Ornament and Reduction: The Contribution of Viennese Posters to the Development of Visual Mass Communication

Julius Klinger, Poster Art in Vienna, 1923

In our society it’s pretty hard to avoid advertising and promotion. They’re almost ubiquitous: Consumer culture, its mass production and the resulting need for a large volume of sales has found its equivalent  communication model in advertising. Humankind has always used the basic rhetorical structure of courting and convincing: The contest between different opinions, the attempt to convey a certain point of view to other people, all such efforts at persuasion have left innumerous documents . Thousands of years of human history provide examples, especially in politics and religion: From the building of the Pyramids to the writings of the Greek philosophers and the art of Christianity and other religions. These mementos of human culture clearly reflect attempts at persuading people. But only since the beginning of modern free market economy the motives for manipulation have become almost exclusively economic. And never before have the strategies of persuasion addressed so many people as with the expansive manufacturing processes of mass society. In his work “Masse und Macht” (“Crowds and Power”) Elias Canetti closely analyzed this mechanism which dominates our society to this day: “If there is a belief which one after the other of the vital peoples of this earth has fallen for, it is the belief in production, the modern furor of wanting evermore.

Production growth calls for more people. The more one produces the more buyers one needs. The market per se, if it were only following its own rules, would  aim to turn all people into customers. In this way, it resembles, albeit only superficially, universal religions seeking every soul. For that to work, all people would seem to have achieved a kind of ideal equality, as financially strong and willing shoppers.”[1]

Advertising, especially the poster as one of the earliest mass media forms, is – in the truest sense of the word – a clear illustration of the phenomenon described by Canetti.

A cartoon by Adolphe Willette published in France in 1899 shows a girl in rural surroundings who prays in front of a poster by Alphonse Mucha. Quite obviously she takes the advertisement to be a picture of a saint.[2] The cartoon primarily was meant as a satirical swipe at Mucha’s “Neo-Byzantinism”, but, in addition, it highlights the huge importance of visual advertising and shows how advertising ultimately can become a surrogate for religion.[3]

Since the end of the 19th century advertising has achieved an enormous dynamic. Contemporary economic advertising emotionalizes the act of buying through the creation of brands[4], the media create their own myths of modernity.[5]

The mass aspect was essential for the development of the global economic system. Over time, advertising for mass articles has itself become a mass product. There are German calculations that document how a person in 1965 was confronted by about 60 advertising messages per day, as compared to at least 2000 at the beginning of the 21st century.[6]

In the realm of the Viennese billboards, the comparative figures look like this: In 1913 Vienna had about 3000 surfaces for pasting up posters. In 2000 the most important Austrian billboard firm, „Gewista“, was offering  30.000 poster surfaces (calculated in 16/1 sheet format), 1700 advertising columns, 2800 City Lights (advertising screens lit from within, located at waiting booths of public transport) and approximately 1000 advertising surfaces on or in subway trains and streetcars.[7] Compared internationally, Vienna was and still is a „Poster City“.

However, this label mostly relates to the distribution of the medium. Per capita Vienna has the most billboards of all Europe. A total of 130.000 billboards Austria-wide means 15 posters per 1000 inhabitants, while the European average is 5 to 6 per 1000 inhabitants.[8] This shows that in Austria, this traditional form of outdoor advertising still prevails, especially in Vienna. Nevertheless, Viennese poster art is much less known internationally than that of other regions, despite the local popularity of the poster medium and indisputable innovations by Austrians in the area of Graphic Design.[9] It is true, several Austrian examples of applied graphic art are often mentioned in international publications, for instance, the posters of the Secession, especially Klimt’s announcement for the Artists Association’s first exhibition, Oskar Kokoschka’s early efforts for the art show 1908 and 1909 and the posters created by Egon Schiele.[10] That’s about it when it comes to recognition in globally oriented publications. A telling example of this neglect is the great portfolio “Ornamentale Plakatkunst. Wiener Jugendstil 1897 – 1914” (“Ornamental Poster Art. Viennese Art Nouveau 1897 – 1914”). It contains reproductions of important Austrian posters selected by the German art historian Horst Herbert Kossatz to represent the archives of the graphic collection of the Albertina.[11]

Documentations and exhibitions dealing with this subject demonstrate that interest was mostly limited – although some poster artists of Viennese descent actually achieved international recognition. But however well-known their designs, they were not associated with Austria but various other countries. For instance, Julius Klinger and Ernst Deutsch (Dryden) are repeatedly presented as pioneers of a modern German poster style[12], Victor Th. Slama is also mostly perceived as a German designer as he created advertising for the German communists, posters that have become iconic of the Weimar Republic[13]. And finally, Viennese-born Joseph Binder is generally called one of the most important representatives of the “Modern American Poster”[14].

One can conclude that Austrian graphic designers and their work belong to the “famous” Unknowns of 20th century’s visual culture. To this day, many people know their work not just from historical prints but also from contemporary advertising which continues to be inspired by these artists’ creative repertoire. But very few people could name the personalities who’ve created such widely disseminated and iconic advertisements. Who, for instance, knows that the logo of Meinl coffee, popular in Central Europe, was created by the very same Joseph Binder who gave special distinction to the visual culture of Austria and the United States.[15]

Accordingly, Vienna should be regarded as an outstanding traditional poster city, not just because of the quantity but also the quality of its advertising designs.

The billboard has a long history in Vienna: We find illustrated announcements already at the end of the 18th century, advertising various forms of entertainment, especially the popular fireworks in the Viennese Prater (fair grounds).[16]

Early examples of politically motivated announcements are documented from the beginning of the 19th century. When Napoleon’s troopes took Vienna in 1805, the new military powers started communication with the populace via wall placards.

