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Urgent Walls

San Francisco's Vintage Poster Fair puts great ads in your living room

By Steve Bjerklie

Minor crisis: You've got a blank spot on the wall but not the $25K for the Thiebaud original to fill it. You could settle for something lesser--but why? You've earned your art. You deserve greatness; you deserve history; you want immediacy.

You want a poster.

San Francisco is justly famed for its tradition of psychedelic rock & roll posters from the swirly '60s, but a market for so-called fine-art vintage posters is now developing nicely. A lot of Bay Area walls are getting covered with well-framed Lenharts, Cappiellos and, of course, images from the world's first great poster era, France's belle époque. The images are captivating and compelling, sometimes subtle without losing urgency--they are, after all, advertisements. And they're big. They cover a lot of wall.

Folks who want to fill in the blanks could do much worse than shop for graphics at the fourth annual San Francisco International Vintage Poster Fair. The fair, founded and still organized by New York poster dealer Louis Bixenman, brings together a global collection of dealers, about 20 in all, who will exhibit and sell some of the greatest advertising graphics of the 20th century--Mucha's art nouveau broadsides for French cigarettes, Leupin's and Brun's Swiss Coca-Cola posters, Niklaus Troxler's jazz graphics.

This year's fair will also feature a cache of rare Polish posters from the communist era. Poster art was one of the few government-sanctioned forms of free artistic expression in postwar Poland, and the graphics, some of which advertise films, others products and events, are stunning--at once angry, brutal, sentimental and yearning.

Constructivist posters from Russia will also be shown at the fair. Print graphics, which by definition spread their price among several (and sometimes several hundred) copies, remain a relatively affordable form of "original" art. True, a genuine Toulouse Lautrec print will cost you the equivalent of a fleet of Lexuses, and an original of one of Steinlen's gently perfect cat posters runs in the tens of thousands. But a lot of terrific imagery, not to mention history, can still be picked up for a couple hundred dollars.

"Posters are very much part of their time. They tell you a lot about a society at a particular point in history," says Sarah Stocking, who owns and manages a poster gallery on Jackson and who will be exhibiting at the fair. "For example, the bicycle is what really liberated women. Women wore pants to ride bicycles. The posters from the early part of this century advertising bicycles almost always show a woman in pantaloons riding. They're unique and beautiful statements."

Nonproduct politics have also generated stunning graphic art. One potent World War II poster that will be available at the fair depicts four well-muscled arms--the Soviet Union, Great Britain, France and the United States--grasping and tearing apart the Nazi swastika. Other posters at the fair include travel and railroad graphics, circus images and automotive themes.

At Landmark Building A at Fort Mason Center; Oct. 31-Nov. 2; $10, $20 for all three days; 510/648-6609.

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From the October 1997 issue of the Metropolitan.

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