Vintage NZ Poster Art in a historical context

A recent article on vintage posters in the English newspaper The Daily Telegraph by renowned antiques expert Judith Miller (author of the eponymous Millers antiques guides) has been avidly read around NZ Fine Prints this week because over the last few months we have been doing a lot of work researching and if necessary re-printing retro or vintage style New Zealand travel and tourism posters.  As the popularity of vintage poster art increases in NZ we have had to respond to our customers requests to buy vintage travel and tourism posters with New Zealand subjects and themes as well as the traditionally popular French and American poster designers meant by doing a LOT of research in order to curate what is now NZ's most comprehensive collection of vintage posters.  Although she is writing about collecting original vintage posters Miller has a lot to say about what she calls the three great waves of popularity of vintage poster art - comments that are just as pertinent to those of us who enjoy the vintage poster as artful decoration rather than as investors in the field of collecting vintage poster art.

In New Zealand the catalyst for much of the current interest in collecting and decorating with NZ vintage posters would have to be attributed to the publication of Wellington based lecturer in graphic design Hamish Thompson's book "Paste Up: A Century of New Zealand Poster Art" in 2003 which was the first comprehensive study of the New Zealand poster.  However this book's publication may also have been symptomatic of a global revival of interest in collecting the work of poster designers as Miller writes that "In the world of antiques, a particular area of interest — a collecting field if you like — will often tick over quietly for a couple of decades or more and then take off, gradually expanding its appeal beyond hard-core aficionados to draw many more new and enthusiastic collectors. This has certainly been the case with vintage posters for the past three years, but it isn’t the first time. Indeed, we are in what might be described as Poster Art’s third great wave of popularity"

She goes on to write a useful outline of the evolution of poster art from the late 19th Century to the present day that enables us to place much of the popular early to mid twentieth century New Zealand poster art in some kind of historical and/or international context. Miller says "The first wave began with the emergence of the art form itself when, in the late 19th century, French artist Jules Chèret harnessed the technique of lithographic colour printing. This allowed him to reproduce posters at speed, and displaying chromatic intensities and subtleties comparable to the original artwork. By the early 1890s, the walls of Paris were covered in commercial posters promoting theatres, revues and café-bars, while the involvement of eminent artists such as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Alphonse Mucha firmly established at the outset the poster’s status as a collectable art form in its own right, and one relatively affordable compared to the contemporary fine art in the Art Nouveau style that it mirrored. As their commercial potential became increasingly obvious to a rapidly expanding advertising industry, posters promoting domestic consumables — from soap and biscuits to cigarettes and alcohol — were produced in ever-increasing quantities as the 20th century unfolded."

It wasn't until this early twentieth century period that New Zealand poster designers weave themselves into the global story of poster art's evolution. As Miller writes "growth in leisure time witnessed poster promotions for sports such as golf, skiing and motor racing, while the accompanying expansion of tourism gave rise to posters for holiday destinations and the various methods of getting there: from bicycles, motorbikes and cars to trains, cruise liners and aeroplanes." This development was central to the New Zealand practice of poster advertising. Travel destinations such as Rotorua and Queenstown and activities such as fly-fishing, ski-ing or attending a health spa were promoted in posters designed at the NZ Government's quaintly named Department of Tourist and Health Resorts or the publicity studios of the NZ Railways.

Post second world war what Miller calls the first wave or "golden age of poster production and collecting" ended as posters were increasingly relegated to a supporting role for glossy magazines and, later, television advertising. However she writes that this all "changed in the late '60s with a second wave of popularity driven largely by the music industry and psychedelia … which drew heavily on Poster Art’s original stylistic inspiration, Art Nouveau, and also revived the role of the poster in home décor. The quiet period that ensued from the late Seventies was loudly superseded in 2005 when an original poster for Fritz Lang’s iconic 1927 film Metropolis sold at auction in the United States for a staggering $690,000 (£425,000)." Prices for original NZ posters have also rocketed in recent years, many posters are particularly rare because they were designed for consumption outside of New Zealand so very few remained in this country post publication.

Miller ends her article with a pithy summary of what to look for in a vintage poster - she is writing about buying the original printings of these posters for an investment but some of these guidelines would also apply to customers selecting re-printed NZ vintage posters that are available through New Zealand Fine Prints being purchased for retro or vintage style decoration.  Her guidelines include "look for boldness and clarity of design, crispness of printing, and strength or saturation of colour", "avoid trimmed margins, staining, creases and tears" and "always have mounting, framing and repairs done by a professional".

We are continuing to add new posters to our vintage collection - concentrating at the moment on vintage New Zealand travel and tourism posters.  If you have a particular favourite that is not yet shown please email us or give us a call - we'd love to hear about good retro or vintage images that are not yet in print so we can add these to our vintage posters collection in due course.

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