The first Swiss Posters: travel posters

As Switzerland became a popular travel destination at the turn of the century, the need for promotion arose. It was the era of massive railway construction projects, the emergence of steamship companies and palaces that catered to a wealthy and demanding clientele. Transport companies and resorts had to stand out from the lot to attract this sought after clientele and posters became the ideal promotional tool.
As early as the 1880s, Switzerland relied on posters to promote itself as a tourist destination and outdo its neighbours and rivals, notably France. These travel posters had only one goal, to inform tourists of the beauty and activities of a given region. These travel posters were created in the wake of the more traditional approach to tourism promotion where a central representation of a region was associated with a geographical map and/or a train or ship timetable depending on which sponsor had ordered the poster. These posters all looked alike and could not be described as very original. Due to the intense competition among the numerous resorts to attract tourists, poster production became a truly industrialised process. Hence, the quality was not what it should have been because there was little time dedicated to their production as sponsors were not too keen to pay for original art work. Given the limited Swiss marketplace and the huge costs involved in the reproduction of posters in all national languages, sponsors were not interested in investing too much money in artistic creation. Another reason for the lack of originality of these travel posters was the absence of interest for this art form in Swiss art schools; a far cry from the situation in other countries where art nouveau posters were gaining in popularity in Paris and in other European capitals.

All this finally changed in 1903 when the Federal Railways organised a contest to choose the artist who would produce their first posters. The objective of the competition was to create six promotional posters for different destinations and the contest was open to all creators living in Switzerland as well as to Swiss artists living abroad. The contest was an immense success. Renowned artists participated, a fact that demonstrates that posters had become a recognised art form in Switzerland. The jury of the contest rewarded the younger generation of artists such as Plinio Colombi (1873-1951), Edmond Bille or Jules Courvoisier.

Cardinaux Emil, Zermatt, Cervin, 4505m, Suisse, 1908, Lithographie en couleurs, 104 x 73 cm
Cardinaux Emil, Zermatt, Cervin, 4505m, Suisse, 1908, Lithographie en couleurs, 104 x 73 cm

This new generation of posters differs from its predecessors in composition and motifs. In these, a unique landscape was represented, not a composite of many pictures of a same region. The locations themselves were the subject of the posters, not transportation means nor equipment as was the case before. Furthermore, the people represented on these posters were natives rather than tourists. The idea was to offer a timeless, idyllic image of the region.

The 1908 poster The Matterhorn by Emil Cardinaux , created in this new style is quite outstanding and is often considered the first “modern” poster. It is a close up view of the mountain, which appears overdimensioned; it is drawn with great simplicity using warm colours laid flat. Since then, The Matterhorn has become a reference that still inspires graphic artists today. The idea is to illustrate the beauty of a given landscape by a symbolic representation. The work of Swiss graphic artists can be seen as the fusion of two styles; the German style characterised by sobriety, simplicity and colour contrasts and the French style dominated by colours and fluidity of lines. From this union a distinctive “Swiss style” was born.

As Switzerland became an increasingly popular tourist destination, the tradition of the travel poster continued to flourish in the country. It is interesting to note that, while the style did evolve over time alongside the evolution of graphic art and technique, the models themselves remained unchanged. If a photograph were substituted to Emil Cardinaux’s lithography. the result would be utterly contemporary. This enduring model is so entrenched in the collective mind, it is has become inescapable; it is almost impossible to modify it without thwarting people’s expectations.

Last modification 15.10.2009

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