An exhibition doesn’t have to be a big blockbuster to be a smash hit. Take this mighty month-long pop-up installation of four posters at MoMA that I just happened to stumble upon.

In an intimate cul-de-sac overlooking the museum’s vast second floor gallery, two Vienna Secession exhibition posters by founding members Alfred Roller and Koloman Moser hung alongside Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s The Scottish Musical Review and a recent museum acquisition, The Glasgow Institute of the Fine Arts by sisters Margaret and Frances Macdonald, and J. Herbert MacNair. “We thought this a perfect opportunity to let these four unique graphic posters ‘speak’ to each other,” said Arièle Dionne-Krosnick, architecture and design curatorial assistant, who organized the installation. Like old friends, these posters continued the artistic exchange begun by their designers over a century ago.

As the 1890s leaned into the 20th century, these six designers, and their contemporaries in Glasgow and Vienna, experimented with dynamic new approaches to illustration, lettering, and scale. In order to achieve dramatic new heights, these posters, which range from six to eight feet tall, had to be printed in several sections. The cozy 14 x 12.5-foot gallery permitted close examination of such details and a chance to compare the four 3-color lithographs, with focus on the progressive simplification of the human figure and stylization of letterforms. Illustration and lettering shifted away from art nouveau’s complex curvilinear forms derived from nature, towards more simplified geometric shapes and patterns. Image and text grew more synonymous and symbolism inched out representation.

Courtesy Architecture and Design Collection, Museum of Modern Art.
“The Glasgow Institute of the Fine Arts,” c. 1896, lithograph, by Margaret Macdonald, Frances Macdonald, and J. Herbert McNair. Courtesy Architecture and Design Collection, Museum of Modern Art.

The Glasgow Institute of the Fine Arts was a collaboration between the Macdonald sisters and McNair. The three, along with Mackintosh, were students at the Glasgow School of Art where they were dubbed “The Four” because of their close work on designs for furniture, metalwork, and illustration. So close were they, in fact, that Frances and McNair married in 1899 and Margaret and Mackintosh in 1900.

The Glasgow Institute poster, as summarized in the exhibition labels, features two androgynous figures that “subvert conventional gender distinctions and imbue the composition with mystical, otherworldly overtones. The use of sinuous, abstracted figures and organic plant and floral forms connected the work of The Four with the European Art Nouveau movement and found favor across progressive arts publications and among the Vienna Secessionists.”

While the illustration in this poster is well executed, the lettering in the cartouche below feels awkward and unsteady, particularly the “S” and “R.” Yet, an effort to relate lettering to illustration is revealed in the exaggerated lengths of the crossbars of the uppercase “E” and “F” and the bottom stroke of the “L” in Glasgow, which extends under adjacent letters “A” and “S.”

The overall vertical shape of the inscription at left complements the tall, slender format of the poster and the elongated figures, but it tugs at the composition’s symmetry. The letters, while more geometric and stylized than those at bottom, are cumbersome and inconsistent.

Courtesy Museum of Modern Art.
Details from “The Glasgow Institute of the Fine Arts” by Margaret Macdonald, Frances Macdonald, and J. Herbert McNair. Courtesy Architecture and Design Collection, Museum of Modern Art.

Further inspection of the poster reveals a clever construction. What looks like a vertical line separating the first and second columns of stacked letters is actually a modified “J” wrapped around and completing McNair’s name. The other vertical line is an extension of the main stroke of the “F” in Frances. To align the three names at top and bottom, Margaret is abbreviated “MARGT” and the “S” in Frances tucks into the “E”. Although it’s not clear how the three designers collaborated, the inconsistency leaves the impression that different people rendered various components.

Courtesy Museum of Modern Art.
Poster designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh for the magazine, The Scottish Musical Review, 1896, lithograph. Courtesy Architecture and Design Collection, Museum of Modern Art.

Mackintosh’s 1896 lithograph advertising the magazine, The Scottish Musical Review—the largest of the posters—was printed in four sections and measures 97 x 37 inches. The poster features human and plant forms, as well as songbirds “integrated into abstract patterns illustrating themes of spiritual transformation; decay and renewal, day and night. The unconventional stylization of the androgynous figure owed much to the experimental approach that Mackintosh shared with the rest of the Glasgow group. The analogy with music—a model of synthetic unity—was a major theme in critical writing about the New Art.”

