ExhibitionsDisrupting Design: Modern Posters, 1900–1940
Past Exhibition

Disrupting Design: Modern Posters, 1900–1940

December 10, 2021 – April 24, 2022

Though not precious or unique, the poster is the ultimate design object—it disseminates ideas and images that reflect a time and place. As an object of design history, the poster can comment on social or cultural shifts, but it is probably best known for its most prominent role—selling commercial products.

This exhibition surveys the origins of modern poster design featuring works from the collection of Merrill C. Berman, who focused on twentieth-century radical art. Berman’s collection represents a complex history of modernism, as avant-garde artists actively produced fine and applied art for commercial and political aims. Starting in the early 1900s, these designers revolutionized typography and the graphic image, creating poster designs that changed artistic perspectives, as well as the hearts and minds of people.

The works on view demonstrate the origins of modern graphic design, as practiced in Europe, and how the medium could be marshaled into service for social change.

Salamander, 1912

Ernst Deutsch-Dryden
Austrian, 1883–1938
Salamander, 1912
Lithograph on paper
Merrill C. Berman Collection

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USSR Russische Ausstellung (USSR Russian Exhibition), 1980 reproduction after 1929 original

El Lissitzky
Russian, 1890–1941
USSR Russische Ausstellung (USSR Russian Exhibition), 1980 reproduction after 1929 original
Rotogravure on paper
Merrill C. Berman CollectionEl Lissitzky’s posters masterfully combined his political beliefs with a Constructivist sensibility. The artist promoted Stalin’s vision of Russia at international exhibitions, including this one for a 1929 exhibition at the Kunstgewerbemuseum in Zürich. Merging two photographs of joyful Russian youths, El Lissitzky aimed to imply the equality of the sexes within communism and the Soviet state. The figures loom over display furniture, which refers to the artist’s stands that he designed for the Polygraphic Exhibition held in Moscow in 1928.

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Olimpiadi, 1936

Bruno Munari
Italian, 1907–1998
Olimpiadi, 1936
Lithograph on paper
Merrill C. Berman CollectionLike Max Burchartz (whose work is also on view in the exhibition), Bruno Munari was an artist who also founded an advertising agency, helping to forge an aesthetics of consumer culture. He was commissioned to create this poster for the politically turbulent 1936 Olympics held in Berlin. As one of the Italian designers who worked in a modern idiom, Munari experimented by setting photographs in innovative ways and laying out the type at various scales.

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Vystava Moderniho Obchodu (Modern Commerce Exhibition), Brno, 1929

Ladislav Sutnar
Czechoslovakia, 1897–1976
Vystava Moderniho Obchodu (Modern Commerce Exhibition), Brno, 1929
lithograph on paper
Merrill Berman CollectionWriting in his 1961 book Visual Design in Action, Ladislav Sutnar noted, “In our ‘visual civilization,’ words are superseded by images, drawings, graphs and other visual symbols which convey the message faster, more reliably and more convincingly than verbal descriptions.” Although he was writing about the field of information graphics, we can see within these posters the origin of his thoughts about conveying ideas through objects.

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Running Water—Rural Electrification Administration, 1937

Lester Beall
American, 1903–1969
Running Water—Rural Electrification Administration, 1937
Silkscreen on paper
Merrill C. Berman Collection

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Radio—Rural Electrification Administration, 1937

Lester Beall
American, 1903–1969
Radio—Rural Electrification Administration, 1937
Silkscreen on paper
Merrill C. Berman CollectionAmerican graphic designer Lester Beall used the principles of Sachplakat (object poster)—a direct approach in which an image signals an idea—to sell electrification to rural audiences in the United States. He was one of many artists employed by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) during the Great Depression of the early 1900s. Under this patronage, graphic artists experimented with the modern styles that originated in Europe, including the aesthetic of Constructivism—the simple geometry and collage of which appealed to Beall. In this poster, he used simple geometric shapes, diagonal lines, and plain, legible text to convey his message.

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Restaurez-Vous au Wagon-Bar (Eat at the Wagon-Bar), 1935

A. M. Cassandre
French, 1901–1968
Restaurez-Vous au Wagon-Bar (Eat at the Wagon-Bar), 1935
Lithograph on paper
Merrill C. Berman CollectionAlthough France was the birthplace of the modern poster, experimental typography and photography were not adopted widely there. Cassandre’s poster advertising the wagon-bar aboard a train cleverly mixes the industrial infrastructure of the train with food and drink from the restaurant. The artist was inspired by art movements such as Purism, which embraced reductive forms and modern machinery, and which may be seen in the depiction of simplified, cylindrical bottles and glasses.

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Power, the Nerve Centre of London’s Underground, 1930

E. McKnight Kauffer
American, 1890–1954
Power, the Nerve Centre of London’s Underground, 1930
Lithograph on paper
Merrill C. Berman CollectionE. McKnight Kauffer created many posters for London’s Underground, including this one that participates in the tropes of modernist style. Text and image are integrated into the poster design, with visual representations of the station that generated electricity for London’s underground network. A dark, veiny forearm juts out of a swirling dynamo, with the corporate logo at its center, and a fist generates bolts of electricity downward to the “Underground.” The movement is orderly and connected, just like London’s tube system—at least as an aspiration, given how the designer communicated this complex set of information.

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We require from type plainness, clarity, the rejection of everything that is superfluous. A good letter is one that expresses itself, or rather ‘speaks,’ with the utmost distinctiveness and clarity.

Jan Tschichold, 1928

Disrupting Design: Modern Posters, 1900–1940 is organized by the High Museum of Art, Atlanta.
This exhibition is made possible by

Premier Exhibition Series Sponsor

Premier Exhibition Series Supporters

Sarah and Jim Kennedy
Louise Sams and Jerome Grilhot
Dr. Joan H. Weens Estate

Benefactor Exhibition Series Supporters

Anne Cox Chambers Foundation
Robin and Hilton Howell

Ambassador Exhibition Supporters

The Antinori Foundation
Corporate Environments
Elizabeth and Chris Willett

Contributing Exhibition Series Supporters

Farideh and Al Azadi
Sandra and Dan Baldwin
The Ron and Lisa Brill Family Charitable Trust
Lucinda W. Bunnen
Marcia and John Donnell
Helen C. Griffith
Mrs. Fay S. Howell/The Howell Fund
Mr. and Mrs. Baxter Jones
The Arthur R. and Ruth D. Lautz Charitable Foundation
Joel Knox and Joan Marmo
Dr. Joe B. Massey
Margot and Danny McCaul
Wade Rakes and Nicholas Miller
The Fred and Rita Richman Fund
In Memory of Elizabeth B. Stephens by Powell Stephens, Preston Stephens, and Sally Stephens Westmoreland
USI Insurance Services
Mrs. Harriet H. Warren

Generous support is also provided by

Alfred and Adele Davis Exhibition Endowment Fund, Anne Cox Chambers Exhibition Fund, Barbara Stewart Exhibition Fund, Dorothy Smith Hopkins Exhibition Endowment Fund, Eleanor McDonald Storza Exhibition Endowment Fund, The Fay and Barrett Howell Exhibition Fund, Forward Arts Foundation Exhibition Endowment Fund, Helen S. Lanier Endowment Fund, Isobel Anne Fraser–Nancy Fraser Parker Exhibition Endowment Fund, John H. and Wilhelmina D. Harland Exhibition Endowment Fund, Katherine Murphy Riley Special Exhibition Endowment Fund, Margaretta Taylor Exhibition Fund, and the RJR Nabisco Exhibition Endowment Fund.