A.M.CASSANDRE, Henri Mouron.  Schirmer Mosel Production

CHAPTER 2 :     


The main point that will be made here is that the key to the aesthetic emotion is a spatial function (…).

Le Corbusier

The year 1927 was a turning point in the growth of Cassandre’s oeuvre. It was then, handling the theme of railroads for the first time-and with what success !- that he discovered the true source of his emotion in the representation of space. This new orientation-which was more than a mere reflection of the random flow of commercial orders-manifests itself with particular force in two of his most engaging works, Nord Express and Etoile du Nord, which were both designed that same year.

This was also the year when Cassandre began designing letters, treating them not just as one of the ingredients in a given design but as characters to be used widely in advertising and even in printing in general.

All that was new, daring and awe-inspiring in the contemporary scene during those years-all that seemed to extend the boundaries of man’s world-was a source of tremendous excitement for Cassandre during the late twenties and early thirties. So it is not surprising that he felt especially inspired by the theme of the great European express trains.

To stick to the chronological order, though, let us first look at a poster for a shipping company, Société Anonyme de  Gérance et d’Armement (SAGA), which can be said to foreshadow the railway poster. The idea to be communicated foremost was that of maritime freight shipping. Cassandre employed a device which might be compared to the photographic technique of using a wide-angle lens to give extra prominence to the foreground. The exaggerated volume of shipping crate, its severely receding sides and the sharp contrasts between areas of light and shade (which emphasize the crate’s three-dimensional character) all play a part in expressing the principal theme. But shipping is not the whole message. The ports served y the shipper had to get across as well. Cassandre’s solution was simply to print the words Algérie, Maroc and Tunisie on the side of the crate in full light. To integrate these names into the illustration, he chose letters which resemble the stencil letters still widely used today in freight shipping. By placing the three names in perspective on the crate, he made them stand out-they seem taller than they are in actual fact-whereas the names of the two shipping companies were placed at the bottom of the illustration where they appear, in effect, as subtitles.

Thus, despite the almost diagrammatic handling of the composition’s foremost planes and the purely typographical treatment of the details, SAGA exemplifies an approach that deliberately distorts space by exaggerating linear perspective.

Nord Express and Etoile du Nord combine a highly expressive treatment of space with a second theme-speed. In both posters the design is based on an even more idiosyncratic use of linear perspective. In Nord Express, for example, the viewpoint is level with the track (which is also the horizon and the base of the illustration). Thus the viewer looks up at the overwhelming bulk of the locomotive. This is a convenient way for the artist to express the engine’s tremendous power by amplifying its driving wheels and connecting rods. Finally, the unusual position of the vanishing point in the lower right-hand corner of the illustration-where it is easy to identify-further stresses the dramatically converging lines of perspective, from the sides of the engine to the sheaf of almost vertical telegraph wires standing out, light on dark, against the sky. This graphically constructed image thus generates its own dynamic meaning. The locomotive’s rudimentary modelling (which is merely an evocation of shading) gives it a sufficient degree of reality to sustain the illusion that the express train is plunging into bottomless space.

Yet despite Cassandre’s obvious desire to represent space with a maximum of lyrical intensity, he maintains his exacting standards of composition and creates a rhythmic and well-balanced design. Once again, the composition is based on a modular system. Except for the strip at the bottom of the poster containing the names of the cities connected by the express train, the illustration measures six modules across by eight modules high (another 3:4 relationship). The main areas of the composition are likewise established by using modules. So too is the principal text : the letter NORD are set in four equal one-module squares, and the height of the word EXPRESS is exactly half a module. But it hardly seems necessary to dwell on this aspect of the composition. After all, the illustration speaks for itself.

But what does need to be stressed here is the fact that, presumably in order to satisfy rhythmical requirements, the illustration’s principal lines do not adhere rigidly-does it matter ?- to the logic of perspective. You might say that the illustration is a compromise between the systems of perspective and modulation (which seem perfectly compatible in this case). Thus the wheels, rendered as ovals in order to respect the converging lines of perspective, occupy squares of unequal size ; the solidly constructed connecting-rods are determined by the two orthogonal diagonals of the four-module square in the lower left corner (moreover they are made to coincide with the interplay of light and shadow) ; the pistons are represented abstractly by two perfect circles which convey their relative size without reference to perspective. The coexistence of these two apparently contradictory compositional systems unquestionably strengthens the impression that the forms in illustration are unfolding as the locomotive hurtles away from the observer. As a result, the poster’s object-the express train-is far more completely and effectively described than it would have been in a more conventional representation.

Cassandre’s early posters have been criticized for their severity and I hope that this discussion of their underlying structure has not les the reader into thinking that this criticism might be justified. Geometrical precision need not be synonymous with aridity, after all. It may also convey harmony-the supreme satisfaction of the aesthetic sensibility and the hallmark of the artist’s high standards of formal perfection.

In his 1926 text, Cassandre alluded only indirectly to his methods of composition. Clearly he did not want the hurrying passerby to be aware of the underlying geometry of his posters. Arts est celare artem. This was always his guiding rule. But whether the geometrical foundation of his composition remains hidden or not, it is always there. It always plays a vital part in the immense aesthetic satisfaction we feel when we behold Cassandre’s work. And the fact that these works are now to be seen only in private collections and museums cannot diminish their modernity and perennial freshness. Now that we are able to look back on Cassandre’s entire production and examine it dispassionately, there is no excuse for shutting our eyes to their geometrical foundation. Surely no one would suggest today that this foundation in any way lessens the impact of the poetry it underlies.

Etoile du Nord, which I will examine more cursorily-for what purpose would even a lengthy commentary serve with such an inexpressibly beautiful design ?-seems freer than Nord Express. Looking at this poster, one feels that the artist allowed himself to be swept, to a greater extent than in the previous work, by the emotion engendered by a fictive space that seems almost uncanny in its depth. Here the perspective is tipped sharply upward. The horizon is pushed toward the upper reaches of the composition, leaving just enough room for the five-pointed star symbolizing the express train. Placed over the vanishing point where the rails converge, the star sheds its luminousness over the entire composition, dissolving the mysterious darkness lingering at the bottom of the illustration.

Who has not dreamed of distant lands, of the remote reaches so powerfully evoked by the seemingly endless flight of railroad tracks in the bygone era of the great European express trains ? Who can resist the spell of that vastly poetic name, Etoile du Nord ? Which of us can remain indifferent to the poster’s foreground, with its starkly graphic evocation ? The artist’s language in this work displays a stunning economy of means ; it is as poetically charged as any he could have dreamed of.

Bifur, the typeface that Cassandre designed for Deberny & Peignot, made its first appearance on March 3., 1929. however, Cassandre began working on the design as early as the end of 1927. before discussing this creation, through, let us return to Cassandre’s early poster. Their lettering announces the blossoming (or bursting forth ?) of Bifur. In the earliest advertising designs - Sadac and A nous les vrais pâtes Garres (both works on a mainly anecdotal interest)-the text is set in lower case, but with Au Bucheron (1923) Cassandre began to use thick letters which are somewhat reminiscent of the Capitalis Quadrata of the 2nd to 5th centuries AD. From then on, he limited himself, like the Bauhaus typographers, to Sans Serif letters. Also he was later to extend his range to Latin and Egyptian style types, as well as to various shadowed and outlined characters; he was to remain loyal up to 1939, the year which marks the end of his great period as a poster artist, to the austere discipline of a typography restricted exclusively to capitals. The reasons for this preference which ran counter to the doctrine of the Bauhaus designers who were committed to lower case letters-which they considered more legible-have been stated at sufficient length by Cassandre himself to make any further comment unnecessary. What should be emphasized, however, is that, owing to their simplicity, capitals, and more especially Sans Serif capitals, are particularly well-suited to the modular methods Cassandre used in his early work. Their architecture is better adapted than the more nuanced lines of lower case letters to the rigorous designs he produced with a square and compass. Yet another advantage of the capital letter is that it can be deformed-its proportions distorted, its lines reinterpreted-without affecting its legibility. Through frowned upon by traditional typographers, such distortions can be extremely useful in advertising where they are justified by the need to invent a chance form that will give visual prominence to a brand name or message.

