"Posters must be provocative..."

In Europe as well as in the United States extensive collections have admittedly existed for quite some time in museums on the art and the history of the poster. In broader circles and particularly on the art market posters – similarly, for instance, to photography – have only become popular as an art form worthy of collection in recent years. In the following conversation Paul Brühwiler, the Lucerne painter, graphic artist and poster designer of international renown, gives his views, for once not from the standpoint of the collector or dealer but from the standpoint of the maker, on current questions concerning poster art.

Mr. Brühwiler, you look back on 30 years of varied and successful poster design of your own. How have the role and rank of the advertising medium poster changed during this time and where does it stand today in the realm of art?

Paul Brühwiler: Actually not all too much has changed, at least in Europe, in the role of the poster as a spontaneous, popular, efficient and – not least of all – favourably priced advertising medium. Especially for smaller enterprises and institutions but also for many tasks in connection with communications in the political, cultural and social sectors it will probably remain the most popular advertising medium for us, particularly when the corresponding budget for advertising does not allow much otherwise. In America, on the other hand, the classical advertising poster has suffered the loss of great deal of its former significance – in return, and significantly, especially large numbers of enthusiastic poster collectors are to be found there.
As far as the character of the advertising medium poster is concerned, it clearly continues in my opinion to belong to the realm of applied art – ultimately, of course, a good poster should normally peform a clearly defined task with regard to communication. This naturally does not mean that a good poster cannot also be of great artistic value – it is simply not normally conceived and created in the first instance as a work of art but in accordance with entirely different criteria.
Unfortunately there is, however, a whole series of inaccuracies and misconceptions languagewise here. Thus, for instance, the idea of an artistic poster is rather misleading since it is usually, of course, the term for a poster which was admittedly created by an artist but for that reason certainly does not need to be a work of art. And finally by no means whatsoever does the term “work of art” apply to most of those posters for exhibitions ans museums on which another work of art is simply reproduced.
Whether a specific poster – over and above its original visual-communicative intended purpose – furthermore really achieves the rank of a work of art in its own right does not usually become apparent during the lifetime or period of usefulness of the poster concerned but only after a lengthy period of time in detached, critical retrospect. In actual fact it appears to me that even a considerable attraction where poster collecting is concerned lies precisely in that uncertainty.

How do you explain the fact that little Switzerland has brought forth such a large number of important poster artists and posters?

Paul Brühwiler: I cannot give a concrete single reason for this – at best a few speculative suppositions. Thus it appears to me that the uniform external appearance of the poster and its clear-cut presentation on hoardings correspond particularly well with the Swiss love of order.
But, too, joint responsibility for what in terms of international comparison is the really far above average importance of Swiss poster creation is probably due to the fortunate chance – effective still today – by which a whole series of first-class printers and lithographers were at work in this country – to think only of the famous Wolfensberger Lithographic Institute in Zurich. The symbiosis of gifted poster artists, who might otherwise have emigrated abroad, and a correspondingly qualified printer’s handcraft proved itself at all events to be extremely fruitful in the matter of Swiss posters.
And finally the larger than average share in this country of cost-conscious small and medium-sized enterprices, for whom the poster had always been and still is the most popular advertising medium, probably made quite a contribution to the promotion of local poster culture.
Not the same but at least related reasons are furthermore responsible, too, for the remarkably high standard of poster creation in what was once the GDR.

What was your first, what your most important and what your best poster?

Paul Brühwiler: I made a sketch of my first poster while I was still completing my training as a graphic artist during the late 50s for the Raben Restaurant in Lucerne – it stood at the beginning of a special preference, which has lasted until today, for this particular form of art and communication.
On the other hand certain personal pieces of work from the period around 1985, which gave me a taste for artistic freedom, number for me among my most important poster works.
In the same frame there also belongs that poster which I was recently able to produce on the theme “For a Future with a Future” and which, as significantly as it was satisfactory, bestowed unexpectedly great echoes and reactions on me.
I could, however, hardly name a “best” poster, although there are certainly pieces of work which to me are lasting and others which mean less to me today…

Have you, or had you, specific artistic ideals?

Paul Brühlwiler: Yes, certainly, the German expressionists – above all Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Edvard Munch – influenced me powerfully even in the early days. Artists like Herbert Leupin and Cassandre as poster designers in the narrower sense were, however, among my special models.

What criteria must a good poster, in your opinion, meet?

Paul Brühwiler: A good poster should always be effective on two levels. On the one hand that of spontaneous, instantaneous and almost even unconscious perception. To put it more colloquially: It must be striking, gripping and provocative, its message must be transmitted unmistakably and without deviation and not least of all it must stand out from other posters. The second level of effectiveness is then that of detailed information, the small print and all that which simply causes the viewer to take a second look. A good poster should, of course, for instance be grasped in its essence through a fleeting glance from the car or tram but at the same time and in the process entice the viewer to take an early opportunity to look at the poster in greater detail.
For me personally I have moreover discovered a very simple test: A poster is really good if it is so gripping and in harmony within itself that I could hang it in my own home, too.

What is your attitude towards the idea that your posters are meanwhile sought and paid for dearly by collects and museums all over the world?

Paul Brühwiler: “All over the world” is perhaps still somewhat exaggerated at the present time but, especially in America, I actually have already often seen posters of mine for sale in galleries and this at prices of an order of magnitude of 1000$ and more. Thus a New York gallery recently asked 2000$ for my Chandler Film Podium poster.
Collection of my posters, however, began already about ten years ago when the renowned New York Brown Gallery, which after all also works with such important institutions as the Museum of Modern Art, bought as many as three of my Murnau Film Podium posters and paid for all together a round 1000Fr., roughly the same amount as I had received at that time as my fee for the entire order.
Joint responsibility for the comparatively high and sound prices certainly accrues to the fact that I have hitherto always resisted a new edition, entirely possible technically and legally, of course, of individual posters. This admittedly maintains the original character of those of my posters still available today but at the time it also makes them rare and correspondingly more expensive.
I am of course pleased at being collected as a form of recognition of my work – above all, naturally, when a museum or an exhibition is interested in my posters.
But the corresponding commitment of private collectors, too, on which I certainly never counted in the past, provides me with welcome stroking and flattery. The circumstance that many of my posters last beyond their immediate short-term application stimulates me at all events in an entirely similar manner to my teaching activity at the Lucerne School of Applied Art.

You can today afford a somewhat freer mode of work and choice of work. What would your ideal order for a poster to be designed look like today?

Paul Brühwiler: In actual fact my firm activity as a teacher in Lucerne – which is moreover exremely demanding and at the same time satisfying – opens up new and different possibilities for development at the material level, too, from those inherent int the purely commissioned work for advertising and poster creation. Thus I have in recent years engaged among other things intensively in painting and drawing, whereby it is not at all so simple for someone who, like me, unshakably bears the label of a poster designer in the minds of any people to achieve recognition in the field of pure art.
In any case an attractive order for a poster with which I can identify is still of interest to me. I would moreover be particularly attracted by, say, the longerterm joint creation of the identity of an institution or possibly of a product, too. Social and cultural concerns and themes would enter the picture as readily as political subjects, whereby I could imagine considerably more amusing and more pleasurable posters specifically in the political sector than what is currently being offered more or less by all the parties in the corresponding realms of the boring and the dreadful. Decisive for me would be that I had the freedom to follow my own path with regard to design. This would at the same time give me the opportunity finally to break away from today’s uniforming of advertising language and – possibly even in the sense of an author’s poster – follow new paths.

(The conversation with Paul Brühwiler was conducted by Christian von Farber-Castell)