The art of Vojtech Preissig, 1873–1944

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Self-portrait.

There are times when one of my searches for work by an unfamiliar artist turns up results that are much more varied than I anticipated. Vojtech Preissig is one such artist, a Czech graphic designer, printmaker and typographer whose name I’d only registered in the past via digital revivals of his type designs. Preissig’s career follows a similar trajectory to that of his contemporary František Kupka: both artists started out working their own variations on fin-de-siècle art—Symbolism in Kupka’s case, Art Nouveau design in Preissig’s—before finding their way to abstraction in the 1930s. Both artists also worked for a time with Alphonse Mucha in Paris, until Preissig moved to the USA where he spent a number of years teaching.

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When reading about European artists of this generation there’s always the question of how they fared during the Second World War. Preissig was among the less fortunate. After his return to Prague he spent his last few years putting his print skills to the service of the Czech Resistance. He ended his days in the concentration camp at Dachau.

A monograph, Vojtech Preissig by Lucie Vlckova, was published in 2012.

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Day (1899).

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Night (1899).

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Dreaming (1899).

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Georges de Feure’s Gate of Dreams

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The gate in question, La Porte des Rêves (1899), is a collection of stories by Symbolist writer Marcel Schwob, illustrated in its first edition by Georges de Feure (1868–1943). The collection is actually a kind of “best of Schwob”, being compiled from stories which had already appeared a few years before in other collections. Both Schwob and de Feure were French, and the artist is one of the few whose work may be found in collections of Symbolist art as well as books about Art Nouveau design; you’d think there’d be many more among the conterminous movements but this isn’t the case.

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Women are a persistent subject in de Feure’s work, especially the sinister variety who were a staple in fin-de-siècle fiction. Some of these may be found in La Porte des Rêves which features a larger quantity of de Feure’s black-and-white drawing than I’ve seen elsewhere. In a reversal of my usual preferences, I prefer de Feure’s colour work, but anything of his is worth seeing. For a taste of Marcel Schwob’s approach to writing, which included textual collage, see this interview with translator Kit Schluter.

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A triple-page spread.

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Les Maîtres de l’Affiche

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Alphonse Mucha.

Les Maîtres de l’Affiche was a multi-volume guide to the state of poster art in the 1890s, published in five volumes from 1896 to 1900. Being a French publication, the contents are mostly by French artists but other nations are represented—Britain, Germany, Italy, the United States—although fewer contributions than you might expect given the quantity of pages to be filled. The chief attraction of these books is the attention they give to each design, all of which are printed in colour on a full page, and the time of publication which coincides with the birth of Art Nouveau. In addition to the great Alphonse Mucha there are designs by Eugène Grasset, Henri Privat-Livemont, Georges de Feure, Will Bradley, Louis Rhead and others. There’s also a lot of cabaret stuff from Montmartre which has never been to my taste (although I like the Steinlen posters) but those designs were the typical ones of the period.

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Henri Privat-Livemont.

The first four volumes in this set may be found at Gallica (Volume 1, Volume 2, Volume 3, Volume 4) but not the fifth volume—isn’t a national library supposed to be more thorough than this?—which may be seen at NYPL. For those who prefer paper reproductions, there’s a reprint in Dover Publications’ Pictorial Archive series, The Complete Masters of the Poster: All 256 Colour Plates from “Les Maîtres de l’Affiche”.

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Louis Rhead.

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Will Bradley.

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Joseph Sattler.

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The Poster: An Illustrated Monthly Chronicle

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Art by Mosnar Yendis.

This is the kind of thing I love to find: five volumes of a British magazine devoted to poster artists and their creations being published at a time—1898 to 1900—when the Art Nouveau style was spreading its convolvulus-like tendrils across Europe. Poster art is a predominantly commercial medium which means the articles are more concerned with the mechanics of the business than you’d find in a rival publication such as The Studio. Artists (male and female) are interviewed, trends are analysed, there are at least two features examining what the magazine calls “cribbing” (or one poster swiping from another), also a profile of the “Aerograph”, an early model of that fixture of 20th-century illustration, the airbrush. And when it comes to illustration, The Poster is as much concerned with the practice as with the posters themselves when so many of the people featured were also illustrating books or magazines. The publishers’ admiration of Aubrey Beardsley’s work is shown in the amount of mentions he receives as well as the articles they run. Beardsley had died a few months before the magazine was launched but his influence and reputation was firmly established by this time.

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All five volumes of The Poster contain a wealth of pictorial material so, with the exception of the Sidney Sime drawing, the examples shown here are from the first volume alone. Below you’ll find two illustrations by Charles Robinson pastiching the Beardsley style which the magazine claims are the best imitations they’ve seen, a debatable opinion but I hadn’t seen the drawings before. The first volume also includes an interview with illustrator John Hassall, a name that few people today would recognise, while those that do may confuse him with similarly-named musicians. Hassall’s work is still known to many Britons, however, via his “Jolly Fisherman“, a poster for the Great Northern Railway promoting the seaside resort of Skegness. The Cinderella picture below is one of many Hassall pieces in the magazine.

The Poster, Volume 1
The Poster, Volume 2
The Poster, Volume 3
The Poster, Volume 4
The Poster, Volume 5

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Scena Illustrata covers

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Art by Ezio Anichini, one of the magazine’s regular illustrators.

Scena Illustrata, an Italian culture magazine launched in 1884, was a prime exponent of the variant of Art Nouveau that Italians call stile Liberty. Or it was on its covers… To date there isn’t a substantial archive of back issues so I can’t say how much of the cover style was carried through to the interior. But since this was a fortnightly magazine there are many covers to be found. The examples here inevitably concentrate on the two decades either side of 1900 although a few are later; elements of the stile Liberty persisted into the 1920s, as did versions of that marvellous logo design.

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