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May 26 - August 12, 2001 at San Diego Museum of Art, West Hollywood

by Orville O. Clarke, Jr.

Every now and then you run across an exhibition that looks this intriguing, offering the potential to deal with a substantial issue in the history of art, while it brings together a varied body of stimulating and significant images that also happen to be flat out visually entertaining. High Societies is just such an exhibition.

The museum has brought together posters from three different cultures and eras that first appear to have little to do with one another. Upon closer inspection, they offer a harmonious transition across time. Graphic art from Japan (Japanese Woodblock Prints and the Floating World of Edo) is joined with French posters (Toulouse-Lautrec and the Cabarets of Montmartre) to complement Rock posters from the 1960s (Psychedelic Rock Posters of Haight-Ashbury).

What a splendid idea, to bring together such a diverse grouping of images dealing with various aspects of pleasure-driven cultures spanning over a century.

One of the great problems that has faced museums and their curators who act as the guardians for the "Gates of Art History" has been the reluctance to include commercial graphic design as part of that canon. The battle over "High" (painting, sculpture, and architecture) and "Low" (graphic design, ceramics, and photography among others) art has been a central and critical issue for art historians during the last hundred years. Now you can judge for yourselves whether the Rock posters properly deserve inclusion alongside the accepted status of their French and Japanese ancestors.

Robert Fried, "Family Dog
Presents the Charlatans",
poster, 1967.

Stanley Mouse and Alton
Kelley, "Family Dog Presents the
Grateful Dead", poster, 1967.

Ikeda Eisen, "Hanakatsura
of Tamaya," color
woodblock, c. 1825.

Henri de Toulouse-
Lautrec, "Divan
Japonais," poster, 1893.
Long ignored by the mainstream art world, these dazzling posters from the "Hippie" culture of the 1960s are here argued to be the logical successors to these earlier moments. The counter-culture era, which rebelled against the morals and work ethics of an "uptight, repressed American culture" celebrated "sex, drugs, and rock and roll." The overall effect of the 171 posters is an exhilarating visual experience. The threads that link these three diverse cultures are apparent.

The Japanese prints are noted for their flat perspective, bold designs, brilliant use of line, and vibrant colors. We are granted a view into the Ukiyo-E, or "floating world" of 19th-century Edo, now Tokyo. Ikieda Eisen's Hanakatsura of Tamaya (1852) depicts the elegant female entertainers, or geishas. The broad areas of flat, unshaded color, elimination of unnecessary detail, along with the simplified use of line, creates the prototype for the modern ad. Its effect on European art was to be substantial.

Toulouse-Lautrec and his fellow Impressionists were awed by the Japanese artists' techniques and quickly adopted many of those ideas for their work. This was aided by two exhibitions of woodblock prints in Montmartre curated by artist Vincent Van Gogh. Lautrec's poster, Divan Japonais, is a classic example of the dramatic changes that were brought about by this new foreign style. The bold, flat expanse of black that creates the dominant figure of the woman in the foreground is a direct homage to the Japanese artists. Lautrec's advertisements for the Paris nightclubs, especially his unforgettable images of Aristide Bruant, became the foundation for much modern graphic design--especially rock posters.

The artists in the 1960s, such as Stanley Mouse and Wes Wilson, were trying to capture the action and excitement of the concert scene, just as Lautrec and his Japanese counterparts had done earlier for their cultures. These artists were highly aware of the work done by their French and Japanese ancestors. Images such as Family Dog Presents the Grateful Dead. . . distinctively define their time and place, but still display the same compositional technique, elimination of details, and understanding of the key role played by type that Lautrec pioneered.

High Societies presents a unique collection of graphic images rarely shown in such quantity or diversity and offers a revealing glimpse into the seductive beauty of great graphic design.