This column begins an occasional series in which Washington-area university students discuss works on display in the National Portrait Gallery.
This article is written by Abbey Stickney, a graphic design student at George Mason University. She writes about this 1893 poster of performer Loïe Fuller by French artist Jules Chéret. The poster is on display in the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition “Ballyhoo! Posters as Portraiture,” on the museum’s second floor.
Stickney’s article is reprinted here, with her permission—it was originally published in Writing for Designers, the class blog of GMU’s graphic design course AVT 395-4. Writing for Designers covers many topics in graphic design, and includes more student-written articles about the “Ballyhoo!” exhibition.
As a graphic designer, I found the “Ballyhoo! Posters as Portraiture” exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery very worthwhile. It gave credibility to design as an art form, as the show was surrounded by the elaborate oil paintings of famous musicians, presidents, and just plain wealthy people. To have posters displayed in such close proximity to these wonderful works of art makes the general public really look at design, possibly for the first time. It makes these people notice the composition, the color choices, and the mood of the piece as they would a painting by Rembrandt.
Among the vast array of posters on display, one in particular grabbed my attention. Maybe it was the simplicity of the composition, or maybe it was the woman herself. The poster was a celebration of life and color set against the black background of a stage curtain. The wild red hair of the pale woman was thrown back, and she was draped in a sheer golden gown. One of her legs was kicked up, and she appeared to be suspended in the air with her dress floating in circles around her, as if she has just completed a spin in the air and is now returning to earth.
The woman’s name was Loïe Fuller, and she was an American performer who was quite popular in Paris around the turn of the century. Fuller was a master showman who pioneered the use of colored stage lighting and used enormous silk costumes to exaggerate her movements on stage. She characterizes the art nouveau movement, as her flowing costumes appeared on stage like flowers and other objects found in nature. Fuller was also the first person to bring modern dance to Europe and present it as a true art form.
I feel this poster has captured the essence of Fuller’s performances. She appears here free and full of life, just like her performances were, I would imagine. You can even faintly see the colored stage lighting in the background. The only text on the poster is the name of the performer, La Loïe Fuller (at the top), and the place where she will be performing, the Folies-Bergère (at the bottom), a Paris opera house where nudity was not uncommon. The text type is red and has an organic feel to it that coordinates well with the image. With its rough, cut-out look, it appears to be handmade.
I think that it is very appropriate that this poster show was in a portrait gallery. Posters give the viewer more information than other portraits do: they tell the viewer not only about the person or people shown, but about the time in which the poster was created, the poster’s intended audience, and even the location in which the poster was to be displayed. This proves that not only are posters—and consequently graphic design as a whole—art, they are a seamless balancing act between both giving the viewer information and giving the viewer something that he or she wants to stop and look at. That is what good design does.
"Folies-Bergère La Loïe Fuller"/Loïe Fuller/Jules Chéret, 1893/Color lithographic poster/National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution