The Neurobiology Behind Paris's Affichomanie of Jules Chéret and His Contemporaries

Are there biomarkers within our neurobiology that provide clues as to what can trigger an 'affichomanie'?

In the 1890’s, Paris had become a canvas of explosive creativity with its dazzling constellation of eclectic artistic expression. There was one art form, in particular; poster art, that not only sparked a new pandect between art and commerce but unwittingly skyrocketed a hysteria comparable to Beatle Mania or the current teen craze for everything Justin Bieber. It was known as 'Affichomanie' – 'Poster Mania'.

From columns aligning city streets, store front windows, to traveling carts, these posters were everywhere - even in urinals. Paris had become an outdoor museum of art bursting with unfettered spirit and creativity.  On a rudimentary level, they were essentially advertisements for products or performances, but the optic lens of that generation perceived so much more. Indeed, they were considered works of art and highly sought after, valued and accessible to all, blurring the distinction between the strong divide of social classes. These posters became collectibles, and as for the champagne, biscuits, bicycles and other products being advertised, they were mere collateral, overshadowed by the colorful, bold strokes and shapes, innovative fonts, coarse images, and in some cases the ethereal lines of the female figure and influences of Japanese calligraphy.  They were the talk of the town. The population hungered for these posters, anxiously waiting for them as soon as they hit billboards. Some resorted to bribes; others resorted to stealing.

But, why? What creates such passionate fervor from the masses? Was it really the art? Proper timing? Are there biomarkers within our neurobiology that provide clues as to what can trigger an 'affichomanie'?

Dr. Terry Marks-Tarlow, a clinical and consulting psychologist in Santa Monica and author of Clinical Intuition in Psychotherapy: The Neurobiology of Embodied Response offers some insight, with the implicit understanding that there are no reductionist conclusions or empirical certainties, as of yet.

She suggests that there could be two possibilities to explain the universal appreciation for these posters, providing examples based from Darwinian evolution theory where functionality and utilitarian principles preside over the arbitrary ingredients of aesthetics.  

Darwin’s theory of sexual selection depicts beauty as a function of survival and could possibly explain why artists such as Jules Chéret, 'Father of the Poster' and some of his contemporaries such as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Alphonse Mucha, Pierre Bonnard, Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen, Eugène Grasset and Leonetto Cappiello subconsciously or not so subconsciously created this crest of beauty and why their viewers craved it.  Marks-Tarlow explains: “As a mechanism for attracting a worthy mate, bowerbirds, peacocks and other animals develop outrageous displays. There is a circuit of energy between the artists who create partly through imagining pleasure in the viewer.” The more the viewer is pleased, the more art they sell and the more desirable they become.

For those avant-garde artists who were struggling for recognition and coin, creating beauty was a means of financial survival and possibly longevity as the beautiful creations could have lasting impact for the creator’s value in the world.

In terms of the viewers, the posters were novel. Marks-Tarlow says: “George David Birkhoff’s theory of aesthetic preferences suggests that we are most attracted to an intermediate level of novelty – enough to be exciting and different to a degree, but not so much as to be frightening and out of our range of comprehension.”

She continues: “Of course, what is novel is completely contextual and relative to social and historical trends at the time. When Stravinsky first played the Rite of Spring in public, there were riots. Now his music is common place. Social novelty is a moving line.”

These one-of-a-kind posters certainly hit a public nerve that was in perfect synchronicity to the era, appropriately called: 'Beautiful Age', or 'Belle Époque'. The economy was booming, no war, and avant-garde expression in both social entertainment and art was embraced with élan.

Not all novel ideas spark a massive domino effect even if the timing is right, so how does this theory demystify the frenzy? 

There is an underlying need to be socially accepted and according to Marks-Tarlow: “In peer relatedness, the brain’s play circuit joins the reward circuit and the care circuit in creating social bonds composed partly of shared aesthetics.” If you didn’t find appreciation in these posters, you would not be able to partake in the communal craze and would be an outsider.

She continues, “People notice and follow innovative fads as a way both to fit in as well as to stand out, like the camouflage and coloration techniques of animals, where they sometimes need to blend into the environment to avoid predation and other times need to stand out in order to attract mates and positive attention of others.”

“The second possibility,” she continues, “is that strong aesthetic preferences are derived from the intense bonding dynamics between mother and child.”  She explains: “The five senses: sight, taste, smell, touch and movement stimulate aesthetic pleasures which help build a strong relationship. In the brain, the reward circuit, ‘grandaddy’ of all limbic, motivational circuits, gets entrained from the beginning. The dopamine high of a baby’s smile and mother’s beam then gets translated into artistic pleasure later on.”

The artist that creates an aesthetically pleasing piece of work strives to strike that bond of appreciation within the viewer while the viewer feels rewarded by the feelings generated when looking at the piece of art.

Marks-Tarlow believes that both of these theories can work in tandem.  “The aesthetics involved in mother/child bonding then translate into the aesthetics of romantic bonding as it shades into lust, which also capitalizes on the reward circuit. Both of these theories relate aesthetics to relationship and this may help to explain the kinds of social trends and passions that emerge as fads, regardless of the content.”

We may never hone in to the answer to this elusive question, and some of us may never want to. No matter what scenario enfolds, we can be sure that creating art and looking at art ignites all of which makes us human.

Currently, the Milwaukee Museum of Art's feature exhibition is:
Posters of Paris: Toulouse-Lautrec and His Contemporaries
 (this show is well worth booking a flight to Milwaukee for a weekend - it ends September 9th, 2012)

Or if you prefer, the exhibition will be traveling to the Dallas Museum of Art.
Posters of Paris: Toulouse-Lautrec and His Contemporaries (October 14, 2012 - January 20, 2013)

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