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The Poster King: Edward McKnight Kauffer

Autumn Woods, 1938. Poster, 101.6 x 63.5 cm. ©London Transport Museum.

Exhibition preview

THIS autumn, the Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art is hosting a major exhibition exploring the work of one of the key figures of British Modernism with The Poster King: Edward McKnight Kauffer.

This landmark exhibition – on display from September 14 to December 18, 2011 – comprises some 50 pioneering works of graphic design and illustration by this fascinating and multi-faceted personality.

A remarkably versatile artist, Edward McKnight Kauffer (1890-1954) drew on a wide variety of styles in creating his works, from Japanese art to Fauvism, Constructivism and Surrealism, and his oeuvre encompassed painting, applied art, interior design and scenography.

Yet it is his celebrated posters created for clients such as London Underground and Shell during the inter-war years for which he remains most famous. Kauffer produced some of the most iconic and influential commercial imagery of the early 20th century – not only in British terms, but internationally.

His work in the field of graphic design ranks alongside the achievements of fellow avant-garde figures such as T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis, all of whom, like Kauffer, had roots in the United States yet established their careers in London.

The exhibition will provide a stimulating overview of the artist’s career, focusing particularly on his time in England (1914-40), when his most famous works were created. It will also incorporate a nucleus of lesser-known early pieces reflecting the aesthetics of Vorticism, Cubism and Italian Futurism – Kauffer sharing the latter movement’s concern with bringing art into everyday life and engaging a mass audience.

Also included will be a fascinating collection of Kauffer-related ephemera including sketches and photographs, and a number of original artworks in the form of paintings and studies for posters.

Born in Montana in 1890, Edward Kauffer revealed a precocious talent for drawing that perhaps provided a sense of escape from the austerity of his early life. Placed in an orphanage for two years from the age of three after the divorce of his parents, the young Kauffer undertook menial jobs in order to supplement the family’s meagre income following the remarriage of his mother in 1899.

His artistic gifts were encouraged by his stepfather, and by the age of seventeen Kauffer had established himself as a painter. Having initially worked on backdrops for the opera house in his hometown of Evansville, in 1907 Kauffer was employed by a travelling repertory theatre, where he was taken under the wing of one of the company’s actors, Frank Bacon.

It was Bacon who subsequently found Kauffer a position at a San Francisco bookshop in 1910 – thereby being indirectly responsible for what was undoubtedly the single most important encounter of his early life. A regular customer at the shop was Prof. Joseph E. McKnight of the University of Utah, who recognised the young man’s talent and, in 1912, offered to fund his studies in Paris.

The depth of Kauffer’s gratitude to McKnight was revealed by the incorporation of his benefactor’s surname into his own.

En route to France, Kauffer studied in Chicago, where in 1913 he visited the epoch-making Armory Show – a vast exhibition showcasing work by the leading representatives of Post-Impressionism and the myriad currents that it comprised, including Fauvism, Expressionism and Cubism.

Even more formative was his discovery of Ludwig Hohlwein’s poster art during a visit to Munich, his vibrantly-coloured yet elegant imagery typifying the German plakatstil that made the country a leader in the sphere of commercial art at this time, and proving that this relatively new medium could constitute a vehicle for the very highest artistic aspirations.

The outbreak of the First World War forced Kauffer to move to England, where he remained for over two decades. Struggling to find work, he achieved a major breakthrough in 1915 when he was taken on by London Underground’s Publicity Manager, Frank Pick. As the Vorticist painter Wyndham Lewis stated: “the tunnels of the ‘Tube’ became thenceforth his subterranean picture galleries”. It was also Lewis who coined the phrase ‘The Poster King’ to describe Kauffer.

At this time Kauffer’s influences were Van Gogh and Fauvism, as revealed in two early posters promoting visits to Oxhey Woods and Watford, in which trees with blue or black foliage fringed with gold cast shadows across sulphur-yellow paths. Indeed, in these years Kauffer primarily considered himself a painter rather than a graphic designer, as his involvement with the London Group of artists from 1916 illustrates.

A poster created to advertise an exhibition of this association reflects something of the savage primitivism characterising the work of its artists, epitomised by the carved amulets of Henri Gaudier-Brzeska and Jacob Epstein’s sinister sculpture The Rock Drill.

Around this time, Kauffer came into contact with the Vorticist group, leading to a significant stylistic shift in his work, whereby the painterly, figurative language of his early imagery was increasingly invaded by the hard-edged vocabulary favoured by the movement. This can clearly be seen in motifs such as that of Flight – Kauffer’s most famous image, and subsequently adopted for the newspaper Daily Herald – as well as a work promoting Vigil Silk.