The text of Pivolo is designed in Bifur. This poster furnishes us with as good an opportunity as any to assess the significant of this letter form. For it is in Pivolo that Cassandre uses letters for the first time for their visual impact, as a way of echoing the illustration, rather than for their semantic value or their architectural qualities. By treating them as surfaces, graduating them from black to blue-a device repeated in the illustration- and filling in the open triangle of the V with grey, he transforms them into active plastic elements in the poster. He thus turns the text-which his no longer strictly speaking, mere writing-into a rhythmical interplay of lines, surfaces and connecting spaces. Moreover, he achieves a remarkable and rather unexpected synthesis of upper-and lower case letters. Questionable from a purely typographic viewpoint, the word aperitif fits into the composition and makes visual sense. As for the name piVolo, it is a dynamic poster in its own right.

Designed for advertising, Bifur was intended to surprise. Its characters impress themselves on the viewer’s mind because they do not have the appearance of conventional letters forms. They almost look as if they had been produced by a typographic accident. Adopting the principle he used in designing the word piVolo, Cassandre created Bifur by simplifying the architecture of the alphabet. He stressed its geometric qualities, eliminated all horizontal lines that were not absolutely necessary (flattening his letters instead to suggest them) and filled in the spaces inside the letters with grey or some other colors.

Thus each letter catches the eye. It seems to expand on the page, composing, in a rhythmical interplay of forms and colours, unforgettable words. To render Bifur instantly legible, Cassandre based his design on sans serifs, stripping them down to their essence, to what characterizes them and sets them apart, to what is left in the reader’s memory when all that is inessential has been forgotten. Or to put it another way, one might say that Cassandre reinvented the sans serif. By giving it a novel, remarkably vital appearance, he restored its original identity.

This daring typographic experiment was successful. Proof of this is the fact that Bifur is still used on occasion in posters today. The truly majestic specimen proclaiming NE LE REND PAS ILLISIBLE (KEEP IT LEGIBLE) recalls the great Roman and Carolingian inscriptions.

Bifur was introduced by Cassandre himself in the review Arts et metiers graphiques as follows :

“Advertising. Kilometres of vermilion firing point blank at the retina. All that remains in the end, once everything has been swept away, is a single word : Cadum, Citroën…

Bifur is a word, a single word. But a star word. It enters a page like a leading ballerina sweeping into the radiance of a spotlight while the other dancers sink into the backgroung on either side.

Bifur was not designed ny a freakish imagination ; on the contrary, I worked out a precise problem and then endeavoured to resolve it while staying strictly within the bounds of typography. I want to stress the fact that Bifur is not an ornamental letter.

Bifur was conceived in the same spirit as a vacuum cleaner or an internal combustion engine. It is meant to answer a specific need, not to be decorative. It is this functional character that makes it suitable for use in our contemporary world.

Initially a letter is a pure form, but it is gradually distorted by the woodblock carver’s chisel, the scribe’s alcoholic pen, the etcher’s needle used by the first punch-cutters who delighted in imitating the pen. I have tried to restore to the letter that which originally belonged to it, and to it alone.

Therefore, it Bifur looks unfamiliar and strange, it is not because I have dressed it up eccentrically but because, in the midst of a fully clothed crowd, it is naked.

I have simply tried to revive the word’s original power as an image. Reduced to its barest expression, its simplest form, the word becomes more “photogenic” to our tired retinas, I believe.

DANGER. Bifur was designed to function like a railroad signal-a peremptory stop sign. If by accident it does not function as it should-if it is mishandled, say, by an inexperienced typographer-disaster is inevitable.

Bifur was designed for advertising. It was designed for a word, a single word, a poster word.

As Blaise Cendars once said in reply to a questionnaire on advertising, “I wish that you would find-you who are today calling on writers-a spontaneous poetic genius who will come up with a simple, gigantic word that can take its place above Paris along with the gigantic Bébé Cadum poster”.

Bifur was cast to print that word.”

It seems important to analyse Cassandre’s early works because they embody with great simplicity the fundamental aesthetic options which determined the directions his art was to take in later years, but, given the physical limitations of this book, it is impossible to continue doing so with his later work. In the period discussed in this chapter, Cassandre, who had thoroughly mastered his craft and was now anxious to renew himself and keep his work from going stale, dew upon all his resources and experimented widely, especially with more pictorial techniques (though always subordinating his explorations to the graphic imperatives of the medium as he conceived it in relation to the reproduction processes available at the time).

But before proceeding any further, let us hear what Cassandre himself had to say at this point about the art of the poster. The following quotes are taken from a text published in 1929 in L’Art International d’Aujourd’hui. It is interesting to note that the title of this statement-one of several Cassandre made in this period-is set in Bifur.

“Advertising can no more be summed up in a snap judgement than it can be viewed in “Museums” and “ Collections”. It is like love : one does not JUDGE it, one EXPERIENCES it. It is not a game but a natural phenomenon like night and day. It is one of the finest expressions of contemporary life ; it is LIFE itself.

Blaise Cendars has written somewhere : “A circle is no longer just a circle but a wheel, and this wheel turns.”

A poster is no longer a painting but a “broadcasting device.” Catalogues, posters and luminous signs are all vital objects. They are as much a part of our daily life as the telephone and the typewriter.

The language of advertising is as yet in its infancy-but it has been born. A whole generation of artists recognizes it as its most vital means of expression. A thousand psychological and technical problems confront it. The materials, processes and techniques of advertising are limited by one thing alone : the mechanical means. Typography, offset printing, lithography, rotogravure, the collotype, photo-engraving, the direct positive-these processes are far more exciting than the obsolete aesthetic notions of our predecessors.”

The following text is even more explicit :

“Defining the poster’s role and place among the plastic arts is no easy matter. Those (in my opinion) who lump it together with the applied arts. The poster is neither an easel painting nor a stage set. It is “something else,” although it sometimes employs the means of one or the other art.

The poster requires total self-effacement. The artist cannot EXPRESS himself in the poster-and even if he were able to, he would have no right to do so.

Painting is a GOAL in itself. The poster is only a means, a means of communication between the seller and the public-somewhat like a telegraph. The poster artist is like a telegrapher : he does not DRAFT messages, he DESPATCHES them. No one asks him what he thinks ; all he is asked to do is to communicate clearly, powerfully and precisely.

Of course a poster is a plastic message. Yet even though the poster artist uses the methods of painting, he does not use them as a means of individual expression. To him these methods are an anonymous language, a sort of international code like the Morse code.

These may come a day when our telegrapher will have to send out an SOS, and no doubt his anguished message will then contain something of himself-he will not be able to prevent this. But in the tumult of the city, in the bawling, inchoate, inhuman voice of the loudspeaker on the other side of the world, who will hear his thumping heart beats ?”

Finally, the most significant statement of all-and the most interesting because it is the breviary of an artist at the height of his power-was probably written shortly after the paragraphs quoted above. There is no indication of whether Cassandre intended to publish it ; he may have drafted it merely from a private need to put his creative thoughts down on paper.

“A poster has to contain the solution to three problems :

1. an OPTICAL problem,

2. a GRAPHIC problem,

3. and a POETIC problem.

1. The OPTICAL problem. A poster is designed to be SEEN. A truism, but if the poster does not possess this primary virtues of being visible, its merits cannot save it. An orator, no matter how well he speaks, cannot persuade his audience if he has lost his voice.

This -visibility- is the result, not of a simple color contrast, but of a relationship of values given prominence by colliding forms - a formal accident.

2. The GRAPHIC problem. One does not put signs along a railroad track saying “Please come to a stop.” Instead we have very sensibly devised colored signals, which are kinds of ideograms and are infinitely more expressive and more readily understood than verbal messages. Obliged to get its message across rapidly, the poster uses the same language-the image, the true vehicle of thought. The vocabulary it draws on-the same vocabulary as in Painting and all the Graphic Arts-is limited by the technical requirements of printing ; moreover the poster has to respect the laws governing these other arts. It is obliged to use the same grammar, the same syntax, in order to achieve the same harmony. You can never be too seductive !