Later, Biedermeier entertainment found a pittoresque vehicle in outdoor advertising: Big concerts, balls, exhibits of rare animals, but also the presentation of people of other ethnic backgrounds were mostly advertised by illustrated text-posters. Already in the “Vormärz” (the time from 1815 – 1848) one could find examples of economic advertising: Various shops in town promoted their goods via the new poster medium. So, in the 19th century placards began to flourish in Vienna, though initially this new way of advertising lacked the appropriate billboard structure. In 1826, Eduard Mauczka founded the “Erste Wiener Central-Plakat-Anstalt” (First Viennese Central-Poster Establishment). This innovative firm brought some order to the uncontrolled growth of outdoor advertising in the city. In 1837, another “Expeditionskanzlei” was founded to put up 150 large billboards in the inner city. Separate “k.k. privilegierte” billboards (licenced by the court) were created for the posters that advertised mainly the entertainment offerings of the time, among them concerts of Johann Strauss the Elder and Joseph Lanner.[17]

The firm cooperated with a print shop in order to be able to offer full services to its customers. As to the printing method, color lithography began to establish itself in the second half of the 19th century. Lithography had been invented 1798 by Prague-born Alois Senefelder after experiments with various printing techniques. In 1803, Senefelder came to Vienna where he founded the first lithographic print shop. Soon, also artists started to engage in the new possibilities for reproducing pictures in quantity. Senefelder who in 1806 moved to Munich later developed the possibility to create multi-color prints with an upgraded technology thereby giving another innovative push to the poster business. By 1840, chromolithographically produced prints existed in Vienna,  but only some decades later would they become important for the poster medium.

In the course of the European revolutions of 1848, there were also uprisings in Vienna. The announcements of music events like concerts and balls now were replaced by a multitude of politically motivated wall placards. These were simple text posters in letterpress printing, occasionally with small illustrations. Still today, the numerous flyers and wall placards produced back then in Vienna offer an impressive picture of the dramatic events.

The defeat of the revolution led of course to a setback for all media. It took until the 1860s for posters to be reintroduced on a larger scale. Only then was color printing first being tried out. But it took twenty years before one could talk of a boom of Austrian lithopgraphic color posters. It was started by the then most renowned Viennese artist, Hans Markart. In 1882, on the occasion of the “Erste Internationale Kunst-Ausstellung im Künstlerhause” („ First International Art-Exhibit in the Künstlerhaus“), he created a poster that displayed his typical historisizing style. The following year, Ladislaus Eugen Petrovits similarly created the poster for the  “Historische Ausstellung der Stadt Wien im neuen Rathause 1883” („Historical Exhibition of the City of Vienna in the New Townhall 1883“) also using the style of old documents. This work, while typical for its time, in no way corresponded with the design principles of modern billboard advertising. The illustrations being divided into miniatures rich in detail, with baroque lettering, were not effective when seen from far away. Instead they demanded time and effort from the audience to move in closely to study the message.

In Vienna especially, it took relatively long for posters created here to obtain a form that would purposefully communicate and reach people in a faster paced society.

Modern advertising reached Vienna quite late, especially when compared with France and England.[18] Most notably,  the Frenchman Jules Chéret, celebrated as “roi des affiches”,  had already by 1866 made his mark on the international development of this medium. In doing so he developed ground rules which, in principle, still hold today: Communicate with the addressee in mind and never forget the psychological component. This principle inevitably led to a reduction of the then still dominating abundance of colors and forms, to a conscious neglect of classical visual effects and, consequently, to a forfeit of perspective. Chéret’s designs accordingly emphasized flat surfaces and an enlargement of formats. In order to be properly remembered and therefore attain maximum promotional effect, the designer tried to integrate the text into the overall visual concept.[19]

Viennese artists offered a significant impulse to the modernization of the poster medium. In 1898, Gustav Klimt designed the announcement for the “Erste Kunstausstellung” (“First Art Show”) of the Vienna Secession. Here, he emphasized easy recognition, characteristic for “Flächenkunst” ( the art of the plane).[20] Like Klimt’s colleagues in the new-founded artists association, he was convinced that artists should also deal with seemingly unimportant facets of everyday life. For example, in the first issue of “Ver sacrum”, the group’s publication, one finds these programmatic sentences: “We make no distinction between ‘high’ and applied art, between art for the rich and art for the poor. Art belongs to everyone.”[21] Accordingly, the Secessionists regarded the poster as an important creative field. Their exhibition posters, novelties for Vienna, helped spread the modern ideas about art characteristic for the turn of the century.[22] Their typical ornamental Jugendstil was strongly influenced by the French examples of Art nouveau.

Most of all, the artistic avant-garde represented by the posters of the Secession significally advanced the further development of visual mass communication in Austria.

The foundation of the Secession allowed  “Modern Poster Art” to be put into impressive practice and its publication “Ver sacrum” provided structurally oriented theories. Both the culture journalist Gustav Gugitz[23] and art historian Franz Servaes wrote articles about artists’ lithographies. In his piece from 1898, Servaes asked: “Are our modern posters anything more than painted telegrams? In order to be visible from far away they merely consist of quasi fragments which the onlooker himself  has to put together. But that then is the artistic challenge: to choose and order the fragments in a way that they completely conquer the onlooker’s phantasy!  Phantasy must succumb to a suggestive coercion in order to be freed. In this way, posters have become the masters of the suggestive line and suggestive color.”[24]

Even though reception of international developments had taken a long time, Viennese posters really started to boom at the turn from the 19th to the 20th century. After a long period of economic crisis, 1898 saw the beginning of a new economic upswing. In relatively short time Vienna had become a city of two million people. And, despite social problems, a market for mass products had developed that needed to be advertised.[25] Toiletries like soaps and tooth creams, cigarette paper, beer, coffee as well as technical innovations like bicycles, sewing machines and typewriters were favorite objects for advertisement.

