Health for Sale: Posters from the William H. Helfand Collection

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Health for Sale: Posters from the William H. Helfand Collection. Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, April 2-July 31, 2011. Curated by Innis Howe Shoemaker and John Ittmann. http://www.philamuseum.org/exhibitions/740.html

The posters displayed in the exhibit Health for Sale: Posters from the William H. Helfand Collection are drawn from the extensive collection of former pharmaceutical executive William H. Helfand, whose love of art led to his transformation from a voracious collector of health-related prints and posters into a noted expert in the genre. The exhibit and accompanying catalogue serve in part to honor Helfand and his contribution to the preservation of these wonderful, history-laden images as a collector and supporter of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

The images shown in Health for Sale date from the mid-19th through the mid-20th century. Most of the posters were created in France and the United States, although the exhibit also includes advertisements and public health posters from Italy, Germany, China, Holland, and Great Britain. The wide time and range of geographic locations, artistic styles, and thematic content illustrates how health-related posters, prints, and ephemera can serve both as works of art or as primary documents for research into such varied subjects as the history of anti-alcohol public health movements to the social history of venereal disease.

Displayed in low light to protect the works, Health for Sale is arranged with up close viewing and careful consideration of the images and accompanying text in mind. The curators successfully balanced the need to display the materials as both works of art and historical documents, considering both the aesthetic aspects and the historical context of each work to create an arrangement equally suited to the connoisseur of modern poster art and the avid label-reading historian. Works by well-known artists such as Jules Chéret and Leonetto Cappiello and visually striking images such as the dramatically simple Dentifrices Botot: Eau, Poudre, Pâte, Savon by Georges-Pierre Beuville are hung prominently, accompanied by extensive text describing their historical importance. Less aesthetically appealing or artistically significant images are grouped thematically in a manner that highlights their worth as historical documents rather than emphasizing only their quirky appeal.

Contrasting the artistic style and advertising content of images in this way can yield important insight into changing attitudes about health, health consumerism, and general social and cultural changes in history. For example, in comparing the two works, Pharmacie Des Capucins of 1932 and Pharmacie Canonne, La Pharmacie Des Gens Économes of 1944, the observer is struck by the tremendous differences in artistic style, visual content, and the "pitch" of the advertising copy. The 1932 image created by Jean José is light and bright, with a composition created to contrast the modern Art Deco façade of the Pharmacie des Capucins with the Basilica of St. Michael in the background. A pretty, crisply uniformed nurse fills the top leftof the poster, her bobbed hair and manicure highlighting her chic modernity. She smiles out at the viewer, holding a hot cup of tea whose white steam spells Santé, the French word for health, against a cobalt blue sky. The text gives the address for the Bordeaux pharmacy and lists its most appealing products: optical items, bandages, photographic supplies, and belts. Jacques Bellenger's 1944 poster for the Pharmacie Canonne in Paris is visually and contextually darker than José's cheerful vision, reflecting the somber tone of a French poster created in 1944. …