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May 1996

Art and Advertising: The Aesthetics of the Hard Sell

An exhibit about art in Advertising runs at the Stadtmuseum.

Advertising demands so much of our attention now that it makes sense to take a retrospective look at its development. The Stadtmusuem's newest exhibition Die Kunst zu Werben: Das Jahrhundert der Reklame (The Art & Aesthetics of Advertising: 100 Years of Advertisements) aims to increase awareness of the artistic qualities of advertising. Although the exhibition claims to chart advertising in Germany from its beginnings in the 1890s through the present, it concentrates mainly on the period 1900-1939, which the organizers claim was the era when the overlap between art and advertising was most pronounced. The concept of an aesthetic for advertising was created in the last few years of the 18th century, when magazines like Jugend and Simplicissimus sought to make their text attractive rather than just legible. From the turn of the century onwards, advertisements do appear to have been affected by contemporary art movements, and it is possible to trace the influences of Art Nouveau, Minimalism, Art Deco and Futurism in these early advertisements. The examples displayed are certainly eye-catching, with posters in bright, bold colors and beautiful decorative packaging. Accepting these advertisements as art is often easier than many of the present-day ads, which seem both cruder and cleverer, but the best advertisements of all eras are enjoyable. The origins of advertising that sells a product through evoking an associated lifestyle is a focal feature of the exhibition, and many of the 1920-30s exhibits contain an imitation English high society that German advertisers favored to market luxury products. Prominent figures are men with eyeglasses and minimal chins, and elegant women in sleek evening dress; these advertisements for cigarettes, cars and alcohol are still alluring today. Whether such advertisements mirror or create societal desires remains a chicken-and-egg debate, but the imposition of advertising into everyday life is a clear theme of the exhibition. The changing face of city life is particularly well documented, from the earliest poster billboards, to murals and neon adverts. The influence of advertising on art itself is implied as the exhibition includes artists for whom advertisements form the essential material of their work, such as Andy Warhol's Pop Art Campbell's Soup cans. Although there are a few samples of more recent works, such as the controversial Benetton ads of 1992-93 that address the modern dilemmas of HIV and environmental pollution, the coverage of contemporary advertising campaigns is minimal, which detracts from providing a complete picture of the development of advertising through the present day. But after all the creativity, the money that drives the advertising business is just around the corner. The exhibition is co-sponsored by McDonalds, and an entire room is devoted to McDonalds campaigns.The collaboration between the Stadtmuseum and the other sponsor MGM, a Munich based media group, appears to have worked well in producing the interactive CD-ROM about the development ofadvertisements on film that forms the hands-on element of the exhibition. The CD-ROM charts this development from the early animated ads of the 1920s and '30s, through the higher-tech advertisements of the '50s and '60s, and has been produced with a real sense of humor. The film clips are funny and revealing, and the disk is packed with information and great fun to play with. I went to this exhibition with the assumption that my generation, the twentysomethings of today, are the most sophisticated readers of advertising. We're permanently saturated with advertising images, so we're the experts, right? But I came away thinking that maybe I shouldn't have been so naive. Advertisements have been around for a long time, and advertisers have always had to make people look and think. And isn't that exactly what art is all about? So maybe advertisements can be art. And even if the documentation supporting the exhibits is limited-, unless you purchase the excellent but expensive catalog, -the advertisements themselves tell a good enough story for Die Kunst zuWerben to be worth a visit. The exhibit runs until the end of June. For more information call: 23 32 29 94.

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