By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Jun 04, 2012 at 5:05 AM

Parisian posters are ubiquitous. More than a century after their heyday, the world is still enthralled by them.

Milwaukee Art Museum's new show, "Posters of Paris: Toulouse-Lautrec and His Contemporaries," which opened this weekend and runs through Sept. 9, helps explain why.

With 101 posters, and another dozen objects, "Posters of Paris" focuses on the 15-year period of postermania (affichomanie in French), that ran from about 1885 until about 1900, according to exhibition curator Mary Weaver Chapin.

"What we're trying to do is (explain) the story of how Paris became the city of posters and by the 1890s, the city was completely covered in posters," says Chapin, who returns to the museum from Oregon, where she now works as curator of graphic arts at the Portland Art Museum.

"You'd see them on the walls, on Morris columns, on little mobile carts being pulled through the city and on the backs of sandwich board men. They were just so ubiquitous in a way that is very hard for us to recapture today when the poster is not really a relevant advertising medium."

And, she says, the poster was involved in a conversation with French artists of the day – who included the likes of Seurat, Degas and Cezanne.

"They were all over the city. All the artists would have seen them," she says.

Of course, Toulouse-Lautrec was an example of an artist who made his mark in the poster world, too.

Part of what makes the poster era so exciting is that it was like the Wild West in terms of expression.

"There was a wide variety of visual language," says Chapin. "There are people like Lautrec influenced by Japanese prints, working in a very avant garde style, there are people like (Jules) Cheret looking backward to the rococo and then there were other artists working in a somewhat realistic style.

"There was no one accepted style. Each age has its own accepted style. This was a free for all. They didn't have the science of advertising, the psychology of advertising, so they were making it up as they went along, which I think is really rich."

And the show offers up that richness. The 101 posters – 30 from MAM's own collection and works on loan from private collectors and institutions like The Art Institute of Chicago, New York's Museum of Modern Art, Washington's National Gallery of Art and others – trace the dawn of the genre in the 1870s with works by Cheret, on through the more contemporary look of Lautrec's works, the dreamy figures in Eugene Grasset's posters, Henri Gray's allegorical advertising figures, right up through the scene-changing posters of Italian expat Leonetto Cappiello.

Though Lautrec's better-known name graces the name of the exhibition, Cheret is the real star. His elongated figures make his posters instantly recognizable, but his was more than just an artistic voice. Chapin says that Cheret's innovations in the late 1870s ignited the explosion of the poster.

"He's known as the father of the poster or the king of the poster and he really almost single-handedly invented this new genre: the artistic poster," she says. "There are a couple of things that led to the possibility of the artistic poster. One was the increases in the number of posters that could be produced on steam-powered presses.

"Another thing that allowed this to happen was that Cheret figured out really economical means to introduce color. Each color requires a different stone and these are huge massive limestones very difficult to move. And Cheret started overlapping colors and using this fine spatter and that creates intermediate tones. So, he brought a new scale to the poster, he brought artistic design and he brought new means of color. He was sort of this one-man phenomenon."

Cheret set the stage for affichomanie, but the glory days of the French poster were short-lived. By the first decade of the 20th century, Cappiello and others were living in a new world and their posters capture the spirit – and the requirements – of the altered landscape.

"It is the first hint of what is to come later," Chapin says of Cappiello's work.

"Cappiello is really the bridge to the new vocabulary of the 20th century. The world was changing; it was faster paced. People needed to be able to read the message of a poster from a distance very, very quickly and instantly grab what was being advertised. His big contribution and gift was the elimination of a lot of background detail and this really memorable pairing with an image that would stick in your mind."

Even the most casual observer will discover familiar images in "Posters of Paris." We've seen these images hanging in restaurants, in books, on postcards, in modern-day poster shops. A century after these posters were created, galleries still host exhibitions and massive sales of French posters.

That's because they are pitch-perfect in capturing the joyous spirit of fin-de-siecle Paris, says Chapin.

"People love them, don't they? I think it's the fact that they're easy to read and this wonderful combination of letters and text. They were so effective at capturing this French joy," she says.

"German posters of this period look very different. Even Belgian posters and Dutch posters. But there was this wonderful joie de vivre in the French posters that I think now if you want to evoke the 1890s in Paris, you put up one of these posters and people instantly make those associations. Interestingly, even at the time they talked about that: what is the French poster? The essence of the French poster is gaiety, liveliness. There's a real nationalist discourse about what made a French poster or a German poster or an American poster."

For details on tickets, hours, promotions and events related to "Posters of Paris," visit MAM online.

Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.

He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.

With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.

He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.

In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.

He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.