The stylistic innovations as demonstrated by the promotion of cultural events like in the posters for the exhibits of the Secession and the Hagenbund were soon copied by economic advertising. The modernity of Jugendstil was directly absorbed, becoming part of advertisement’s formal language. Arguably, no art movement has been integrated so quickly into the advertising design as Jugendstil. Later, fine arts and advertising design often went in quite different directions, though there also have been mutual advances  to this day.[26]

By the turn of the century, the posters of the Secession had developed an amazingly innovative dynamic. After the floral Art nouveau and the wavy flow of the ornamental lines exhibited by the first posters, Koloman Moser switched to a strict geometrical style with his poster for the Secession’s 13th exhibition in 1902. Later, Adolf Loos asserted that this radical change should be attributed to a misunderstood reception of his functionalist style. That’s how the “straight line” became “characteristic of the Secession”: “One sat in upholstered boxes, created silver cubes, calling them tea pots, until I was freed of this total misunderstanding of my theories by the arrival of Dagobert Peche, who then was copied.

The misunderstanding of my teachings was picked up by the Bauhaus of Weimar. Now it was called “Neue Sachlichkeit” (“New Objectivity”). Finally, this “New Objectivity” was taken over by Josef Hoffman.[27]

With his poster for the Secession’s 14th exhibition, Alfred Roller abstracted the picture of a woman to such a degree that in some ways it anticipated the digitalized image resolution of later decades. Essentially, Roller dissolved the concrete representation into lines and circles. But Loos was right in stating that even in this geometric style most designers remained ornamental, an anathema to the architect who had declared the ornament to be a crime.

As of 1902, the posters and catalogues of the Hagenbund, another progressive Viennese artists association, contributed to the dissemination of modern graphic design principles. Protagonists of the association like Joseph Urban or Heinrich Lefler also gained prominence as book illustrators. Urban later had great success as architect and stage designer in the United States.

A lasting impulse to the Austrian art scene was given by the “Kunstschau” (art show) in 1908. A temporary exhibition area built by Josef Hoffman at the Schwarzenbergplatz displayed art objects from all walks of life – from gardening to applied graphic art. There was even a special hall devoted to posters. The curator of this exhibition was Bertold Löffler who presented ground-breaking works of teachers and students of the School of Applied Arts. Löffler himself had created one of the posters for the exhibition, the two others coming from Rudolf Kalvach and the only 23 years old Oskar Kokoschka. It was Kokoschka who in his early posters introduced a further stylistic innovation demonstrating clearly how the decorative Art nouveau of the late 19th century was radically replaced by the fractures of the 20th century. Artists like Kokoschka seemed to have a presentiment of the horror and destruction of the World War I. With the war’s outbreak in 1914, posters gained a new actuality. But rather than adopting Expressionism, older design elements were used.[28] Only the political advertising of the 1920s employed expressionist forms and thereby reconnected with a pre-war trend.

The artistic avant-garde and an economic upswing boosted advertising in Vienna at the beginning of the 20th century.  Scores of printers offered an outstanding  range of articles. Most notably, the self-proclaimed “greatest poster printing shop of the world” J. Weiner that also had branches in London and Paris, and the firm A. Berger which specialized in artistic lithographies, producing all early posters of the Secession. Then, of course, there was the printing press Christoph Reisser which provided technical support to the competing Hagenbund, along with the printing firms  “Graphische Kunstanstalt Brüder Rosenbaum”, Friedrich Sperl and the “Gesellschaft für graphische Industrie” (Society for Graphic Industry) which all competently executed the poster designers’ ideas.[29]

By the first decade of the 20th century, billboard advertising had almost caught up with the great metropolises of Western Europe. The rising influence of advertising in public life went hand in hand with the attention the media focused on it. For instance, the Austrian author and cultural critic Karl Kraus repeatedly wrote about the new mass phenomenon of advertising. In an article of his journal “Die Fackel” (The Torch) from 1909 he went as far as stating that one had banned the “intellectual life into the world of posters” and, what’s more, that this advertising medium “offered at least an extract of life’s horrific aspect”. Kraus continues: „One day, humankind was submerged by the biblical deluge of mercantilism.“[30]

One year after publication of this critical conclusion, the Viennese economist Victor Matejka published one of the first scientific studies of this field: „Die Reklame. Eine Untersuchung über Ankündigungswesen und Werbetätigkeit im Geschäftsleben (Advertising. A Study of Advertisements and Sales Promotion in Business Life)”.[31] The response to his piece was enormous, as evidenced by its print run and overall international reception.[32]  Matejka argued against romantic social notions, as also expressed by the members of the Secession, regarding advertising as an aesthetic offer to the masses: “The merchant wants to attract the audience with his advertisements, not educate it, he wants to advertise his wares, not new styles.”[33]

Soon afterwards Julius Klinger, speaking for the creative community, confirmed the opinion of the economist. In an article published in 1913 he wrote: “When, twenty years ago, advertising started becoming big in Germany everyone involved was of the opinion that advertising was linked to art. Obviously, that was an erroneous belief. Advertising was and is by its very nature a purely economic matter.“[34]

World War I brought enormous upheavals also on the social, cultural and economic fronts. The media, including billboard advertising, reflected this. In the war economy advertising for consumer articles didn’t make sense. Instead, official proclamations, appeals for collections and, especially, the promotion of war bonds were dominating the billboards. Most of these posters exhibited a style of  a somewhat “moderate modernity”. Though already adhering to the functionality of an up to date style of planes, the more conservative realistic drawing was still dominating. Especially old-fashioned were the motifs used in the illustrations. Antique heroes, medieval knights or the allegoric figure of Austria dominated. Designers in this vein included Adolf Karpellus, Maximilian Lenz, Heinrich Lefler, Fritz Gareis, Alfred Ofner oder Theodor Zasche.