3. The POETIC problem. The poster is an image combined with a word (or a name). Its goal is to create, around this image-word, a series of very simple mental associations. What is more, these mental associations must be unforgettable. Therefore it is not enough to give the viewer an ephemeral visual sensation. The poster has to trigger an emotion. And this emotion, whether or not the viewer is conscious of it, has to be an obsessive one.

Without this emotional power the poster would be merely like a woman without sex appeal.

The poster’s only chance of making everyone hear it instantly is to use poetic language.

You cannot stop people in the street and explain the advantages of this or that product. You must catch them by surprise and buttonhole them without their even realizing it.

And thus, provided it sparks an emotion, the poster need not necessarily be pleasant or congenial. Its task is not to make itself loved or understood but to hold the viewer in its grip.

The poster is to Painting what rape is to love.”

These three texts bear witness to the seriousness with which Cassandre reflected on what he considered to be the fundamental principles of the art of the poster. Like his 1926 statement, the first of three texts quoted above is still colored by a sense of wonder inspired by the radiant birth of the new language which, in his view, modern advertising offered. The second text, on the other hand, reflects something of the lonely creator’s uneasy, quasi-monastic acceptance of a demanding discipline, an acceptance possibly tinged with nostalgia for a means of expression having a wider range of poetic possibilities. The far from optimist sentence about he telegrapher’s anguish may well echo the feeling of isolation of a poet who, paradoxically, has made a Faustian pact with a society prepared to stab him in the back.

But, as I have already indicated, it is the last text that is the most illuminating. Whit its neatly articulated points, it amounts to nothing less than a discourse on method. It is also a mirror. A mirror that reflects the image of an artist wholly committed to his art and who, like the Renaissance sculptors and painters, is able to establish an equilibrium between the intellect’s humanistic requirements and a thirst for lyrical expression-the rare equilibrium that characterizes fifteenth century Italian art. Like these artists, who found it natural to excel in all fields, Cassandre scorned the barriers modern society ha raised between architecture, sculpture and painting.

To limit ourselves to the poster-the area in which Cassandre did his most important work in the late twenties and early thirties, though it hardly encompasses all of his activities-we cannot help but be struck by the diversity of his approaches to advertising. The variety of face he gave to his designs while never allowing his intellectual standards to slacken, makes it a difficult task to analyse his different styles.

If, on the other hand, one tries to make a synthesis, one has a better chance of arriving at a perception of his advertising work as a tightly-knit texture combining richly dissimilar themes with the different moods and veins he played on with such intelligence and appropriateness.

What exactly does this texture consist of ? What are its different strands ? (They must not be confused, in their abundance, with the branchings of Cassandre’s style over the years.) Setting aside the strictly typographical posters, there are, it seems to me, five basic modes he uses-which is plenty compared to the much narrower standards of advertising today. The task of identifying these modes is complicated by the fact they are not always clearly distinct from one another. Cassandre sometimes plays on several of them together, and this is indeed a characteristic feature of his electric approach.

The reader has already encountered the first of these modes in the discussion of the three 1927 posters, SAGA, Nord Express and Etoile du Nord. They all exemplify an authentic POETIC OF SPACE, one that Cassandre handled in an intensely personal way by dramatically heightening linear perspective. In London via Harwich (1928) and La Route Bleue (1929) the spirit of synthesis underlying the profoundly logical treatment of space produces an image that is as coldly schematic, or almost, as a blue-print. In the 1928 LMS poster published by L. Danel, the treatment of space is so wonderfully rich, on the other hand, that it almost recalls the lyrical qualities of the three 1927 posters. Cassandre uses a plunging perspective, as in Etoile du Nord, but here the tracks, which vanish toward the right, are treated as a continuous sheet of ribbed metal merging in the distance with the horizon bounding the image at the top. Linear perspective is only one of the components of LMS, however. It is skilfully combined with a three-dimensional close-up of a switch bar in the foreground. The switch bar’s disproportionately large dimensions and its realistic rendering  accentuate the poster’s depth with great effectiveness.

Notice, too, the vermillon lettering of LMS outlined by a frothy while fringe that makes it stand out from the image (and that seems to make it vibrate also)-a device one sometimes encounters in Loupot’s work but never before used by Cassandre.

Designed to associate a service or product with an image that characterizes it indelibly, advertising frequently relies on the EMBLEMATIC mode to achieve its effect. This is the approach underlying the graphic process that leads to the logo, the most elementary of advertising’s mnemonic devices. It is the approach Cassandre uses in some 40 posters designed around this time. The language of these works is vivid and full of imagery-a unique blend of geometrical schematisation and realistic expression.

Several of these designs are humorous in tone. Two prime examples are the Oranjeboom poster of 1927, with its graphically rendered billows of foam standing out  against a beer drinker’s black silhouette, and the Dubo Dubon Dubonnet sequence with its seated figure darkening progressively from left to right. The figure’s characteristic silhouette and gestures, which were to lend themselves to a number of comical variations, have immortalized the typically French aperitif.

Equally jocular is the tone of two 1933 posters, Wagons-Lits Cook and Bonal. In the former, the abstract concept of -At your service- is expressed in visual terms by two stewards whose blue-and-brown silhouettes echo the colors of the text. Their caps are raised in an identical gesture releasing, in an impish graphic by-play, the word partout (everywhere) printed in vermilion. The thoroughly British - looking figure of the traveller hurrying along the top of the words a votre service (at your service) contributes to the poster’s cheeriness. In Bonal an eye-catching white figure silhouetted against its black shadow seems to balance a realistically rendered bottle of Bonal against a vibrant warm background of luminous yellows. The vigorous graphic treatment of the bottle spilling its stream of pink stars is in sharp contrast to the abstractness of the figure poised like a tightrope walker on the brand name at the bottom of the poster.

The range of feelings displayed in Cassandre’s emblematic works is not just limited to the humorous. In Le Bal des Sourds-Muets Aveugles (1927), the artist gives us a striking image-one that is rendered figuratively rather than emblematically-of the tragic mask of infirmity. In a poster for the Galeries Lafayette (1928), he captures the magic of dreams : Santa Claus, the basket on his back overflowing with toys, is shown sweeping down from a star-studded sky toward the warm colors of Christmas celebrations to urge prospective shoppers to buy all their gifts at the snow-frosted Parisian department store.

A number of emblematic posters designed around this time-some ten in all-are more serious in tone. Although their themes are widely different, they can be grouped together for the purpose of discussion, for they all exemplify the same approach.

Consider the two posters for the letters Sools. In the 1926 poster the artist has designed a three-headed figure wearing a top-hat, a derby and a fedora silhouetted in black-and-white on three hieratic masks which gaze out on the world with frigid urbanity (in one the eye is reduced to a monocle’s perfect circle). The 1929 poster, on the other hand, is streamed more realistically. It owes its impact to the fact that the artist concentrates on a single detail-a hat-and blows it up. The brim of the hat is tipped upward to reveal an eye as fixed and anonymous as the eyes in the 1926 poster, though the Pointillist treatment of the face makes it more life-like.

La Casquette Grand-Sport (1931) is lighter in tone, though it too is hieratically emblematic. As in the 1925 poster for the same firm, Cassandre plays on the contrast between the realistically rendered product and the schematic ca-wearing figure. The brick red spot blending in with the paper is roughly defined on one side by an angular line suggesting, in the Cubist manner, a head seen simultaneously full-face and in profile, and on the other by a line of text. The composition’s expressiveness is heightened by the fact that the figure’s head is titled. While the image is not as emblematically concise as the previous version, it is far more evocative.

In the same mode, Gazelle (1928?), Savon le Chat (1932), L’Union (1932), Société Agricole (1933), Leroy (1933) the anectdotal poster for Mademoiselle Paris (1934), the second version of Au Bûcheron (1934) and Paris 37 (1936) exhibit a stunning variety of techniques.

