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This colour poster was produced using the second great technology of printing, lithography, which is the most common form of printing today (in a much more sophisticated form known as offset lithography). Building on this basic framework-words and images, lines and colours-we have arrived at the complex and fascinating visual medium that is the modern poster.
Consider the two posters that use one of Canada's most endearing (and enduring) symbols, the beaver (Castor canadensis). The simpler poster has an effective headline and a lovely (if small) woodcut illustration. It communicates perfectly well. But the rich, dense undergrowth of the Roots poster, by Heather Cooper, suggests so much more: a fantasy world of medieval tapestries and magic gardens. Looking at both beavers closely, we see that images, depending on how they are rendered and reproduced, are often more than what they appear.
Figure 3: Advertisement for volunteers for the Sportsmen's Patriotic Association and the care of returning soldiers, 1915?
Figure 4: Advertisement by Heather Cooper for Roots Canada Ltd.
Letterpress printers worked hard to overcome the limitations of their technology. The poster announcing a "Grande assemblée" for the Honourable Ernest Bertrand uses many different type styles at once, trying to catch our eye despite the lack of pictures. Because early images had to be individually cut into wood or metal, at great time and expense, they were used only for important subjects. When a Mohawk Methodist church was burned down in December 1875, illustrations of the scene both before and after the fire were produced within a week, resulting in this "Oka Outrage" poster. This is really a form of photojournalism, only without the help of fast cameras and photographic reproduction.
Figure 5: Bilingual notice for town meeting in support of the Honourable Ernest Bertrand, Minister of Fisheries, 1945?
Figure 6: Meeting notice to be held in Montréal to discuss the tearing down of a Methodist Church in Oka which occurred on December 8, 1875
Sometimes the level of ornamentation on early posters could be quite elaborate, as the border and main lettering on this notice for Russell's Hotel shows us. Such decorative uses of type were lovingly preserved and studied for generations afterward. The designers at the Cooper & Beatty typesetting firm reproduced a selection of vintage wine labels, displayed photographically on this poster from the 1970s.
Figure 7: Advertisement for Russell's Hotel, Palace Street, Québec
Figure 8: Advertisement displaying vintage wine labels, reproduced by the Cooper & Beatty typesetting firm
Once lithography was developed, artists could draw an image by hand in colour on a stone and use it to print detailed posters. The Grenville Brewery in Prescott, Ontario, thought that a grand view of its factory would help sell its ale. Nowadays, modern advertisers usually choose to show you their product or better yet, attractive people using it.
The next huge step in the art of the poster came with the arrival of technology to reproduce photographs. The Canadian Illustrated News was so excited by the upcoming visit of Prince Arthur (Queen Victoria's son) to Montréal in 1869 that it developed and used a new technology just to capture the event. The halftone, then known as the Leggotype (after its co-inventor William Leggo), was revolutionary: for the first time, photographs (an invention that at this time was about 40 years old) could be transferred directly to printing plates. This greatly expanded the ability of posters to communicate. In later years, further innovations would see colour photography reproduced as well.
Figure 9: Advertisement for the Grenville Brewerey in Prescott, Ontario
Figure 10: Leggotype print of His Royal Highness Prince Arthur, Canadian Illustrated News, Vol. I, Oct. 30, 1869, p. 1
Figure 11: Colour portrait of the Royal Family featuring King George VI, Queen Elizabeth, and the Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret Rose, ca. 1935
Posters employ more than mechanical technologies, however. The different styles at play in rendering typography and images are also a form of social technology. Compare the feeling and intent we can read from the "objective" photograph on Joseph R. "Joey" Smallwood's campaign poster, with our impression from Theo Dimson's greatly simplified (and some might say glorified) illustration for a theatre production. The powerful, expressionist directness of Mayo's movie poster for Coal Face seems far removed from the subtle and musical style Ken Dallison uses for the National Arts Centre Orchestra. Athletes leap accompanied by a symphony of dynamic but harmonious colour, while dancers crouch in a dense, obscure thicket. Abstract shapes have long provided a stand-in for sound, from the repeated curves of the number "9" to evoke Beethoven's great symphony, to the visual invention of Neville Smith's treatise on sound (later revived as a promotion for an Ottawa gift shop, named Folio). From an expressive caricature of a Quebec playwright looming over the playhouse, to more concrete, objective forms drawn from science, the design of posters creates new visual tools, altering our very understanding of the meaning of form along the way.
Figure 12: Campaign poster of Joseph R. Smallwood, the Newfoundland Liberal Party
Figure 13: Advertisement for the play Joey -- or "God Created Man But I Created Newfoundland," Toronto Workshop Productions, Rising Tide Theatre, Toronto, January 12, 1982
Figure 14: Advertisement for the film Coal Face: Canada Carries On, produced by the National Film Board
Figure 15: Advertisement for the National Arts Centre Orchestra, Mario Bernardi conductor
Figure 16: Advertisment for subscriptions to the 92 - 93 Dance Series, National Arts Centre
Figure 17: Advertisement for Beethoven's 9th Symphony, performed by the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal, December 14, 1980
Figure 18: Advertisement for the Folio gift shop, designed by Neville Smith, Ottawa
Figure 19: Advertisement for singer Robert Charlebois, designed by Vittorio Fiorucci, 1969
Figure 20: Advertisement for basketball, Ministère de l'Éducation, Governement du Québec
Figure 21: Advertisement for an exhibition of students' projects from international schools of industrial design, April 28 to October 27, 1967
Developments in printing technology have had an enormous impact on the form-and power-of the poster. A vast array of visual techniques, developed throughout the long history of the poster, has emerged in response to our seemingly infinite need to communicate. And this has helped produce a separate technology: the set of visual effects and possibilities that are the tools of contemporary design itself.
Professor Brian Donnelly
Sheridan Institute of Technology and Advanced Learning
Sheridan Institute Joint Program in Design
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