Only a few graphic artists like Franz Griessler and Julius Klinger introduced a new, reduced style to the Austrian propaganda of World War I. Julius Klinger’s advertisement for the 8th war bond in 1918 became an icon for new design. The Viennese artist had been very successful as “advertisement designer” in Berlin and thereby helped develop a modern, functional style of advertising design.[35] The war bond poster shows a large number 8 and a dragon that winds itself through that number. The mythical creature has been wounded by eight arrows, each of which symbolizes an earlier war bond, therefore carrying a number. The eighth arrow was to kill the monster for good as it had come to represent all enemies of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. In the last year of the war, this poster was used to mobilize one last time all the power of the public. Because of its avant-garde design the poster attracted great attention despite the iconography being inspired by the world of old legends, despite its medieval iconography. The use of only two colors besides the black of the lettering – red for the numbers and the blood and green for the dragon on the white paper surface – was an unusual stylistic reduction for those times. Julius Klinger was a fan of the architectonic functionalism of Adolf Loos and thereby a pathfinder of a purely functional graphic design.

But right after World War I the coolly controlled design ideas of Julius Klinger were no longer effective in Vienna. Then, the public mood was anything but cool and controlled. In fact, it had turned very emotional due to major political upheavals, such as the proclamation of the republic. Thereafter, posters became an important political medium, a novelty in the country’s public communication. Although  text posters for political aims were nothing new, political discourse itself had never been visualized in this way  on the billboards of the city.

For example, after the first federal elections of Austria’s 1st republic – the “Constitutional Elections for a National Assembly” (The Elections to Constitute the National Assembly) – were called for February 16th, 1919, no less than 250 different posters were published (illustrated or with text only) despite the scarcity of paper. Newspapers like the “Interessante Blatt” commented: “Caricature for political means is not new, but has never been used in such a mass and public form. The art of the street has gained new impulses”.[36] The papers’ and journals’ archives contained  a reservoir of political caricature which now found its way on to the posters. Print media illustrators over the years had developed a certain repertoire to visualize different political stances. But never before had their work been so public throughout Vienna. On election-eve a reporter for the “Neue Freie Presse” wrote: “The illustrated election poster is the signature for this election week. The text is only an add-on to the drawing. The picture dominates, it alone wants to create the effect.”[37]

Especially influential were the war bond posters with their friend-foe-symbolism: They were likely the first in Austria to have visualized political themes.

However, due to the various influences of Austrian visual traditions, the propaganda for the republic’s first elections was still quite inhomogenous. There were the elegant sheets of George Karau, designed in the style of the Secessionists for the Social Democratic party; The Christian Socialists exhibited a caricature by Fritz Schönpflug that had been enlarged to poster size; Here the fine satirical pen of Carl Josef Pollak for a small liberal party, there the modernistic expressionist designs by  Theo Matejko and Arthur Stadler for the “Bourgeois-democratic” party.[38]

Though the economic crisis at the beginning of the early 1920s had more or less brought commercial advertising to a standstill, posters announcing cultural events flourished. An example for especially innovative advertising is the “Haus der jungen Künstlerschaft” (House of the Young Artistic Community) where, in 1919, important Austrian artists like Albert Paris Gütersloh or Carry Hauser designed the announcements.[39]

One year later, the campaigns for parliamentary elections reached a peak level of political advertising, especially because of the exemplary engagement of the Social Democrats who’d been able to get the Hungarian émigré Mihály Biró as illustrator. He was one of the internationally most acclaimed designers in this field. Already in 1915, the collector and publicist Ottokar Mascha in his standard work “Österreichische Plakatkunst” (Austrian Poster Art) had commented on the “great inventive originality” and the “meticulous execution” of Biró’s posters.[40]

Biró was one of those graphic artists worldwide who  very early on dealt with the visualization of political issues on posters. Already in Hungary at the time of the monarchy he had developed a visual vocabulary for the political propaganda of the Left. Especially noteworthy is Biró’s figure of the “red giant” which he created for a campaign poster of the Hungarian Social Democrats in 1912.[41] In doing so Biró had created a symbol for the “working masses” that was often quoted even beyond the borders of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

For the election campaign in 1920, Biró designed all six illustrated posters of the Austrian Social Democratic Party. Again he used the identification figure of the giant worker. On three posters the symbolic figure was shown in various typical situations: On one the red athlete fights for access to the parliament in Vienna, going up against archetypical figures like the capitalist, the big landowners, the catholic cleric, the imperial general and the landed gentry who try to block his entry. On the second poster the “red giant” sweeps away the” rubble of the monarchy” including the capitalist, the cleric and the military representative of the Empire. In the third picture, the proletarian is tied, gagged and flogged like Gulliver by the dwarflike representatives of the “reactionary forces”.

