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Early Posters: Kunstbibliothek Provides Access to Over 3,000 Downloads and Launches an Online Exhibition


In June 2022, the Kunstbibliothek finished the complete digitisation of its posters and poster designs from the period between 1840 and 1914 from the Graphic Design Collection. They are now available for further research and download via the Collections Online portal, and serve as visual sources from an era characterised by significant upheaval. The project’s first curated exhibition can now be explored virtually at DDBstudio, under the title Transfigured, Desired, Forgotten: Women in Early Poster Design.

Available for Download: Over 3,000 Image Files from the “Early Posters, 1840–1914” Collection

Thanks to a project funded through the NEUSTART KULTUR programme, the items in the “Early Posters, 1840-1914” collection will now be presented in their entirety on Collections Online, the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin’s online portal. Some 3,800 early posters from the Kunstbibliothek’s Graphic Design Collection were catalogued, scanned, transcribed and indexed by keywords. In addition to the keyword search, the website supplies short texts on around 1,500 posters, and provides the public with access to 3,200 copyright-free image files, which users can download. The collection features designers from 16 European countries and the United States. With this international diversity, the posters present a panorama of the visual communication of the era. They illustrate the history of design, advertising and printing during the transition from Historicist and Art Nouveau aesthetics to the emergence of the Sachplakat style, while also serving as valuable documents of contemporary and cultural history.

Online Exhibition: Women in Early Poster Design

They advertised everything from chocolate, insurance and exhibitions, and it was believed they would lure in audiences with their beauty. Around 1900, women were a popular motif in the nascent genre of the advertising poster. The online exhibition Transfigured, Desired, Forgotten: Women in Early Poster Design traces the way these posters gradually shifted from presenting “advertising ladies” to the feminist ideal of the “New Woman”. Stereotypes about women were abundant within early modern advertising. But these various stereotypes were in fact far removed from reality, with women in everyday life being refused the right to vote and denied access to education and employment. But the turn of the 20th century was also a time of burgeoning emancipation: soon, advertisements would show women riding bicycles and driving cars, and many of the previously rigid social norms were playfully disrupted. 

Pioneering Women in the History of Design

Women were not only present as motifs in fin-de-siècle advertising – they also made a name for themselves as designers and poster artists. The work of women artists was expressive, incisive, and imaginative. Despite social prejudices, women like Kasia von Szadurska, Ilse Schütze-Schur, Julie Wolfthorn, Aenne Koken and Ethel Reed managed to pursue professional artistic careers.

The online exhibition at the Deutsche Digitale Bibliothek shows posters by female design pioneers from Germany, France, England and the USA. Their fascinating lives are told through their work. Only 40 female designers are represented in the collection of early posters at the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin’s Kunstbibliothek, as compared to 957 men. This display seeks to spark further research into these oft-forgotten women.

Colonial Contexts: Online Publication in the Pipeline

As popular advertising media, posters around 1900 also reflect the zeitgeist of an era marked by the process of industrialisation and colonial empire-building. As part of its research project “Colonial Contexts in Early Posters", the Kunstbibliothek has identified works with colonial connections: from documents of everyday culture shaped by uncritical, colonialist thinking through to product advertising – primarily for coffee, tea, palm oil, cigarettes and other “colonial goods” – with exoticising or racist elements. The project is investigating the ideology behind the imagery of advertising. The outcomes will be published online.