The devastation of World War 1 and its impact on modern art can not be overstated. In Germany, not only were very important Expressionist artists like Franz Marc and Auguste Macke killed in the war, but severe post-war economic hardship, quickly followed by significant suppression of the avant-garde in the 1930's by the Nazi culture police (for instance, Kirchner committed suicide in 1936 and other artists like Nolde and Barlach were exiled) essentially gutted the promising German modern art world of its artists and fine art printers.
An unhealthy cynicism in society followed WW1, the Spanish Flu and subsequent worldwide famine which killed millions and devastated economies and communities, especially in Europe. This same cynicism was reflected in art with very little of the optimism and radical innovation in art seen at the turn of the century.
Enter Fernand Mourlot and his workshop, who along with his talented printers, almost single handedly resurrected fine art printmaking in Europe, helping artists look forward with renewed optimism and experimentation in art. Ironically it was not "traditional" fine art that lead the way but the humble color poster lithograph, a revered tradition that as we have seen was perfected by the extremely talented French printers at the turn of the century. Following several commissions in the 1930's to produce posters for museum exhibitions in Paris, artists, publishers, gallery owners and the public immediately recognized the exceptional quality of Mourlot's work. Unfortunately this good work was interrupted by yet another devastating World War in Europe. Not to be deterred, however, Mourlot and his printers put their talent to work making Passports and other official documents to help oppressed Jews and political dissidents (including many artists) flee Nazi controlled Europe and avoid the gas chambers.
With the avant-garde in Europe in total disarray following WW2 (the focus had now shifted to New York), Fernand approached some of the most famous artists of the early 20th century still in Europe to produce lithographs at his workshop, including Braque, Chagall, Dufy, Leger, Matisse, Miro and of course Picasso. They were all in the twilight of their lives but each one of them brought to bear the experience and talent of decades of artistic creation to produce some incredible color lithographs at the Mourlot, including many important posters that once again adorned the city of Paris and were admired and collected the world over.
Mourlot in his systematic and thorough way documented all the work he did with this elite group of artists, producing and publishing many books, akin to a catalog raisonne, of their time at the Mourlot. He passed this sacred tradition on to his son Jacques (who opened a workshop in 1966 in New York working with a who's who of American artists) and ultimately his grandson Eric who continues to operate Mourlot Editions in New York, extolling the artistic virtue of these historic color lithographic posters that continues to impress artists and the public to this day.
Fernand makes the important point that while posters have existed for millennia, from announcements of theatrical performances in ancient Rome to military recruiting notices in the 17th and 18th centuries, it wasn't until color lithography was invented that it was even "possible to give practical expression in color to the illustrated poster" as demonstrated so well with the posters of Cheret, Bonnard and Toulouse-Lautrec at the end of the 19th century (see previous exhibit Canvas is for Corporations: Paper is for People). While he acknowledges that lithographic reproductions of artists paintings can not be considered as "original", Mourlot observed first hand over decades of observing the best modern artists of his first half of the 20th century, that a passion for lithography including "original" creations specifically designed as posters was "produced with the care demanded by the importance they attached to them" using color combinations and a balance of form equal to or even better than any their creations in other media, hence Mourlot concludes that they "are real works of art" and continue to be admired and sought after by galleries and collectors to this day.
This exhibit showcases many of the important color lithographs and fine art posters pulled from the same stones at the Mourlot including Fernands' own color lithograph production of The Complete Posters of Braque, Chagall, Dufy, Leger, Matisse, Miro and Picasso titled "Art in Posters", arguably the most important documentation of the Golden Age of mid-20th century fine art color poster lithography anywhere in Europe.
Looking at these significant works as a group (which is the goal of this exhibit), these color lithographs are testament to the fact that fine artists take decades to mature, frequently combining their knowledge and talent acquired over a lifetime to create their best art, including the humble poster.