In BK Emaille (1930) the firm’s initials display, in tones recalling enamel, what appears to be an industrial design of a metal kettle. Printed in bold face, the letters remind us the sturdy puppets in characteristic costumes which appear in several of Cassandre’s posters from the early thirties.

In Bernot (1930) for example, a puppet of a robust wood(and-coal seller carries a chimney under one arm. The ruggedness of the poster’s style is wonderfully effective ans is delightful evocation of the coal merchant’s gruff manner. In Savo, which was designed the same year, the worker’s uniform brandishing a hammer is a sort of petrified puppet ; its stiff, angular gestures relate it to the brick wall of the background.

The sturdy sailor with a red pompon on his cap in Par Calais-Douvres (1931) is a less serious figure. Modelled in blue tones which blend with the burnt sienna of his flesh, he is identified chromatically with the slightly out-of-kilter rectangle of sea suggested by ripples scrawled on the eye-catching transitional areas between the raw green and the navy blue illuminating his costume. Though Cassandre was later to re-use the ideogram of the rectangle-and-ripples to evoke the sea, it is a pity that this poster was never published.

Other poster in this group include Le Touquet (which is undated and signed “Atelier Cassandre”) and, of course, Seager’s Gin (1935) with its witty, explosive Spirit of Trafalgar.

But rather than dwell on these works, let us pause briefly to look at three designs which all rely exclusively on color memory. In Casino (1931), Nicolas (1935) and Kinanectar (1936), the human figures associated with the advertised products-and popularised in earlier advertisements-merely serves as pretexts for organized chromatic displays. In the first work, a composition of elementary simplicity, the bright green flood engulfing the poster gives relief to the awning’s rigid orange-and-white stripes. In the second-a far more elaborate composition-yellow, orange and bright red stripes revolve around a simplified, brightly lit delivery boy. The delivery boy’s shadow is defined by the tonal changes between the colors in the light and those in the quite shadow-the cool green, mauve and violet. Owing to the variety of combinations, the colors, although limited in number, seem to proliferate-a striking optical effect that foreshadow Op Art.

In the third poster, the delivery boy’s familiar silhouette has lost not only its objective status but also its famous fan-like array of bottles. The figure is reduced to a flat white shaped behind the oversize dual-purpose N of Kinanectar standing out against a strongly shaded background where the colors of the previous Nicolas vibrate more quietly-a simple logo !

Simultaneously Cassandre designed some thirty posters in a very different mode-the PICTURESQUE. It should be noted, though, that he always made a point of keeping the picturesque-such were the requirements of advertising-within certain bounds compatible with an abbreviated form of expression, one that could be readily grasped at first glance. The traditional reference of the picturesque-Nature-is extended to include anything that captivates or delights the eye : locomotives, the female figure, the blurrings of speed, urban or country landscape, the seasons, the elements, historic monuments.

Published in 1928 by McCorquodale & Co., the second LMS poster is based on a 1927 composition originally designed for Nord Express. Its origins go back further, however, to Cassandre’s first experiment in the picturesque, the 1925 Chemins de Fer Francais poster (which, despite its descriptive aspects, is not unrelated to the emblematic compositions discussed in the preceding paragraphs). At all events, the 1928 LMS is a superb Cubistic painting on the theme of machinery-a close up showing the essential planes of a locomotive’s connecting rods in action. The vermilion aura around the two driving wheels evokes both speed and the flames that used to roar in the bowels of the old steam engines. The artist’s pictorial intention is so clearly stated that one wonders whether Cassandre has not for once chosen to ignore the rules of restraint he is always prescribing to poster artists and is not yielding unreservedly to the pure and simple joy of painting. He even allows the text to be overshadowed by the dynamic image-a rare exception to his rigidly observed principles.

Firmly resolved to avoid the facile frothiness of his forerunners, Cassandre broached the theme of women-or rather, woman-in four posters for the Galeries Lafayette (1928-1929). The first two are tasteful Cubistic nudes ; notice how lovingly the fragments of stylised lace are rendered. The third poster uses the expressive potential of the photographic collage. The “peephole” in the vermilion background reveals the features of an anonymous female face. There is something mysterious about it which catches the eye and holds our attention. Can we begrudge the artist the poverty of the graphic writing framing this face ? Can we begrudge him the fact that this poster-which had a considerable impact at the time, so novel was its conception-has only a limited plastic appeal (its aesthetic requirements having clearly been sacrificed on the altar of “communication”)? The last of the Galeries Lafayette posters is a celebration of summer in the guise of a young woman whose torso is modelled in earthy tones which reveal a draftsman’s sensitivity hitherto unsuspected in the artist. In yet another poster on the same theme, Dr. Charpy (1930), Cassandre alludes to classical sources and plays on the contrast between the broadly modelled face and the dryness of Jean Cousin’s studies of the human body’s proportions.

Speed is the theme of Fleche d’Argent (1929) and L’Oiseau Bleu (1029) with its cloud of smoke swirling around the checkered red-and-white signal-the only fixed point in the image-standing out against a background of converging telegraph wires. In a highly effective metaphor for speed, a purple martin (oiseau bleu) is substituted for the express train hurtling past at full steam. Yet another design based on the same theme is the Sweepstake poster of 1935 showing two thoroughbreds mounted by jockeys whose multicoloured jackets billow in the surge of a photo finish as the horses lunge neck and neck past the winning post-a simple white line extending vertically upward from the text.

One of Cassandre’s many posters for streamers lines, the Statendam design of 1928 brings us back to the theme of ocean travel-a theme the artist delighted in, constantly renewing himself, constantly varying not only his point of view and angle but also his style, from the almost diagrammatic handling of SAGA to the objective realism of Normandie. The comparison between SAGA, with its planes treated as flat surfaces, and Statedam, where the close-up technique is used to give concrete reality to the picturesque, is especially revealing. Cassandre’s determination to “stick to the wall” is evident in the vastly simplified modelling of the funnels and ventilation cowl (their designs is so manifestly simplified that it avoids the pitfall of trompe l’oeil) and in the rhythmical treatment of the smoke in successive waves ; it is also apparent in the spare lines of the ringing. This poster is a prime example of Cassandre’s attention to tonal values. The color scheme, which is limited to blacks, grays, sepias and ochres, enhance the plasticity of the image and brings a wonderfully sober equilibrium to the composition. The Statedam design is clearly a refinement of an earlier design for US Lines which places more emphasis on color and three-dimensionality.

With the SS Cote d’Azur poster of 1933, Cassandre resorts to yet another technique-chiaroscuro. Like the old masters, he uses chiaoscuro to express shadows rather than light. He is able to make us overlook the mechanical character of the image, which is virtually a blueprint of the streamer’s superstructure, so faithful is it to realistic details.

One is inevitably tempted to compare the designs for L’Atlantique (1931) and Normandie (1935). Indeed these two posters share a specifically modern approach to the picturesque and have naturally come to be viewed over the years as especially representative of Cassandre’s oeuvre.

The liner in the 1931 design is viewed from an angle. Its looming hull and superstructure are reduced to the clean lines of a perfect rectangle. The 1935 design, on the other hand, is based on a frontal view. The composition’s lofty symmetry and steep upward angle emphasize the ship’s gigantic scale. In both posters the viewer’s eye-like the smoke pouring from the liners’ funnels-is drawn irresistibly upward. In the earlier work the sea is evoked by the shadow extending the hull and emphasizing the rectangular character of the composition, but in the later poster it is expressed by a gradually darkening plane which contrasts sharply with the luminous sky at the horizon. The sky’s luminousness is further emphasized by the dramatic shift to Prussian blue at the top of the poster. The scale is conveyed, in the first case, by the miniature size of the tug-boat and, in the second case, by the flight of tiny gulls and the foamy moustache outlined against the vermilion floating-line. But these are really minor differences compared to the emotional unity of these two works.

Reworking the ideas and the composition of an unpublished poster for yet another shipping line, Les Messageries Maritimes, Cassandre renewed his vision yet again in Italia Cosulich (1936), dramatically reducing the size of the three ships setting out to conquer a watery globe.

