walker, Aubrey Beardsley, William Nicholson and James Pryde (the latter two collaborating under the name ‘the Beggarstaff Brothers’), Will Owen and Dudley Hardy.

These authors created new pictures in their own styles, unifying scarce typography with eye-catching images. The London Underground serves as the visiting card for English posters. ‘London Humour’ is a series of lithographs by Anthony Frederick Sardge who was commissioned by Frank Pick (Managing Director of the Underground Group from 1928 and Chief Executive of the London Passenger Transport Board). The passengers liked the humorous adventures so much that they even missed their trains when they spent too much time looking at the posters at stations.

English artists working on print advertising eventually received recognition, despite a prevailing snobbish attitude towards design. The rank of ‘royal designer’ appeared in the 1910s. Tom Purvis, whose works are also on display at this exhibition, was the first to receive this title. The abyss between exclusion and acclaim, was as narrow in England between advertising and art.

Proof of this to that is on display at Pushkin Fine Arts Museum, until the 28th of February.

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