Courtesy Museum of Modern Art.
Detail from The Scottish Musical Review by Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Courtesy Architecture and Design Collection, Museum of Modern Art.

While The Scottish Musical Review garnered its share of criticism in its heyday, Gleeson White, editor of The Studio, a nineteenth-century English art journal, came to Mackintosh’s defense; “…there is so much decorative method in his perversion of humanity, that despite all the ridicule and abuse it has excited, after long intimacy it is possible to defend his treatment…for when a man has something to say and knows how to say it the conversion of others is usually but a question of time.”

Courtesy Museum of Modern Art.
“Secession XIV, Beethoven,” poster for the 14th Secession exhibition by Alfred Roller, 1902, lithograph. Courtesy Architecture and Design Collection, Museum of Modern Art.

The other two posters on show exemplied the Vienna Secession, a movement initiated in 1897 by a group of young artists who resigned in protest from the Academy of Arts, Austria’s oldest artistic society. Secessionist artists organized a series of exhibitions that addressed their desire to exhibit more often and engage international contemporary artists, such as The Four. Mackintosh’s work was actually showcased as part of the 8th Vienna Secession exhibition in 1900.

In 1902, as a tribute to Ludwig van Beethoven, Roller conceived the 14th Vienna Secession exhibition, which was one of the Secession’s greatest public successes, drawing nearly 60,000 visitors. It exemplified the group’s goal to unite various forms of art—architecture, sculpture, painting, and music—a concept that stemmed from Richard Wagner’s theories of Gesamtkunstwerk, or total work of art, which likewise influenced Secessionist graphic design.

In Roller’s poster for the 14th Vienna Secession exhibition a mystical female figure emerges from a field of decorative geometric patterns that also appeared in Die Sinkende Nacht (The Sinking Night), a fresco-mosaic that Roller installed on the wall in the main exhibition hall behind Max Klinger’s now famous statue of Beethoven. The near life-size figure in Roller’s poster bows her head in reverence as she cradles a symbolic white sphere. “She belongs to a family of similar figures common in modern architecture and design at the time.”

The pattern, created by Roller’s sturdy tightly-spaced letters, relates back to the abstract details in the asymmetrical illustration. Dots that define crossbars and umlauts create an unpredictable pattern throughout the text. To compress the text into rectangular shapes, Roller designed ligatures for ST and CH, abbreviated the word ausstellung (exhibition) on the first line by removing the U and N, and broke words without hyphenation on the second and third lines.

Moser’s 1902 poster for the 13th Vienna Secession exhibition epitomizes the tendency toward abstract geometric pattern and consonance in design, where image and text coalesce into a harmonious gridded whole. “The radical simplification of the three figures, the fascination with geometric forms, and the extended vertical format are hallmarks of the group’s style, which is often described as ‘proto-modern.’ These elements, along with symmetrical composition and stylized lettering, are also reminiscent of earlier posters by The Four.”

Courtesy Museum of Modern Art.
“Ver Sacrum, XIII,” poster for the 13th Secession exhibition by Koloman Moser, 1902, lithograph. Courtesy Architecture and Design Collection, Museum of Modern Art.

Further experimentation with geometry is evident in Moser’s stylized letterforms. He took creative liberties with the umlaut, which appears above, inside, and below different letters. The blue title text, “Ver Sacrum V. Jahr,” salutes the fifth year of publication of the Secession’s official journal, Ver Sacrum (Latin for “sacred spring”) of which Moser was the editor. In 1902, the poster was printed on the cover of Ver Sacrum’s sixth edition, as well as inside the magazine at the beginning of a photo essay about the exhibition. Likewise, Roller’s poster for the 14th Secession exhibition was reproduced in the eleventh edition as part of a review of the exhibition.

While this small impromptu exhibition was short on quantity, it sure had plenty of substance. The four posters are now back home in MoMA’s Architecture and Design Collection together with works by other major figures and movements from the mid-nineteenth century to the present.