Posters are capable of many things: informing, instructing, decorating, forbidding, revealing your teenage Socialist leanings (raise your hand if you had a Che Guevara poster in your old bedroom). What I hadn’t banked on was their ability to reveal to me what a cynical old thing I can be, and how you can’t judge an exhibition or a moment in art history by the way its been reappropriated into modern day tat. Case in point: when I first learned about the show, Prints in Paris 1900: From the Elite to the Street, I made the rather unfair assumption that it was a grand excuse to sell tea towels and keychains and other museum shop tchotchkes. How wrong I was.

The show at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam comes from a far more thoughtful place than an easy win for the Aunty brigade; instead, it traces a moment in time when art and design could be seen as one entity. The works tell far larger narratives about class divisions, art collecting, and the birth of modern consumer culture as we know it. Of course, many will be visiting to say how beautiful these depictions of cats and cancans are, but hopefully they, like me, will leave with a far greater appreciation not only of fin de siècle prints, but of the blurring between art, graphics, illustration, and advertising.

In fact, the dedicated area of the gift shop I had presumed would be a considerable accessory to the show (or rather, the show an accessory to the gift shop’s offerings)  is only a tiny part of the store, which is resolutely devoted to the museum’s main attractions. As the museum’s curator of prints and drawings Fleur Roos Rosa de Carvalho says, “It actually isn’t that much of an opportunity because we have Van Gogh, which is even better for sales. If we were another museum I think we’d have exploited it much more than we are—people are here mostly [in the gift shop] to buy Van Gogh.”

The museum’s concession to the obvious saleability of the Parisian prints show is the addition of a print-on-demand service that allows visitors to select from “almost every print in our collection,” says de Carvalho. “It’s far more democratic than just saying everyone should buy The Black Cat.”

Laziness (La paresse), Félix Vallotton, 1896

The show is divided into two distinct sections of Parisian fin-de-siècle posters: those created or collected specifically for the interiors of bourgeois homes, and those made to advertise on the streets. The lines between the two became increasingly blurred thanks to the bourgeois artistic and art criticism communities. Even though the term “graphic design” wasn’t known then in the way we understand it today, suddenly the use of text and imagery for communication vs. for fine art merged.

As de Carvalho points out, it’s a similar pattern to the way many photographers work today: they’ll work on commissions for magazines alongside their own self-directed, more autonomous art-focused projects—photographer Wolfgang Tillmans and designer Eike Konig are good examples.

Little Typewriters (Les petites machines à écrire), Hermann-Paul, 1896

That’s where the show manages to break free from the shackles of associating Parisian posters with more than just Toulouse-Lautrec’s gorgeously emotive yet much reproduced images of a downtrodden female clown, for instance. We also see the other side of these works. When produced only for private home collections, where they were stored in large, decorative book-like folders, they were visible only to those who invited in. As such, they could be far darker and erotically charged.

“I’m trying to break away from that more romantic and decorative association to show the more subversive side,” says de Carvalho. This is where works like the stark monochrome woodcuts of Félix Vallotton come in, or the haunting etchings of Albert Bernard, which sit alongside the more traditional colorful and illustrative pieces by the likes of Eugène Grasset that show their street poster origins in more obviously graphic ways.

I spoke to de Carvalho at greater length about this breaking down of boundaries, how a moment in art history was created by canny collectors, and just what it is about these images that have made them so appealing to middle class moms everywhere.

The Street (La rue), poster for the printer Charles Verneau, Théophile Alexandre Steinlen, 1896

The exhibition shows the breadth of the prints being made in Paris, but obviously some images, like the Black Cat (by Théophile Alexandre Steinlen) and the Moulin Rouge poster (by Henri de ToulouseLautrec) are incredibly familiar. What do you think it is about these posters that make people who perhaps wouldn’t usually be interested in art and design love them so much?

From the start, many of these posters were meant images for people that weren’t naturally that much engaged with art and design. The fact they’re designed to grab someone’s attention on almost a primitive level makes them very accessible for people to this day. I think it’s very interesting that we don’t know the songs these posters advertised and more, but we do know the image; it’s sort of burned into our collective consciousness. It’s interesting to see how they did it by turning images into signs as it were.

How did the prints’ creators manage to use images that were traditionally more decorative or rooted in the art world as commercial designs to sell things?

There’s a tension between the artistic and the functional sides of a poster. There were really only a few artists who were capable of finding a balance between the two, and were capable of finding a language or typography that speaks on a visual level but also coveys a message.

Lots of the artists were producing posters that weren’t functioning as advertisements, so they were a commercial failure and were never hung on the street, but found their way into the art world. There were only a few artists that balanced between the two worlds. The most important is [Jules] Chéret, who was not trained as an artist but who had a lithographic printing studio. That’s not a coincidence, and it’s only a few, like Lautrec, who found a very graphic language.

“He was very bold and also quite crude in the way he depicted subjects—people felt he was being quite violent in the way he depicted people, but it worked.”

The Female Clown at the Moulin rouge (La clownesse au Moulin rouge), Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, 1897

Was there a hierarchy at the time between those deemed to be “fine artists” and those who were creating work for commercial purposes?

It’s a very interesting narrative. All these posters were glued and stuck indiscriminately to the walls and there’s no hierarchy there. But what happened is from very early on you had early collectors, pioneers, who discovered art in them and they’re the ones who picked certain images and took them from the street into their collection. They wrote about them, they made the first catalogs, some critics were writing about them, and from there the canon of the “artist poster” was created. It wasn’t every poster they found interesting, only the artistic ones, so it’s only a few artists they accepted into the art world and the rest were forgotten with these posters.

Chéret is not only artistically interesting but commercially, so the technical producers were just as happy with him as the art world. Someone like Pierre Bonnard was seen as a very artistic poster maker, and I’m not sure he had many commissions from commercial brands any more. Only a few really functioned on the street as well as the art world, and the others really had to choose a side.

That’s interesting, that those outside of the artist communities were the ones who made such a recognizable “movement,” as it were.

Yes, it’s only a few posters that were deemed “artistic,” and that was done by the critics and collectors who actually had a very active role in this world. They’re also the posters that end up in our museum of course, as they were accepted as artworks with a capital “A” and we wouldn’t have collected them in the first place otherwise. That’s why we hung them on historical photographs [the gallery walls show enlarged Parisian street scenes] so that we show the context of how they came into the museum.

You do have museums of posters where they collect less famous examples of course—from a graphic design point of view, there are many more that are interesting—but as we’re an art museum it’s a more limited selection.

Salon des Cent, Eugène Grasset (1841-1917)

How long did it take for the transition between posters moving from the street to collectible artworks?

Not very long; it was almost happening at the same time. You would have a few people during the 1880s who would take them off the street as they were not for sale, but you had a few visionary dealers who saw it could be turned into a collectible or something you could make money from. Already in 1891 a collector had produced a catalog with thousands of entries, and once the mania for these posters became bigger, the artists would be asked to set aside editions of the commercial posters they were making. This whole market emerged that started from ripping posters off the walls, and then the the bourgeois collectors buying them in the shop.

What do you think it was about that particular time that meant these posters became so important, and so thoughtfully designed?

It’s basically the beginning of modern culture as we know it, the metropolis. You have a whole new group of society taking over power, the bourgeoisie, who have more money to spend; the working class has more money to spend; and consumer goods can be produced much more cheaply. Then you have the whole consumer culture coming up with department stores and mass produced objects, and you have a media culture coming up with the illustrated press using images. A lot was happening at one time, which is still going on today.

Tiger in the Jungle (Tigre dans les jungles), Paul Elie Ranson, 1893