Here an agglomeration of splintered planes evokes the clustered geometric forms characteristic of the Vorticist style while also showcasing the company’s textile designs. As the critic Richard Cork has observed: “the principal way in which the lessons of Vorticism were to be disseminated in England after the war was through [Kauffer’s] outstanding posters”.

Never an official member of the original Vorticist group, Kauffer adhered to Lewis’s abortive post-war association, X Group, taking part in its only exhibition in 1920. A self portrait by each artist appeared in the catalogue, a study for which is included in the exhibition. The disintegration of this group coincided with – and perhaps inspired – Kauffer’s decision to concentrate on graphic design from then on.

Returning to England in 1922 after a brief and unsuccessful visit to the States, Kauffer embarked on another set of striking and dynamic posters for the Underground promoting winter shopping sales, followed by a further series advertising London’s museums.

A swirling image of 1922 recalls the famous cinema poster for Alfred Hitchcock’s film Vertigo (in fact Kauffer did produce designs for the opening credits of Hitchcock’s 1926 movie The Lodger).

As an American citizen, Kauffer was unable to represent Britain in the famous 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes, the title of which gave rise to the term ‘Art Deco’ to denote the new tendency towards geometric forms exhibited by the works on display. However, Kauffer’s artistic antennae proved as sensitive as ever to the repercussions of the show.

Kauffer was ‘simultaneously, a leader of genius and a follower; a brilliant innovator and an absorber of influences’. This is nowhere more apparent than in relation to the work of one of the Exposition’s stars – the Italian Futurist Fortunato Depero – whose characteristic fairytale world was evoked by Kauffer in posters promoting the ‘summertime pleasures’ accessible by train.

That same year, a decade of Kauffer’s art was celebrated with a retrospective exhibition presenting book jackets, drawings, newspaper advertisements and posters – proof that the latter represented only one strand of his artistic activity.

Kauffer’s sensitive and sympathetic illustrations for books led to commissions from publishing houses such as Francis Meynell’s Nonesuch Press, as well as to enduring friendships with poets such as T. S. Eliot, John Betjeman and Aldous Huxley, among others.

Kauffer also met with success as a designer of furnishings – his abstract designs for rugs being realised by the Royal Wilton Carpet Company – and experimented with advanced photographic techniques to create murals by projecting images onto walls treated with photosensitive emulsion, such as that at Brighton’s modernist Embassy Court.

Between 1927 and 1929, Kauffer worked for Crawford’s advertising agency, based in the equally cutting-edge office block at 233 High Holborn, designed by the Vorticist artist Frederick Etchells. During these years Kauffer’s style became marked by the economic geometry of Constructivism, while his interest in modern techniques of reproduction continued – elements of photomontage being incorporated into his imagery.

During the 1930s, Kauffer’s main patron was Shell-Mex – the combined publicity arm of both Shell and BP – and he was taken under the wing of its head of publicity, Jack Beddington. The exhibition includes a number of images from this series.

Often drawing on Surrealist influences and iconography, the works of these years also saw Kauffer return to a more ‘painterly’ style, as in a poster for London Underground of 1938 entitled Autumn Woods. Kauffer also returned to his roots in another sense during these years, designing sets and costumes for the ballet Checkmate, performed at Sadler’s Wells in 1937.

Although Kauffer was by now an important part of the British artistic establishment, joining the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Advisory Council in 1935, he found work increasingly difficult to come by as the nation slid towards war, and in 1940 he returned to America with his second wife, Marion Dorn.

There, he worked for clients such as the publishers Random House and American Airlines. A fresh, breezy image of sailing boats dating from 1950, advertising flights to Chicago, is typical of Kauffer’s late work. However, his final years were marked by personal sadness and a sense of disorientation that arose from feelings of being torn between his status as an American citizen and his love for England.

Kauffer spoke of feeling “part instead of a whole” and bitterly regretted his decision to leave his adoptive home, stating in a letter to Jack Beddington that “England is a touchy spot with us – we break down on the slightest provocation. The last thing at night – the first thing in the morning – our thoughts are of England”. Kauffer died in New York in 1954.

The Poster King is a celebration of the ways in which the work of this remarkable artistic émigré enriched, informed and transformed the visual culture of Britain, drawing on major holdings of Kauffer’s work including those of the Victoria and Albert Museum and the London Transport Museum, as well as the archives of Shell and BP, and items from the collection of the family.

The Poster King Gallery

United Artists of Italy continues at the Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art until September 4, 2011.

Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art, 39a Canonbury Square, London, N1