In two posters - Dunkerque Folkstone (1932) and Cherbourg (1933)-the theme of ocean travel is combined with the railroad theme. The latter work is especially interesting for its emphatically frontal composition enhanced by tall Egyptian characters, each one of which is colored separately - a graphic treatment which underscore the contrast in planes between the docked ship and the locomotives.

Cassandre first treated the theme of the rural landscape in L’Ecosse (1928)-or rather in a first unpublished version of this poster, which was presumably rejected because it gave too much weight to the railroad signal, framing a Scotland that is far less well characterized than in the published version. In Lys Chantilly (1930) the artist plays skilfully on the contrast between warm and cool green tones to suggest an opening in summer foliage. The twin Angleterre Ecosse poster of 1934 were designed to be viewed together-hence their deftly contrasting tones. Two further works, the anecdotal Clacquesin (1934) and L’Eté dans les Alpes (1935) complete the cycle of Cassandre’s works inspired by rural setting.

These -landscape- posters are very different from Cassandre’s other advertising designs. His attempt to straddle the borderline between a naturalism that was no doubt meant to appear full of wonder and the dictates of a synthetic approach to composition was bold, if not reckless. It forced him to draw on all the resource of his fertile plastic imagination. In the 1928 L’Ecosse and in Les Alpes he combines the elements of a broadly descriptive vision, fusing them in a remarkably concentrated image which appear to be cut out and placed over a meaningfully colored background. Elsewhere, his vision is expressed in an abbreviated, almost impressionistic manner.

Cassandre was later to write with a great deal of astuteness : “A thing that is merely imagined may well surprise or astonish the viewer. It may even hold his interest, but it will never move him. Only that which is experienced has this power to move and therefore to persuade.”

En Wagon-Lits de 2e Classe (1930), Cassandre’s last railroad poster and an example of a design inspired by the theme of the urban landscape, is unquestionably persuasive. The breathtakingly simple device of a red light glowing in the foggy darkness of a railroad siding is perfectly consistent with our poetically charged experience of looking out the window of a speeding night express. In the NE NY TO poster designed two years earlier (1928), Cassandre deals with the theme of the industrial landscape in a manner that is simultaneously picturesque, emblematic and ideographic. The cunningly staggered letters NE NY TO, their meticulously patterned brick texture and the remarkable typographical exercise in the composition of the text all contribute effectively to the meaning of the schematically rendered factory chimneys silhouetted against an unusually pictorial sky.

In Grandes Fêtes de Paris (1934), Cassandre celebrates Paris-the Paris of tourists and sunny days in late June when the statues in the parks are framed in foliage. His design has all the spontaneous charm of a free-hand sketch. In L’URSS (1934), a modern, industrialized Soviet Union is contrasted to the golden domes on Red Square. With its Roman arches, baroque entablatures, delicately tapering columns and fake marble, the charming, dreamy Paris of 1935 gives us a foreglimpse of Cassandre’s last stage designs. Vegetation and architecture are again combined in Stations Thermales (1935-1936), but in this case the poster’s interest lies in the bold color scheme.

In general, Cassandre framed his advertisements in carefully worked-out designs which gave them their eloquence. But every rule has its exception and at times the artist chose to disregard his own guidelines. Indeed one of the things that made him such a delightful person was his ability to contradict himself. Certainly the five works we will examine next are contradictory. They were designed to appeal to the eye and, give them their due, they succeed in doing so perfectly. This is especially true of the 1933 posters : Grèce, with its text composed in letters reduced to their simplest expression-like Bifur characters-in a style that is thoroughly in keeping wit the poster’s theme ; and Le Jour with its lovely design inspired by the theme of the dawning sun swallowing the night-a theme Cassandre touched on in a number of works. Fêtes de Paris (1935), Italia and Decorator’s Picture Gallery (both 1936) complete this decorative cycle.

The primary virtue of the IDEOGRAM is to be precise and clear, and this makes it a particularly effective instrument in advertising. By overturning the established order and scale of things to create a fictive counterreality that is more explicit than reality itself, it becomes a poetic object in its own right.

A good example of the ideographic approach in Cassandre’s work is the poster for Chemins de Fer du Nord (1929), which was designed after Le Nouvelliste, L’Intransigeant, Le Kid, the 1927 advertisements for Le Progrès and EMSA and the five Vu posters of 1928. It derives its emotional strength from the ambiguous relationship between two superposed images : the unexpected confrontation between the emphatically objective treatment of the compass needle, which seems to be resting on the surface of the poster, and the vastly poetic image of the tracks viewed through the graphically rendered compass dial. So explicit is this image that the cloudlike work Nord seems to serve as a link between the two orders of reality-the tracks and the compass-rather than as a way of establishing the poster’s message.

Cassandre again uses the device of superposed images in Vinay (1930) to combine humorously a concretely rendered chocolate bar with the source of the milk used in manufacturing it-a cow’s udder.

In Triplex (1934), our attention is directed to the two eyes framed in the scaled-down rectangle of the safety-glass windshield. The idea of safety is convincingly communicated by the driver’s steady gaze. The image has the quality of a snapshot from which every detail that does not contribute fully to the message has been removed.

The same idea is expressed ideographically in a design for the cover of an advertising folder for the Triplex firm (A Deux Doigts de la Mort, 1932). Skilfully integrating the typographic message in the illustration, Cassandre uses totally different means here to achieve the same effect.

In Wagon Bar (1932), a descriptive rendering of a geometrically architectural still life is superposed over an impersonal photomechanical image of a train bogey-yet another successful example of the device of combining widely different modes.

Ferry Boats (1933) is an ideographic railroad bridge, so to speak, over a channel that is more evocative than any figurative representation could be.

Amplified by the gay complementary blue-and-yellow background, the phonograph of the laughing man in Pernod Fils (1934) is contained in the rounded forms of the bottle and glass (which reveal the grain of the blown-up half-tone). His face-that of the average Frenchman-is a far more eloquent advertisement than any slogan proclaiming the virtues of the alcoholic beverage manufactured by the firm whose name completes the ideogram.

In Prince’s Motorine (1934), the metallic hardness of a gear seen through a drop of oil is contrasted to the latter’s soft, suggestively colored curves in order to vaunt the lubricating qualities of the oil being advertised.

In Le Cuir (1934), a statuesque foot modeled in  pink tone and supported by a non-skid leather ole is the only human presence in a damp winter sky.

There are so much pictorial devices in the more strictly graphic posters for RAI, Heemaf, Thomson, and Paris-Soir. In RAI (1929), an eye contemplating the hood of one of the automobiles on display at the Amsterdam auto show is enclosed within a tall vertical rectangle, of which the letter RAI form the base, and which is an effective way of structuring the composition. The eye’s significance is underscored by the difference in scale between it and the automobile, while the rectangular composition harmonizes these two disproportionate visual elements. The remarkably legible design for Thomson (1931) is based on a clever graphic pun on the word main-d’oeuvre (literally, hand-labor, i.e. hired help). A similar pun was fatal to a lovely poster designed in 1932 for the newspaper Paris-Soir, which enchanted me as a child of seven and is unfortunately no longer extant. The design included birds that appeared to be cut out of a newspaper and it seems that the client complained that they looked too much like ducks (the French for duck, canard, is also a slightly derogatory term for newspaper). In advertising even the suspicion of a negative connotation is enough to doom a poster, no matter how pleasing its design is.

In three of Cassandre’s ideographic posters a visual play on the letters of the text features prominently, so that the products they advertise are not only named but described as well. Spidoléine (1931) could have been designed by a Bauhaus typographer. The oil trickling from the can turns into a thin vertical line connecting the brand name with the clean sans serifs of the word sécurité. In Ideal Milk (1933) the thick multicolored letters of “fruits” are coated with the creamy white texture of a brand of concentrated milk. In Lanital (1935), milk poured from a can divides into three sinuous arabesques which have the same color as the bobbins of thread which define them concretely, while the letters forming the name “Lanital” are arranged in a curve and given a fluffy texture.