In another design, Biró shows a war invalid as victim of the Right, even using Jesus as a motive: On one poster, pointing to the arrogant high catholic cleric, Jesus proclaims  that he “had not intended Christianity to turn out that way”.[42]

With this election campaign series Austrian advertising contributed greatly to the international development of political propaganda.[43] The renowned German journal “Applied Graphics”  concluded in 1932 that Biró could pride himself of having designed “the most attention grabbing and strongest political posters ever made”.[44]

The other parties also utilized the impressive visual repertoire of Mihály Biró. According to ideological orientation the symbols were charged with different connotations, positively or negatively.[45] In this way, especially with the Conservatives, the red man could turn into a monster opposed to business, destroying democracy.[46]

Victor Th. Slama who eventually became one of the most important political poster designers developed his own stylistic interpretation of the figure of the red man in the election campaigns of 1923, 1927 and 1930. Slama worked mostly for the Social Democrats, though he sometimes worked for other parties, too. In the German parliamentary elections of 1928, using the pseudonym “A. Malsov”, he created no less than 18 posters for the Communist party.[47] Slama was a representative of functional modernism in European advertising graphics. Whatever the subject matter, he succeeded to combine various styles to create a characteristic visual language. His designs utilized elements from the purity of the “New Objectivity” to the elegance of Art deco as well as the dramatic aspects of Expressionism. Besides his activity for political advertising, Slama also was one of the most important creators of film posters and commercial advertising.

In the 1920s advertising for commercial products slowly gained momentum. The same holds true for the booming film industry where the growing number of movie theatres needed billboard advertising, creating a demand for film posters.[48]

This increase in demand led to the establishment of studios that specialized in applied graphics for posters, ads, stationary or company logos. By the middle of the 1920s and into the 1930s Vienna boasted an advertising scene recognized far beyond its borders. The main protagonists were Joseph Binder, Ernst Deutsch (=Dryden), Franz Griessler, Julius Klinger, Hermann Kosel, Otto Löbl, Theo Matejko, Hans Neumann, Victor Th. Slama and Wilhelm Willrab.[49]

The poster business also became more professional during those years: In September of 1921 the Vienna City Council decided to establish an advertising firm called “Gemeinde Wien – Städtisches Ankündigungsunternehmen” (Gewista). In order to offer a full service, Gewista started its own graphics studio led by Franz Griessler. Therefore, many noteworthy posters from the Twenties carry the signet  “Gewista-Griessler”.

The pattern book “Poster Art in Vienna”, published in 1923, provided important documentation for the pioneering direction of Viennese Graphic Designs.[50] Julius Klinger, who had returned from Berlin to Austria after the war, wanted international recognition for the local modern advertising scene. Aside from Klinger’s own current designs, the publication presented also creations from close colleagues such as Wilhelm Willrab or Hermann Kosel. This publication together with the undisputed high level of applied graphics of the Twenties brought the desired international recognition. Already in 1925, in his publication “Art and Publicity”[51], the renowned trade-journalist Sidney R. Jones gave ample space to the “Viennese Group”. A year later Jones published another volume about the current scene, stressing again the aesthetic quality of Viennese advertising design: “Working from a particular standpoint and in an original manner which they have made their own, several artists in middle Europe are leading poster design into new channels. Moved by the progressive spirit that is now influencing the advanced practitioners in both fine and applied art, they are investing advertising with a freshness and vigour that until quite recently was almost unknown. In this they are being encouraged and strongly supported by enterprising advertisers who have boldly attempted to bring art thoroughly into line with commerce for some years past. At the moment Vienna appears to be the centre of this march forward and a great deal of printed matter, schemed with much invention and full of value for purposes of publicity, is emanating from this city.”[52]

Special attention in this publication is focused on Joseph Binder. Having started with lithography, Binder had excellent basic schooling which he supplemented by studying under Berthold Löffler at the School of Applied Arts.[53] In 1924, he opened his own graphics studio and developed a modern poster style which went beyond Klinger’s for which he received instant international recognition. Binders most well-known creations include the symbol for Semperit, the Logo for Bensdorp chocolate and, most notably, the posters for the Meinl firm. For decades, the poster with the coffee-drinking black boy gave distinction to the corporate identity of the firm. The success of that campaign was also recognized internationally.[54] In 1933 Binder got a teaching assignment in the United States where, in 1935, he decided to remain permenantly to establish a studio for “Graphic Design” in New York. Quickly his form and color reducing style earned him great success.

During the Thirties advertising developed into a special culture of promotion, having very diversified forms. In 1927, a “Reklamewissenschaftliches Institut” (Scientific Institute for Advertising) was founded. Students of this Institute, headed by Dr. Erwin Paneth, were offered courses on topics like “Graphics and Printing Methods”, “Advertising Law”, “Style-Training for Judging Advertising Designs” or “The Psychology of Advertising”.

In 1934, the trade journal “Österreichische Reklamepraxis” (Austrian Advertising Practice) began publication.[55] Reflecting the almost “American” variety of advertising possibilities, it showed the advantages of the various propaganda techniques: newspaper ads, different kinds of poster advertising, Sandwich-men, promotional edifices, neon signs and banner advertising by plane.

The “Einmarsch” (the invasion of Austria) by German troops in1938 was accompanied by an overpowering propaganda machine which – next to the physical acts of terror – achieved a continuous and all-encompassing indoctrination of the public until the end of World War II. Whereas numerous Austrian graphic artists like Hermann Kosel[56] or Ernst Deutsch (Dryden)[57]  had fled the violent Nazi regime, others, like Julius Klinger, had been murdered in concentration camps; some, like Viktor Th. Slama, having stayed in the country had to suffer reprisals. Then there were several, Theo Matejko for example, who had arranged themselves with the regime.

