Swiss poster history

1843 Murten
Purely informative poster for the “Open Shooting Tournament for Honour and Sport” in Murten, 1843

Swiss posters are recognised worldwide for the excellence of their graphic design. From the Swiss travel posters of the early twentieth century to the Sachplakat or Object poster, from the Art Concret or the International Style, Swiss posters have had great international influence on this art form.

Anonyme, Exposition d’art suisse au nouveau bâtiment des expositions, du 8 septembre au 3 octobre 1852, 1852, Typographie, 72,5 x 53,5 cm
Anonyme, Exposition d’art suisse au nouveau bâtiment des expositions, du 8 septembre au 3 octobre 1852, 1852, Typographie, 72,5 x 53,5 cm

The history of this information medium posted in public places dates back many hundred years. But the poster, the printed sheet of paper on public display was born with the printing industry in the 15th century while the modern poster first appeared in the 19th century.
The modern poster characterised by simple colourful motifs printed on large size paper is a direct by-product of both: the invention of lithography and the industrial revolution.

Anonyme. Sternengasse 18, brasserie en plein air de Bühl, bière de Munich, le 8 juin 1890… annonce d’un concert des orchestres de Thoune et d’Andermatt (26 musiciens), solistes… Typographie et Lithographie en couleurs; 1890, 124 x 93 cm
Poster for Bühler’s Beer Garden in Basel, 1890

For centuries, the poster was essentially informative in nature; it was the only information medium, which could be used to inform the masses and it is the reason why governments used them as means to maintain their authority. During the 19th century unprecedented economic and urban development brought about the massive production of posters. Numerous businesses, industries, theatres and circuses were created and turned to posters to publicize their activities, to sell their merchandise or to attract visitors. To attract the public’s attention, creators constantly strived to stand out by changing typographic fonts and by trying out inventive designs although it was the introduction of illustrations that truly increased their impact as publicity tools.

Jeanmaire Edouard, Panorama de Lucerne, passage de l'armée française aux Verrières-Suisse, 1891, Lithographie en couleurs, 95,5 x 74,5 cm
Promotional poster for the Bourbaki Panorama, 1890

The first illustrations were representations reminiscent of popular imagery and book illustrations. The pictures, rich in details had to be closely examined and the text still dominated the page. Sponsors soon realised that by adding a motif they were able to capture the attention of passers-by who stopped to look at the poster and absorbed its content at the same time. Thus the evolution of the poster had started from an essentially written content to a pictorial medium. The use of colour lithography further accelerated this process.


Hodler Ferdinand, Ferdinand Hodler, Kunsthaus Zürich, du 14 juin au 5 août 1917, 1917, Lithographie en couleurs, 132 x 92 cm
Poster by Ferdinand Hodler for his exhibition at the Kunsthaus Zurich, 1917

Lithography is a process based on the chemical repellence of oil and water. It was invented in 1798 by Alois Senefelder in Bavaria. This technique allows drawing directly on a piece of limestone with a pencil or greasy ink and then rinsing it with water. Oily ink, applied with a roller, adheres only to the drawing and is repelled by the wet parts of the stone. The print is then made by pressing paper against the inked drawing. This process, which can be repeated indefinitely, has totally modified the artist’s relationship to his work. There is no need to call upon a specialised engraver to engrave the initial creation onto wood or metal. The use of limestone in the poster printing process allows the same flexibility and detail one has when drawing directly on paper while fulfilling the requirements of cost reduction, handling and surface. Given these reasons, this new flat printing process quickly spread throughout Europe and has constantly evolved since then.

At first, artists shied away from posters because they were too closely linked to commercial publicity. Subservient to the demands of sponsors, the commercial poster left very little space for creativity. When artists did create posters they often preferred not to sign them. Other artists like Ferdinand Hodler, managed to make a living from their art and therefore preferred to ignore this process, which was deemed rather demeaning. They usually only created posters to publicize their own exhibits.

It was only in the 1880s that artists recognised the artistic possibilities of posters and their visual impact on people on the street. The movement began in Paris with posters created by artists like Toulouse-Lautrec and Jules Chéret before spreading throughout Europe … bypassing Switzerland at the time! Hence Swiss creators often worked abroad, artists such as Théophile Alexandre Steinlen and Eugène Grasset, two famous art nouveau artists in Paris. Little by little, posters evolved from the initial informative, typographic written page to an art form recognised as such. This new aesthetic was inspired by the Art nouveau movement with its writhing plant forms and curved lines and Japanese prints which were quite in vogue at that time. It was characterised by flat representations with little depth, vivid and numerous colours as well as simple forms with blackened contours. These posters had to be observed at a distance rather than close-by and, consequently there was no need to stop to have a look at them. The modern poster was born!

Last modification 18.11.2010

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