A number of Cassandre’s other ideographic designs exemplify his different approaches to the art of the poster and lend themselves readily to analysis, but they are less representative than the works I have just mentioned. They include Candide (1930), Paris Films (1931), Orange (1932), Pathé TSF (1932), the two Air Orient designs of 1932, the second version of Price’s Motorine (1935), Sniafiocco (1935) and the mysterious, nameless, undated 6-4-2.

This survey, which follows the windings of an analogical approach rather than a straight chronological order, brings us, finally, to the last of Cassandre’s five “registers”-the OBJECTIVE mode. Whenever the theme of the poster he was designing permitted, he strove to express the object being advertised according to its “laws of tension” in a plastic vocabulary that resembled according the language of painting, whether it reflected the Cubist influence on the graphic arts an in his early work, or whether it evolved, as it did in his later work, toward a distinctly figurative discourse.

Characterized by the spirit of geometry, Cassandre’s first manner includes a number of posters designed before 1927 (another Pivolo design, Turmac, Réglisse Florent and the different versions of Huile de la Croix Verte, Huilor and Onoto).

There is no question that Droste’s (1929), despite its obvious modular structure, is typically inspired. It indulges successfully, with a fine diregard for the laws of perspective, in a Cubistic-or rather Cézannian-expression of reality examined from all angles. More inventive in the way they combine image and typography, Ova (1929) and Delft (1931) belong to the same vein as well.

The 1930 Veramint design, on the other hand, is sheer poetic evocation. Here the figurative element is reduced to a bare minimum : a diagrammatic glass holding two straws, its contents spreading well beyond its graphic boundaries and dissolving in the warm navy blue and burnt sienna aura of summer. A few white strokes summarily indicate the perspective-free plane of the table upon which the glass is standing. Cassandre, ho claimed he designed this poster directly on the press, draws on all the resources of lithographic ink used transparently to celebrate the beverage’s cool taste in contrast to the heat of summer.

Cassandre further refines this approach in the unpublished Marie Brizard project of 1931. despite the small scale of the object being advertised, its reality is enhanced by the fact that it is enclosed within an imaginary space that is suggested through evocative forms and colors. Yet the very same year this was designed Cassandre abandoned his early approach, with De Vries Robbe, Stork Hijch and Champions du Monde, and began to search for a more realistic vocabulary. Nevertheless, his new works continued to exhibit traces of his initial determination to represent reality as an intellectual construction based on a simultaneous view of an object from all angles.

Spidex 7, which clearly owes some of its dryness to the theme it illustrates, inaugurates a hansoms series of posters. Remarkable for the spareness of their style, these works reflect an unflagging desire to give prominence to what characterizes the object-or feature-being advertised by choosing a significant angle and position and by modelling it to suggest its volumes. Whether it is executed in a range of greys or in the tones of anonymous fidelity to an ideal reality, the object appears larger than it is in real life. Further emphasized by a dramatic chiaroscuro, to which a more or less finely regulated air brush brings a variety of textures rendering the material it consists of, it stands out, a fully substantial thing, against a background of sharply contrasting or-in some cases, subtly evocative-colours.

Such is the case in Miniwatt (1931), Coupe Davis, Pathé records, Unic, Sanka and its Maison du Café variation (all 1932), as well as the 1933 Unic and two other posters designed that same year, Le Lait and Auer (a casualty of Cassandre’s objective experiments). The pack of cigarettes in Celtique (1934) might be the creation of a hyper- or neo-realist artist-except for the fact that the plane on which it rests so massively is a fake wood panel used strictly as a decorative background. Two unpublished posters for Nicolas also deserve mention here-or rather, two scaled-down brush-and-gouache maquettes (really two variations on the same theme) painted in 1935. in these handsome, well-balanced compositions of geometrically simplified forms, Cassandre, a connoisseur of Bordeaux wines like his father, reverently celebrates the Lord of Wine, before whose ruby glow dissolve muted harmonies of black, green and the grayish-brown tones typical of the artist. He reworked these designs in a 1935 project for Antar motor oils, but, not unsurprisingly, the result is far less inspired.

In two further works in the objective mode, Chat Noir (1932) and Borwick’s (1935), the formal poverty of the themes is offset by an artfully arranged still life. Still lifes also appear in De Stordeur (1933) and the exceptionally decorative design for Prunier (1934), but in both cases the artist has felt free to alter the scale of the different object he groups. Despite its realism, Milton design of 1934 is almost an ideogram. In Kisroul (1935), a finger pointing to a pipe makes it clear that the product being advertised is the pipe and not the cigarette tobacco (Kisroul = qui se roule, i.e. easy to roll). Pacific (1935) is a rather uninspired figurative design, except for the inventive typography of the brand name at the bottom of the poster. Vautier-César and Vautier-Marocaine (both 1935), on the other hand, are far more satisfying.

A number of Cassandre’s designs inspired by objects are centered on a text and they show the artist attempting to express reality through quasi typographical means. The earliest of these posters is Fizz (1927), followed by the dazzling 1931 Van Nelle - another virtual ideogram - Huilor, Champagne Mercier, Buvez du Champagne (all three designed in 1932), Aurore (1933), a third Unic poster, probably dating from the same period, and Toile de Lin (1935)

The second Italia (1936) and Simca 9900 (1936) defy analysis-or at least the analogical approach used here. In the first, a picturesque landscape is shown in the background, while the foreground is taken up by a series of more or less graphically expressed objects. The resolutely descriptive approach gives the objects an emblematic character. An earlier example of his procedure can be seen in La Roche Vasouy (1926). A number of advertisements, as we will see later, use the same strategy. As for Simca 9900, its interest is strictly historical. Loupot handled this type of design far more skilfully.

As should be clear from this synoptic approach, the purpose of which is to show  the range of strategies Cassandre used in advertising, it is  extremely difficult to define his style. To reduce it to the terms of an aesthetic dialectic would only be to limit it. For while Cassandre unquestionably has his own style, its most vital characteristic is that it cannot be enclosed in any system or within any limits other than those of the artist’s insight and intelligence.

This is the proper place to turns to the strictly manual aspect of Cassandre’s work as a poster artist-the tools and techniques he utilized. It is a truism to say that what distinguishes the poster as a pictorial creation is the fact that it exists only on condition that it can be reproduced and run off in thousands of copies without the artist’s intention being altered in any way. But at the time when Cassandre began designing, lithography alone satisfied this requirement. Like Chéret and, later, Loupot, Cassandre was not a lithographer by training ; he was obliged to adapt his methods to the exigencies of the lithographic process and prepare the ground for the lithographers whose task it was to transfer his designs by hand onto stone. Nor was it an accident that he preferred opaque gouache colors and that he stencilling brush on flat tints to give his modelling the grain that it would take when reproduced ; he also employed an air brush to create limpid impersonal gradations, and a wide flat brush which allowed him, when working on stone, to preserve a more palpable trace of his own touch. Whatever the technique he chose, he always identified with the gesture of the technician who was responsible for transcribing his pictorial intention.

In the twenties and thirties, when the tempo of work was less hurried than it is today, when rotary presses had not yet replaced flat-bed cylinder presses and stone was still being used instead of zinc, when color separation was still done by printing eight or nine colors separately, and there was no way of telling exactly what the final outcome would be until the sheet was engaged in the press for the final run, Cassandre often personally supervised the printing of his posters at the Danel or Courbet presses. The creation of a poster, up to the very last stage when it was ready to be displayed, was a collective-and manual-entreprise in those days, one that my father, judging from my memories of him a few years later, must have enjoyed immensely.

He was very particular about the reproduction of his designs, as particular as he was when conceiving, composing and executing them. He always insisted that they be sufficiently faithful-they could never be perfectly faithful-for him to feel satisfied that he had exhausted every available technical means. I can still hear him speaking to lithographers and printers grappling with their own technical problems-as I have heard him talking to stage hands in the theatre-explaining what he wanted with warmth, clarity and simplicity.

