Joris-Karl Huysmans, a Denicheur of Jules Cheret's Posters

Article excerpt

In 1896 the conservative Catholic commentator Maurice Talmeyr (1850-1931) speculated in his article, "L'Age de l'affiche," that a visitor from the time of Cardinals Richelieu (1585-1642) and Mazarin (1606-1661), who had slept for zoo years and awakened in modern Paris, would find many landmarks and aspects of the city unchanged, while others things would seem very odd, even hallucinatory (201). (1) In particular, the presence of omnibuses, stove pipe hats, and bicycles would alarm this would-be time-traveler, but, according to Talmeyr, the single feature of modern life that the visitor would find the most fantastic, the strangest, and the one causing the most profound shock would be the "grimacing and licentious" spectacle of posters, which epitomized for Talmeyr, more than any other physical reminder, the transformation of everyday life and commercialization of the city space that had occurred in the late nineteenth century (208). Talmeyr portrayed the poster as a festering disease implanted by industrialists on city walls that marred the urban landscape, obscured the landmarks of earlier epochs and literally ate away at the surfaces of sturdy edifices and their corresponding moral values established in a grander, more religiously devout past. In Tahneyr's analysis, the poster was the icon of the era, symbolizing the frenzied pace and promotional values of the fin-de-siecle and epitomizing modern society's crass and obvious commercial solicitations that he maintained were tantamount to prostitution.

Although Talmeyr's 1896 essay is a particularly evocative example, the consideration of the modern poster (and publicity in general) as an urban eyesore and emblem of commercial values did not originate in the 1890s, but had actually been a staple of French literature and criticism since the early years of the nineteenth century (Thornton, Bowlby, Hahn). As Talmeyr's remarks attest, fin-de-siecle writers often judged the poster as an aggressive, overwhelmingly ubiquitous and sexually contaminating symptom of decadent modernity and this negative interpretation has proven highly influential for the current interpretation of the nineteenth-century poster (Verhagen). Despite the persistence of charges in the 1870s and 1880s that the poster manipulated its spectators and marred the urban landscape (Zola, Garnier), the specific accusation that the poster disseminated sexual desire through its colorful images of appealing females can be traced to a fairly neglected essay written by Joris-Karl Huysmans (1848-1907) on French poster designer Jules Cheret (1836-1932) that was published in his collection of art criticism, Certains (1889).

The purpose, then, of this article is to examine Huysmans's "Cheret" essay in the context of cultural commentary of the 1880s and 1890s and to trace its influence on the reception of the poster, which by the end of the nineteenth century, acquired a more explicitly articulated reputation as a morally corrupting force in French society. In the end, the construction of the poster as licentious and morally corrupt was cultivated by decadent writers, in particular Huysmans and his followers, in order to ally the poster with male sexuality and distance its consumption from the feminine and bourgeois activity of shopping. My reading of poster criticism as presenting an anti-bourgeois appropriation of mass cultural forms and their attendant modes of consumption runs counter to the argument that Ruth Iskin presented in Modern Women and Parisian Consumer Culture in lmpressionist Painting, in which she portrays the female figure represented in poster imagery ("La Parisienne") as the quintessential bourgeois consumer who mediated and instigated capitalist consumption (223).


Although Huysmans was undoubtedly one of the most influential writers to focus on l'affiche, he was among an entire generation of art critics in the late 1880s and 1890s to examine the poster's visual appeal and sexual allure and his criticism no doubt helped instigate an avant-garde interest in this commercial and presumably "low" form of culture. …


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