The year 1945 finally brought liberation from the Fascists – bringing an overnight change in the city’s billboards. Looking at the posters preserved, one can easily reconstruct and comprehend the historic events: The end of the Nazi regime, the first regulatory measures imposed by the Red Army, the division of Vienna into four sectors administered by the USA, the USSR, Great Britain and France, the first post-war domestic political conflicts in Austria. Again, despite the scarcity of paper, the first elections of the Second Republic  on November 25th were marked by considerable poster production.[58] 273 different Viennese posters have been documented, with the Communists having the most with 107. The Austrian Social Democrats had 93 and the Christian Democrats (ÖVP) 73.[59] Stilistically speaking, there was little innovation, the poster designs in fact were quite conservative.[60] A constant of political advertising from 1945 until today, it can be said that established parties showed and show little interest in design, caring more to discover the biggest common denominator as far as popular taste is concerned. Consequently, political advertising over the years has emulated the arbitrariness of commercial advertising for cheap mass products.

Concerning post World War II economic advertising, it took some time before the first posters for products could be seen in Vienna.

In the late 1940s the billboards were not only dominated by the Austrian parties. During the Cold War also the allied military powers used them to vie for public opinion: The Americans with lavish advertising to stress their economic aid to Austria, the Soviets with rather pathetic Communist propaganda and sometimes – in their area of influence – also by banning publications they didn’t like. The French and the English tried hard to enrich the cultural life of Vienna, covering the billboards with many event announcements.

However, it should be said that the Third Reich’s massive reliance on political propaganda had made people less trustful of all kinds of advertising. There developed an intensive debate concerning the morals and aesthetics of the poster medium. This forced the Viennese graphic artists to look for new, up to date forms of expression. Conditions were all but encouraging: The most important designers who had gained international recognition between the wars had either been murdered by the Nazis, forced into exile or to give up their profession. The new generation of applied graphic artists had been educated under the Nazi regime according to the then dominant fascist aesthetics. Victor Th. Slama was one of the few renowned graphic artists from pre-war times who could build on his former success. Thanks to his initiative a poster exhibition took place in the Viennese Künstlerhaus in 1948, which aimed to reconnect the local scene to international developments. 2000 posters from 18 countries were presented. Among the Austrians representatives were: Paul Aigner, Otto Exinger, Hans Fabigan, Josef Farnik, Andreas Hemberger, Karl Köhler, the studio “Der Kreis”,  Karl Kren, Lois Pregartbauer, Victor Th. Slama, Heinrich Sußmann and Peter Tölzer.[61] In the years to come, these designers were also the most important representatives of their trade in Austria.By the end of 1948, business had started to again place orders for posters. Initially, it was mainly advertising for newspapers and magazines, followed over the years by promotions for the budding consumer goods industry. Food products, soft drinks, detergents, vinyl records, transistor radios, nylon stockings, bathing suits – all of those were advertised, documenting the colorful world of the “Wild Fifties”.

In keeping with the leftist ideology of the Thirties, the Social democratic city council  tried to promote the visual quality of billboard advertising. For example in 1951, the City’s cultural department together with the billboard firm “Gewista” organized  the first-ever Poster-judging event “Gallery of the Street”.[62] This featured graphic artists mentioned previously in connection with the poster exhibition of 1948 as well as other successful designers like Willi Bahner, Hermann Kosel, Hanns Wagula, Josef Stastny, Wilhelm Jaruska, Hans Schaumberger, Tino Erben and Alfred Proksch.

Over the years the Austrian economy had become more international in nature which resulted in advertising losing much of its regional focus. Big international agencies organized global advertising campaigns, larger teams became involved in the creation of a poster. The consumer culture in turn influenced the art world, giving rise to the Pop Art trend.

Then there was television which fundamentally changed the media landscape. With TV, the poster ceased to be the essential carrier of a campaign. Accordingly, posters now  took on a supporting, reminding function. This development led to even larger posters that were commonly dominated by photographic images.  For example, the posters of the big political parties and of business increasingly used color photography and looked rather like enlarged newspaper ads whereas the young protest movement of 1968 with their simply produced posters stayed true to the original qualities of the medium, to conciseness and clarity. As the increasingly globalized, pacifist protest culture developed its own visual language against the all-embracing influence of television, the poster again became a form for alternative expression. The Plakat (as it is called in German) underwent  a renaissance with the English term “poster” and became an important visual medium for the political and cultural anti-establishment. No longer just an outdoors medium, it now could be seen as home decoration, in shops and many counter-culture spots. A wide spectrum had developed both ideologically and stylistically. The central means of communication of earlier times had become a medium for political and artistic subversion. Posters could be produced so easily and fast. The Vienna of the1980s and 1990s had quite a number of remarkably successful posters, especially in the area of art and culture.

The “Wiener Festwochen” (Vienna Festival) got engaged in this area when, in 1985, a number of young male and female artists were invited to contribute one design each for a common mega-poster of the “Wiener Festwochen”, without reference to the work of the others. Participating in this communal work was, among others, Gerwald Rockenschaub who later created an artistic intervention in the advertisement area of the art-initiative “museum in progress”. In 1986, the “Wiener Festwochen”  invited Jenny Holzer and Keith Haring for a city project.

In the early 1990s, a discussion of references between art and advertising started to intensify also in Austria. In this environment the art initiative “museum in progress” started a series of poster interventions which soon went international. Gerwald Rockenschaub and other protagonists created strong images for art in public spaces. Rockenschaub, in 1992, explained his approach as follows: “I’m interested in working with the poster medium in an artistic way, primarily because here art no longer has to be consumed via the private market, but is available publicly. Also, the temporary character of such works relativize and negate the aura and therefore also the value of the timeless artwork.”[63]

This position certainly has a Viennese tradition, coming relatively close to the program of the Secession around 1900.

Updated Version of the article first published in 2003: Ornament und Reduktion. Wiener Plakate als Beitrag zur Entwicklung der visuellen Massenkommunikation, in: Feigl, Markus (Ed.:) Plakate aus Wien, Vienna 2003 (= Publikationen aus der Wiener Stadt- und Landesbibliothek, No. 8. Ed. by Walter Obermaier).