In keeping with the thematic approach adopted here, Cassandre’s earliest typographical posters, though they belong to his first period as a poster artist, will now be discussed in conjunction with his later, purely textual designs, to show the evolution of his experiments in this field. In the curved 1925 Huilor composition, which is a typographical reminder of the illustrated  Huilor of the same year (itself derived from a design for Croix Verte cooking oils), Cassandre uses dramatic lighting to transform the letters virtually into the object. More interesting, however, is the 1926 design A La Maison Dorée - a particularly successful example of a modular composition based on a 6:8 relationship. It inevitably recalls the work of the Bauhaus graphic artists. The German influence is apparent in the way the text is organized on the page and in the geometrical treatment of the letters connected by 45° diagonal lines and constructed, like the letters in Alber’s stencil alphabet, with three basic figures-a square, an isosceles right-angle triangle and a half-circle.

With a monument typographical composition designed in 1928, J’Achète Tout aux Galleries Lafayette, Cassandre inaugurated a radically new approach to the typographical poster, one that was to be special to him for several years. The geometrical structure-far subtler than in A La Maison Dorée-is based on a rhythmical cascade of squares. It is further enriched by a distinctly pictorial treatment which endows the image-word with a surreal quality that transmutes it into an optically riveting poetic object.

Continuing his researches in this field, Cassandre designed a superb poster for Deberny & Peignot the following year. Unfortunately, it was displayed only on the company’s delivery trucks. The geometrical element is almost forgotten in the celebration of the dense objective nature of the typographical material. The “eye” of the noble Elzevir display letters, tracing a handsome graphic architecture on the ambiguous picture plane, fill the two squares of an improbable, Escher-like construction in which imagined reality appears more substantial than reality itself. The poster is a splendid stylistic exercise on one Cassandre’s favorite themes.

Paris Films (1931), with its bright electric lights and vibrating straight lines, is a remarkable anticipation of Op Art and kinetic art.

The Dubo Dubon Duonnet typographical poster of 1932 achieves the same dynamic quality as Paris Films, using far subtler means. Its strong three-part typographical statement echoes the tiptych of the Dubo Dubon Dubonnet image sequence. The typographical designs for Filatures de la Redoute (1932), Alliance Graphique (1932), Visseaux (1933) and Saponite (1934) are equally evocative, despite their severity. In Filatures de la Redoute, a black rectangular “aperture”, from the center of which a strand of spun thread escapes, acts as a spatial reference for an expressive construction delicately modulated by the quiet tones of the individually colored letters. In Alliance Graphique, a white disk, like the sun sinking behind a stand of trees, gives the daring yet balanced composition its particular appeal. The brand name Visseaux seems to stir with life over the incandescence of the word lampes. In Saponite, the chromatic variations in the treatment of the shadows cast by the tall sans serif imparts a concrete reality to the brand name, in contrast to the abstractness of the broadly undulating background.

Together with a number of compositions which have unfortunately been lost, Cassandre’s purely typographical experiments also include a pair of handsome designs executed in 1932 for the cover of two luxurious brochures - Fer Blanc and Acier - commissioned by the Office Technique pour l’Utilisation de l’Acier (OTUA).

Differing stylistically from the typographical posters just mentioned, 1er Salon de la Qualité Française and Wagon-Lits Reduction (1933 and 1935 respectively) foreshadow a new direction in Cassandre’s typographical explorations-a search for the inherent calligraphic virtues of the written letter.

This quest for a spare and elegant style is reflected in Cassandre’s studies for two new alphabets-especially that for his third alphabet, which was specifically designed for book work. After designing Acier, a black-and-grey display face, Cassandre began working, probably in 1933 or 1934, one a new type-“Peignot, designed by A.M. Cassandre”-which appeared in print for the first time on February 12, 1937. his intention was to create an all-purpose typeface including, of course, in three weight of type, display letters, upper and lower case. Despite the commercial failure of Bifur, Cassandre remained convinced that the only way to restore the dignity of the written word was to return to the Roman alphabet and to remove the decorative accretions which had accumulated around it over the centuries. What the twentieth century needed was a pure and noble letter. It would necessarily have to be a sans serif, Cassandre believed like the Weimar typographers, but… The essence of his creation lies in that but.

Before actually starting work on his design, Cassandre reflected, over a period of two years or more perhaps, on the evolution, or rather decline, of the original Roman alphabet. This naturally led him to consider the reading habits which have arisen over the centuries. His cogitations convinced him of two things. The first was that what holds true for the word in advertising-the word used as a graphic entity, one that surprises us without giving us the time to become jaded-does not necessarily apply to the word printed in a book. For what gives charm to the printed line, what captivates and delights the eye-or what eye is accustomed to, which is perhaps all that counts-is the vital contrast between gracefully measured, well distributed thick and thin strokes.

Cassandre’s second conviction concerned lower-case letters, which re derived from cursives that have been deformed by generations of scribes and have come down to the typographers in a much bastardized form.

“Paradoxical as it may seem [says the text accompanying the specimen], Peignot is neither a “creation” nor an “innovation” in the commercial sense given too often to these words-a sense so vague that it is bound to create the wrong impression.

The fact is that the essential characteristic of the alphabet we are unveiling today is that it has not only been designed but also conceived differently from the host of characters which have preceded it… Its design is interesting only insofar as it is a material expression-but in that respect it is very interesting. Had it been designed differently, the appearance of each letter-and of the alphabet as a whole-would have been different ; yet the essential principle, the very idea governing it, would in no way have been altered.

Peignot is not another purely decorative variation on a hackneyed theme. It involves the creation of a new theme, one that will in time be the point of departure for decorative experiments that will influence succeeding styles and fashions.

Having considered at length the evolution of letter forms throughout history, the designer has acquired the conviction that there is no reason for his evolution to stop.

Sharing the ideals of simplification, purity and logic which inhabit all fields of contemporary art, the designer feels that there are only two ways of conceiving the sound A : either epigraphically (A) or cursively (a). each form correspond to an essentially different writing technique, and obviously the epigraphic form is far more logically suited to printing techniques than the cursive.

The palaeographic lesson to be drawn from the album published by Mssrs Mallon, Marichal and Perret and from Monsieur Mallon’s film on the evolution of the letter, is that obviously the lower-case form a was initially nothing other than the form A deformed by scribes, up to the invention of printing… In its efforts to imitate manuscripts, printing at first adopted the minuscule and this subsequently inspired all manner of decorative variations. This is true not only of the lower-case a, but of a large number of letters as well. For that matter, if c, i, o, s, u, v, x and y all retain the same original form in upper-and lower-case, it is merely because these simple shapes are easy to write and there was no need for scribes to simplify them further.

There is no technical reason in printing why we cannot return to the noble classical shapes of the alphabet and discard the lower-case forms, which will soon come to seem as archaic as the shapes of Gothic characters.

One condition alone must be fulfilled : the character must be legible. Now it is obvious that a text in capitals is less legible than a text in lower-case letters. Why is this so ? The only reason is that the word tends to assume a monotonous rectangular appearance offering no familiar distinguishing feature to assist the eye. The eye grasps the outline of a word or word group ; it does not spell out each letter. It does not break down the word into letters-only the proofreader’s eye does that.

The eye has become accustomed to long ascenders and descenders and this habit must be respected. That is why, in Peignot, we have not done away with those indispensable aids to rapid reading. None of the ascenders or descenders is anachronic, however : l, b and f are atrophied capitals ; h and k are capitals transformed into lances, for easy reading ; p, q and y are capitals which have dropped from the base line. Only one minuscule has been retained-the cursive form d. Our reading habits being what they are, it would not have been feasible to conceive it differently.

This new principle may jar the reader at first. But while there are honourable habits which deserve to be respected, there are others which can easily be dispensed with, since they have no deep physiological roots in the individual. New habits will replace them. Didot types would have jarred the sensibilities of medieval scribes.

Letters evolve very slowly over centuries. This is not to say that they have ceased evolving. It took the scribes ten centuries to alter the Roman capitals ; it will taken five centuries for printing to influence the basic shape of letters.

The rest was only a matter of talent and sensitivity-and on these points Cassandre could be trusted.

