43rd Annual Meeting – Book and Paper Group Session, May 16, 2015. “Affichomanie: Retracing the History and Practice of Lining Belle Epoque Posters with Fabric” by Tessa Thomas

Seeing a nice grouping by the BPG program organizers of talks about big paper, I settled in to be enchanted by more pretty pictures in the second talk of the day. The work originates in the gift to Art Gallery of Ontario of well-known and more obscure works (ephemera, Christmas cards, postcard doodles, & sketches, & theater programs) from the golden age of chromolithograph poster art – some of which drew myself and others to the practice of art entirely. Thomas was a recipient of a Kress fellowship to undertake a study of the collection and has written for the museum’s blog on some of her findings.
Thomas gave a brief but thorough background on the art and cultural historical context of the rise of the poster as art, starting with the law of 1881 which allowed for the liberal posting of posters (except where noted by stenciled announcement) in contrast to when prior authorization was always required by the government. This was not exclusive to advertising posters, but an act for freedom of the press and public commentary, from which artists and culture benefitted equally. This created a mass media culture, where the newest poster was eagerly awaited by a public hungry for visual beauty and information in an otherwise grey city, giving rise to competing trends and spurring innovation in graphic communication. These were also the new publicity machine for the theatres, and advertising the artists – performing and visual. Thomas illustrated this with beautiful vintage contemporary photographs and illustrations highlighting the streets and walls of Paris – showing posters in the environment, giving “color and energy to the dim hustle of Paris”. Details in these images speak to features found on posters that were mounted, such as tax stamps, original folds, as opposed to ones printed and unused, or saved for later use or resale.

A poster, Palais de Glace, Champs Elysees, by Jules Cheret, is seen posted the streets of Paris in 1894
Palais de Glace, Champs Elysees, by Jules Cheret, as seen posted the streets of Paris, 1894. Photomontage courtesy of Tessa Thomas.

It is an oft repeated tale that at the peak of “poster mania”, fans would steal the freshly pasted posters. Did an 1893 article published by Felix Phénéon, art critic and anarchist,incite, or describe current goings-on, suggesting that fans of the poster steal them fresh off the walls. Singling out Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s, “these posters are really fine, …steal them, wash them, hang them in yr apartment … where of course your landlord lets the wallpaper hang in ribbons.” Thomas was curious to find evidence in the AGO collection that might support this possibly apocryphal legend. She considers it more likely the affichiomanistes rather paid off the poster pasters, and this story was a red herring to throw off the sponsor of the posters as to why so many went missing! Popularity indeed created the poster art gallery system, and Thomas sought out the archives of Sagot et Cie, one of the oldest extant galleries to inform her study. Her research there and the Designmuseum Danmark into the economics and practices of sales and after-market mountings for transport and display, when published, will help many a conservator consider the origin and value of an extant lining.
Thomas further theorizes that the practice of entoilage– lining – allowed many posters, otherwise on unstable paper and with history of environmental exposure, to survive. The survey of the AGO collection reveals a diversity of lining materials (original and restorations), adhesives and histories of exposure. Entoilage is continued today by conservators; current practice may include a preliminary lining of paper or paper-lined textile, and pasting the conserved paper object to it. When considering treatment, risk to benefit must be calculated, pending the inherent vices present and media sensitivity. For those sensitive to aqueous methods, mechanical removal of a failing lining may be preferred. Here Thomas showed treatment slides, to demonstrating use of the Peachey Carbon Lifter for slipping through brittle adhesive, and with made great use of video to show a painstaking thread by thread removal of lining material.
Discussing replacement linings, Thomas previewed her mockup trials for different scenarios. Certainly, she says, each situation is unique and should be an individual, not mass, decision. In closing, she made a parallel to “collectable” street art today, which again is transitioning from its “low” roots in graffiti, to high art, what with the occasional pasteup, “wheat pasting” or sniping by street teams or individual artists such as Banksy, and lesser known artists. Who is collecting their work, and what will it look like into the future? These and other thoughts challenged the audience, which prompted a lively Q and A.

  • Should conservators advise or be party to “saving” or willful removal of modern public art?
  • Can it be observed easily if a lining is original?
  • Is retaining an original lining is preferable to piecing together quality materials that may not meet same visual characteristics?
  • We look forward to considering these questions critically ourselves in future treatment, and to Thomas’ final paper in which she may address these more philosophical issues.