Friday, 28 October 2011

The Poster King - Edward McKnight Kauffer

In the summer I joined the Islington Arts Society. This was partly to expand my circle of artistic acquaintances and partly to get the opportunity to exhibit my art.

One of the benefits of membership was an invitation on Wednesday evening to visit the Estorick Collection to see the exhibition The Poster King - Edward McKnight Kauffer and listen to a talk by the curator.

The core of the Estorick Collection is work from the Futurist movement and also includes modern Italian art dating from 1895 to the 1950s. Almost the first thing the curator did was to ask a question of himself: What is an artist born in Montana in the United States and settled in England doing on show in a gallery designed to promote Italian art? The answer, which is a bit tenuous, was that Edward McNight Kauffer drew a lot of his inspiration from Fauvism, Vorticism and Constructivism and this includes the work of Italian artists.

I'm familiar with Kauffer's poster designs for the London Underground encouraging passengers to explore the Surrey Hills in their spare time or rush to the Winter Sales or visit the Natural History Museum. I had no idea though that he had been at the forefront of commercial art when it was in its infancy in the early years of the 20th century.

His talent was spotted when a very young man by Joseph E McKnight, a professor at the University of Utah. This man became a benefactor and paid for Kauffer to continue his education in Paris in 1912. As a mark of gratitude Kauffer eventually incorporated his benefactor's surname into his own. At the outbreak of WWI Kauffer had to leave France and made for England and in 1915 received a commission to design posters for London Underground.

There were examples on display of finished artwork for some of the posters which I found fascinating. Having been a graphic design student in the 1970s I could appreciate the labour involved in creating these works. Whereas I recall struggling and failing to create anything worthwhile Kauffer had set the standards for commercial art for the rest of us to follow 60 years before.

Kauffer's heart appeared to lie in the pictorial side of posters rather than the typography. I know to my cost that doing typography well is very difficult to achieve and there are two examples on display where he had to patch over mistakes (I would love to have seen what was underneath).

The work Kauffer did for London Underground led him to receive commissions from various companies and publishing houses. this included work for Shell and BP - by this time the typography was being done by someone else - so Kauffer could concentrate on developing ways of incorporating new technology like photo-montage into his images. By 1925 Kauffer was so famous there was a retrospective exhibition of his work, and he was only 35. He continued being very productive until the outbreak of WWII when, as a US citizen and with commissions becoming scarce, he and his wife returned to live in the US.

It appears he did this with much regret and, although he continued to work, the last decade of his life didn't live up to the success he had enjoyed while settled in England.


Susan Caffrey said...

I appreciated your blog on the Kaufer evening. It certainly was a worthwhile evening. As you said it was important to see the mistakes that even talented artists can make.

I look forward to meeting you at the next exhibition.


Anonymous said...

Wow, you have been busy. I sit here in envy, the Blanton is the closest art museum to us but it is very limited with its shows. If ever I have the chance to visit the UK on my own I gorge on all the good art on show over there. For now I have to rely on your reviews and online viewing. Keep it up :)

Heather said...

Thanks Jacqui (and Susan). I'm glad you are enjoying the reviews. I've also been to see Tacita Dean's 'Film' installation at Tate Modern but I need to see it again before I can write about it so stay tuned...