Cassandre, as we have seen, never made a secret of the fact that he preferred  capitals to lower-case letters. He liked their noble architecture based on the compass and T-square. This was an aesthetic choice. It reflected a bias toward the spirit of geometry rather than toward the spirit of refinement. In the lower-case Peignot characters, clear evidence of this is found in the capitals replacing the minuscules a, e, q, h, m, n, r. it is obvious too that, notwithstanding Cassandre’s affirmation that these substitutions are the result of a logical process based on historical considerations, his aesthetic choice was fundamentally subjective. The sharps of the lower-case Roman alphabet simply did not satisfy his standards of beauty.

To be sure, up to the great Carolingian reform of 789, writing-which was the province of scribes-did not evolve in a straight line. There were hesitations, transitional forms, reversions. But the reform, which was made necessary by the need to propagate ideas freely throughout the Holy Roman Empire, put an end to the vagueness, not to say anarchy, which had been the rule in this field for close to ten centuries.

What Cassandre was disputing, therefore, was the shape established by the Carolingian edict. But whereas the reformers had wisely chosen to perpetuate in a standardized form centuries of written practice, Cassandre proposed nothing less than a revolution. Now the history of writing, as we know, tells a story of gradual change, not violence.

“[…] There are conventions of an affective order, and characters and the way they are ordered procure certain satisfactions to the members of the human communities which use them, in accordance with the inclinations of their spirit. Even though it has definitely severed its ties with its pictographic origins, writing is related to the art of drawing ; like any art, it involves questions of mass psychology and the psychology of populations. Aesthetics and psychology are delicate subjects to handle and among the last to be approached with scientific methods […].”


Inasmuch as lower-case Peignot did not take psychological factors into account, it signed its own death warrant. The baleful effects of photo-composition have contributed to its failure. Strangely enough, though, on those rare occasions when it is used, its unique structural characteristics seem to predestine it to appear in titles, subtitles and even logos-a complete contradiction of its original purpose.

This is unfortunate. Lower-case Peignot is a handsome character ; it is elegant, sensitive, beautifully proportioned. Had it not been for its subversive aspects, it would doubtless have been the ideal vehicle for modern thought.

In January 1936, the Museum of Modern Art in New-York organized the first exhibition of Cassandre’s poster in America. The following sentence from Ernestine M. Fantl’s witty introduction to the catalogue suggest why, in the context of American advertising in the thirties, this exhibition was significant: “[…] Advertising in general is geared to the intelligence of a child in order to insure universal comprehension. In America the main emphases are apparent : Sex Appeal (young ladies of fabulous face and figure) ; Statistics (different but equally fabulous figures) ; Fear (will your best friend tell you ?). A tooth-paste advertisement achieved widespread notoriety by combining all three. Beneath the picture of a beautiful girl (formula No. 1) appears the legend “4 out of 5 have it” (formula No. 2),-the implication (formula No. 3) […].”

Cassandre designed an ideographic illustration for the cover of the catalogue : it shows an allegorical figure with its eye pierced by an arrow-an amusing way of expressing his view of advertising.

The exhibition made enough of an impact on American advertising circles, if not on the general public, for Cassandre, encouraged by some of his friends, to sign a contract with Harper’s Bazaar for the design of their covers, and to decide to spend the winter of 1936-1937 in New York.

For Cassandre, the thirties were rich in important encounters. Professionally, the most important was the encounter with Maurice Moyrand. It was Moyrand who commissioned Cassandre’s first railroad posters. His father, André Moyrand, was one of the directors of the Chemins de Fer du Nord. André Moyrand asked his son to find someone to design a poster for the Nord Express. Maurce Moyrand contacted Cassandre, whose work he was acquainted with and admired. This was the beginning of a relationship based on deep mutual esteem. Moyrand had exceptional gifts of his own. Thanks to his dynamic, daring personality and his extraordinary persuasiveness, he rose rapidly and was soon heading L. Danel’s publicity department in Paris. He went on to found the Compagnie Artistique de Publicité and then, in 1930, with Loupot and Cassandre, the Alliance Graphique. He commissioned over forty Cassandre’s French posters as well as several of Loupot’s designs and encouraged a number of younger artists entering the field. Moyrand made the Alliance Graphique the spearhead of the modern poster. He died in an automobile accident in 1934 ; to Cassandre, always on excellent terms with him, this was an irreparable loss.

In 1927 J. Th. Pick, the director of the Rotterdam publishers Nijgh en Van Ditmar, offered to go into partnership with Cassandre. The relationship between the two men was not limited to the publication of some ten Cassandre posters between 1927 and 1931. Pick and his wife frequently stayed at Cassandre’s house in Versailles, as did Cassandre and is mother at the Pick’s delightful property near The Hague.

I do not know whether it was Etienne Nicolas himself, Georges Draeger (who was running the prestigious printing establishment in Montrouge at the time) or Maurice Moyrand who commissioned Cassandre to design the first price list for Nicolas wines in 1930. In any event, this commission marked the beginning not only of Cassandre’s collaboration with the Draeger brother but also of his privileged relationship with Etienne Nicolas. “Le Père Nicolas”, as my father called him in a warm expression of his respect for the great entrepreneur (an enthusiastic art lover and distinguished collector of Dutch masters), was quite capable of recognizing Cassandre’s graphic talents and deciding on his own to hire the young artist to design the luxury publications which he printed himself in commissioning for his firm. A second price list, which Cassandre designed in a manner inspired by the court of Louis XIV, appeared in 1935, followed by a third price list in 1937, illustrated with woodcuts by Galanis (which had the added distinction of being the first publication composed in Peignot). Cassandre also designed a book for  Nicolas, Mon Docteur le Vin (1938), which was illustrated with watercolours by Dufy and was printed on the Draeger presses. Cassandre’s collaboration with the printers did not end there. In 1935 Draeger published Le Spectacle est dans la rue, an album of reproductions with an introduction by Blaise Cendars. In this beautiful book, the printers took pride in announcing that many of Cassandre’s posters had been printed on their presses. The artist’s relations with Draeger continued to be excellent and, as we will see, resulted in several further projects.

In the spring of 1935, Cassandre discovered Balthus and his paintings. Unless I am mistaken, it was Varia Karinska, who had just completed her costume designs for Antonin Artaud’s Cenci, who introduced them. My father did not get a chance to see this short-lived spectacle, with its beautiful stage designs by Balthus, but his meeting with the artist was to have an important bearing on his career in the future. Hitherto he had admired chiefly Bonnard, Derain and Segonzac. Balthus’ painting came as a revelation. Moreover, the artist’s personality captivated Cassandre-whose first reaction was to commission a portrait of my mother.

It was in the summer of that same year that, through Gerald Kelly, Cassandre met the American artist Leslie Saalburg and his wife Lola. Their friendship, cemented a year before Cassandre’s trip to the United States, paved the way, in a sense, for that visit. Leslie Saalburg’s work as an illustrator and advertising artist enabled him to travel back and forth between France and the United States. He encouraged Cassandre to try his luck on the other side of the Atlantic. In the fall of 1936, Leslie Saalburg, his mother Allen-also a painter-Jean Lurçat and Cassandre shared a studio in New York.

But before sailing for the United States, Cassandre spent the summer at Ghiffa on the shores of Lago Maggiore in Italy. This was no holiday stay, however-Cassandre never took a vacation ! As the Mussolini regime had passed a law forbidding Italian companies from commissioning French artists, Cassandre’s future publisher in that country, Augusto Coen, invited him to come and work in Italy during the summer as a way of circumventing this regulation. The three Italian posters of 1936 were designed at Ghiffa, with the collaboration of Savignac, who had been working as Cassandre’s assistant for several years and had loyally followed him to Italy. In order to obtain a visa from the all-powerful Italian Tourist Office, the posters were signed, in a transparent subterfuge, with the monogram A.M.C.

Henri Mouron, AM.CASANDRE.1984

Translated by Schirmer / Mosel Production 

Schirmer / Mosel Production © Mouron.Cassandre.All Rights Reserved.