Translation: Jill Zobel – Konrad Zobel


[1] Canetti, Elias, Masse und Macht: Frankfurt/Main 1980, p. 523 f.; Compare: Patillo-Hess, John – Mario R. Smole (Ed.): Masse und Macht im globalen Dorf, Vienna 1999.
[2] Marx, Roger (Ed.): 250 Meisterwerke der Plakatkunst. “Les Maitres de L’Affiche”, Gütersloh 1978, SP. PL. 11.
[3] Compare among others: Horx, Matthias – Peter Wippermann: Wie Waren zu Ikonen werden, Düsseldorf 1995.
[4] Doswald, Christoph (Ed.): Happy! Das Versprechen der Werbung, Bern 2001.
[5] Cassirer, Ernst: Der Mythos als politische Waffe, in: Amerikanische Rundschau 1947/11, p.31; Barthes, Roland: Mythologies, Paris 1957; Geyer, Carl-Friedrich: Mythos. Formen, Beispiele, Deutungen, Munich 1996, p.7 f.
[6] Baginski, Rainer: Wir trinken so viel wir können, den Rest verkaufen wir. Über Werber und Werbung, Munich – Vienna 2000, p. 24 f.
[7] Gewista, [advertising folder], Vienna [2000].
[8] Strutzmann, Helmut – Ch. Kincl: Unsere Heimat ist das Plakat, heimatwerbung austria, Vienna [1995].
[9] Compare: Denscher, Bernhard: Österreichische Plakatkunst 1898 – 1938, Vienna 1992.
[10] Compare among others.: Gallo, Max: The Poster in History, New York 2002; Bargiel-Harry, Réjane – Christoph Zagrodski: Le Livre de L’Affiche, Paris 1985; Hollis, Richard: Graphic Design. A Concise History, London 1994.
[11] Kossatz, Horst Herbert: Ornamentale Plakatkunst. Wiener Jugendstil 1897-1914, with an introduction by Walter Koschatzky, Salzburg 1970.
[12] Compare: Weill, Alain: L’Affiche dans le monde, Paris 1991, p. 95 ff.
[13] Compare: Grohnert, Rene: Victor Th. Slama – Versuch einer Einordnung, in: Bernhard Denscher (Ed.): Von der Sinnlichkeit der roten Farbe. Victor Th. Slama, Vienna 1990, p. 34 – 41.
[14] Johnson, Stewart: The Modern American Poster. From the Graphic Design Collection of The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Kyoto 1983. p.9, 40f.
[15] Binder, Carla: Joseph Binder, ein Gestalter seiner Umwelt. Plakate, Werke graphischer und freier Kunst. Aufzeichnungen aus der Joseph Binder Collection, Vienna 1976.
[16] See: Barth, Gerda: Vor 1848. Anfänge, in: Denscher, Bernhard (Ed.):Tagebuch der Straße. Geschichte in Plakaten, Vienna 1981, p.12 ff.
[17] Compare the satirical magazine article on the subject, in: Neue komische Briefe des Hans Jörgels von Gumpoldskirchen, Vienna 1837, 4.vol., 1.Heft.
[18] Compare: Denscher, Bernhard: Geschichte des Plakats, in: Medienwissenschaft. Ein Handbuch zur Entwicklung der Medien und Kommunikationsformen. Ed. by Joachim-Felix Leonhard – Hans-Werner Ludwig – Dietrich Schwarze – Erich Straßner: Berlin – New York 1999, 1. Section volume, p. 1011 – 1016.
[19] More in: Thon, Christina: Zur Geschichte des französischen und belgischen Plakats, in: Das frühe Plakat in Europa und den USA. Ein Bestandskatalog. Vol. 2: Frankreich und Belgien, Berlin 1977, p. XVIII ff.; Thon, Christina: Französische Plakate des 19. Jahrhunderts in der Kunstbibliothek Berlin, Berlin, 3. Ed., 1977 (= Bilderhefte der Staatlichen Museen Preußischer Kulturbesitz – Berlin, issue 7/8), p.7 ff.; Henatsch, Martin: Die Entstehung des Plakates. Eine rezeptionsästhetische Untersuchung, Hildesheim – Zurich – New York 1994, p. 41 ff. (=Studien zur Kunstgeschichte, vol. 91).
[20] Compare also the pattern work: Die Fläche. Entwürfe für decorative Malerei, Placate, […], Vienna 1902 – 1906.
[21] Ver sacrum. Organ der Vereinigung bildender Künstler Österreichs, 1898/1, p. 1.
[22] Nebehay, Christian: Secession. Kataloge und Plakate der Wiener Secession 1898 – 1905, Vienna 1986.
[23] Gugitz, Gustav: Das Placat, in: Ver sacrum 1898/1, p. 15 ff.
[24] Servaes, Franz: Künstlerlithographien, in: Ver sacrum 1898/9, p. 3 ff.
[25] Compare in more detail: Denscher, Bernhard: Kunst & Kommerz. Zur Geschichte der Wirtschaftswerbung in Österreich, Vienna 1985.
[26] That subject area was dealt with in exemplary fashion in exhibitions in New York and Paris in the early 1990s. Compare: Varnedoe Kirk – Adam Gopnik: High & Low. Modern Art and Popular Culture, Museum of Modern Art, New York 1990 (German translation: High & Low. Moderne Kunst und Trivialkultur, Munich 1990); Art & Publicité 1890 – 1990, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris 1990. Building on that and in more detail: Grazioli, Elio: Arte e pubblicità, Milano 2001.
[27] Loos, Adolf: Adolf Loos über Josef Hoffmann, in: Das neue Frankfurt, February 1931, quoted from: Opel, Adolf (Ed.): Konfrontationen. Schriften von und über Adolf Loos, Vienna 1988, p.136.
[28] Compare: Denscher, Bernhard: Gold gab ich für Eisen. Österreichische Kriegsplakate 1914 – 1918, Vienna 1987; Jobst-Rieder, Marianne – Alfred Pfabigan – Manfred Wagner: Das letzte Vivat. Plakate und Parolen aus der Kriegssammlung der k.k. Hofbibliothek, Vienna 1995.
[29] Compare: Schweiger, Werner J.: Aufbruch und Erfüllung. Gebrauchsgraphik der Wiener Moderne 1897 – 1918, Vienna – Munich 1988, p. 125 ff.
[30] Kraus, Karl: Die Welt der Plakate, in: Die Fackel, Nr.283 – 284, 1909, p. 19 ff.
[31] Published: Leipzig 1910.
[32] Compare among others: Fullerton, Ronald A.: Viktor Mataja’s Contribution to Understanding Advertising, in: Werbeforschung & Praxis 1988/4, p.99 – 103.
[33] Mataja, Victor: Die Reklame. Eine Untersuchung über Ankündigungswesen und Werbetätigkeit im Geschäftsleben, 2nd Editon., Munich 1916, p. 54 f.
[34] Klinger, Julius: Plakate und Inserate, in: Jahrbuch des Deutschen Werkbundes, 1913, p. 110.
[35] Compare: Kühnel, Anita: Julius Klinger. Plakatkünstler und Zeichner, Berlin 1997 (=Bilderheft der Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin; 89th issue).
[36] Das interessante Blatt, 20. 2. 1919, p. 9.
[37] Neue Freie Presse, 15. 2. 1919, p. 13.
[38] Denscher, Bernhard: Wahljahr 1919, Vienna 1989 (= Katalog der 215. Wechselausstellung der Wiener Stadt- und Landesbibliothek).
[39] Denscher, Plakatkunst, l.c., p. 100 f.
[40] Mascha, Ottokar: Österreichische Plakatkunst, Vienna 1915, p. 120.
[41] More in: Horn, Emil: Mihály Biró, Hannover 1996 (= Reihe internationaler Plakatkünstler, No. 1).
[42] Denscher, Bernhard: Zur Bildsprache in den Plakaten von Mihály Biró, in: Biró Mihály 1886 – 1948. Plakátok, Plakate, Budapest – Vienna 1986, p. 17 – 30; Grohnert, René: Mihály Birós schlagkräftige Plakate, in: Neue Werbung 1986/4, p. 38 – 43.
[43] Compare: Verführungen. Plakate aus Österreich und Deutschland von 1914 bis 1945, Vienna 1998, p. 90.
[44] Gebrauchsgraphik 1932/7, p. 64.
[45] Tagebuch, (annotation 16), p. 150 f.
[46] Denscher, Plakatkunst, (annotation 9), p. 191.
[47] Grohnert, (annotation 13), p. 38 ff.
[48] Compare: Barth, Gerda: Traumwelt. 100 Jahre Kino in Wien. Filmplakate aus der Wiener Stadt- und Landesbibliothek, Wien 1996; Mänz, Peter – Christian Maryska (Ed.) Das Ufa-Plakat. Filmpremieren 1918 bis 1943, Heidelberg 1998.
[49] Compare: Österreichische Plakate 1890 – 1957, Vienna 1957; Denscher, Kunst (annotation 25), p. 75 ff.;  Weill, (annotation 12), p. 180 ff.; Verführungen, (annotation. 43), p. 96 ff.
[50] Poster Art in Vienna, Chicago 1923.
[51] Jones, Sydney R.: Art and Publicity. Fine Printing and Design, London – Berlin 1925.
[52] Jones, Sydney R.: Posters & Publicity. Fine Printing and Design, London 1926, p. 3.
[53] Compare: Klinger, Peter (Ed.): Joseph Binder. Wien – New York, Vienna 2001 (=MAK Studies 1).
[54] Binder, (annotation 15), p. 17 f.
[55] Österreichische Reklamepraxis. Zeitschrift für Werbung, Wirtschaft und Verkauf, Vienna 1934 – 1937.
[56] 50 Jahre Kosel-Plakate, Vienna 1971.
[57] Klinger, Peter (Red.): Ernst Deutsch-Dryden. En vogue!, Vienna 2002 (=MAK Studies 2).
[58] Hölzl, Norbert: Propagandaschlachten. Die österreichischen Wahlkämpfe, Vienna 1974, p. 17 – 28.
[59] Denscher, Bernhard: Die Werbung in Wien für die Nationalratswahl am 25. November 1945, in: Jahrbuch des Vereins für Geschichte der Stadt Wien, 1986, p. 119 – 140.
[60] Luger, Johann: 1945. Ende und Anfang, in: Tagebuch, (annotation 16), p. 259.
[61] Internationale Plakatausstellung, Wien 1948; Barth, Gerda: Internationale Plakatausstellung, in: Tagebuch, (annotation 16), p. 294 f.
[62] Galerie der Straße. 10 Jahre Plakatwertungsaktion des Kulturamtes der Stadt Wien, Vienna 1961. König, Rainer: Die Plakatwertungsaktion der Stadt Wien 1951 – 1961. Unter besonderer Berücksichtigung der Bestände der Wienbibliothek im Rathaus. Hausarbeit zur Prüfung für den höheren Bibliotheksdienst, Vienna 2008.
[63] Plakate. Grazer Kunstverein, steirischer herbst ’92, Graz 1992.

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