The Art of the Ski Poster
There's only one reason that a dedicated skier would forsake the snows of Zermatt or Aspen in midwinter and fly to London or New York. And that would be to bid on vintage ski posters at the annual winter sales at Christie's in South Kensington and at Swann Galleries in Manhattan, a competition that can be as furious as any NASTAR race on the slopes.
"It's a purchase of passion, as most art buying is," says Nicholas Lowry, president, principal auctioneer, and director of the poster department of Swann Galleries, in New York, as well as a familiar face from PBS's Antiques Roadshow. "They buy for the destination, the artist, and the design."
Swann's last ski poster auctions was February 5, and it featured 82 classic examples of the art. With their vibrant colors and bold graphics, classic ski posters from 1910 to about 1960 served to both entice and educate the public about an emerging and exotic winter sport.
The best examples are sizable pieces of ephemeral art, designed to catch your eye when you were rushing down the stairs of the Metro in Paris or awaiting a tram in Berlin. They were meant to transport you from your gloomy northern European city to a perpetually sunny mountaintop in the Alps, where beautiful, stylish, incredibly fit young people were flirting, adjusting their gear, and occasionally even skiing. And they offer tremendous bang for your collecting buck.
"Unlike painting and sculpture," Lowry says, "posters are still at an accessible price. You can buy a ski poster for less than $500." But a safer bet is in the $1,500 to $2,000 range and up.
Way up. When Emil Cardinaux's poster for the Palace Hotel in St. Moritz comes up at auction, you're probably looking at a $25,000 wave of the paddle to claim it for your collection. And despite the images that seem to turn up again and again, there are plenty of rarities. Such as Herbert Bayer's poster for Mont Tremblant (top), a photomontage from 1939 depicting a woman in glacier goggles, which rarely shows up at auction but will be auctioned on February 5 with a $4,000 to $6,000 estimate.
"Ski posters combine travel, sports, and fashion, and that's a very powerful combination," says Jim Lapides, president of the International Poster Gallery in Boston and a longtime dealer in the field.
But it's the artists and the artistry that distinguish the stellar examples of the genre. You'd be hard pressed to think of another sport that has been the subject of work by such high-caliber graphic artists as Herbert Bayer, Herbert Matter, Roger Broders, and Emil Cardinaux.
The best pieces are textbook examples of Art Nouveau, Art Deco, Jugendstil, Wiener Werkstette, and even Surrealism. The earliest ski posters date back to the 1890s, when Jules Abel Faivre created "Sports D'Hiver Chamonix (Mont Blanc)," depicting a young woman in a long dress descending a slope on skis using a single steering pole (above).
The Swiss artist Emil Cardinaux worked around the turn of the century, making iconic, moody images of the Matterhorn for Zermatt. Roger Broders designed classics in the 1920s and early 1930s, honing an exuberant Art Deco style. And Herbert Leupin added Swiss whimsy to the genre in the 1950s.
But photomontage was where some artists made their boldest moves. Bauhaus artist Herbert Bayer used it to great effect in the 1940s when he turned his attention to Aspen, integrating iconic images of aspen leaves with bold graphics and photomontage. And the most striking was arguably Herbert Matter (above), whose collaged images, incorporating a pretty face, a ski glove or a tram, literally jump out at you.
Clever design is abundant in ski posters, and the lexicon of tram cars, backpacks, leather ski boots, ski poles, and skis stuck in the snow permeate the genre. Glamour is big, smiling women predominate, and many images are borderline camp. But there are fewer action shots than you might imagine.
Sometimes it was a moment before or after the act of skiing (like sex) that was captured, as in Erich Hermes's image (above) of a handsome guy smoking a cigarette in a folding chair, his face bronzing in the Swiss sun and mountain glare.The backdrop is a creamy white mountain with four skiers, the only text "Winter in Switzerland."
In the case of Sascha Maurer's image of a young woman waving while riding a lift and wearing a pair of wooden Flexible Flyer skis (above), technology and sex appeal intertwine. These posters allow you to follow fashion through the years, to learn when stretch pants were introduced (the 1930s), watch ski boots evolve (goodbye, leather), and celebrate the wintry decades before global warming.
One of the great images is Carl Kunst's "Bazar Nurnberg" (above) from 1912, which happens to be a favorite of Lapides.
"This is a totally quiet poster," he says of the elegiac image of a skier adjusting his bindings in the forest. "He's out there, the way you are in the morning, adjusting your skis in the middle of nowhere amidst nature. It's what posters are about. They can transport you to another place, a place you want to go."
With a head start on skiing, Europeans were also way ahead of Americans when it came to producing ski posters. France, Austria, Germany, and Italy produced hundreds of visually striking ski posters each, especially during the golden era of poster design, from about 1925 to 1955. There are numerous posters for St. Moritz, Wengen, and Zermatt, but also a bumper crop for resorts like Arosa, Adelboden, and Les Marecottes, places that no longer command center stage.
Posters for North American resorts began to appear in the mid-1930s, when Smugglers Notch and Sun Valley opened. In time, they were produced by the likes of the New Haven, Union Pacific, and Canadian Pacific railroads, all of which could take you to such "faraway" ski retreats as Vermont and the Rockies.
Ski hotels like Seiler Hotels in Zermatt (above) employed ski posters to attract guests, as did the Hannes Schneider Ski School in North Conway and ski manufacturers like Northland.
can find collectible ski posters (and plenty of grade C examples) on
eBay, but the best way to begin serious collecting and to get an
education is to physically haunt poster dealers and auction houses. No online image can
convey the impact, true colors, and subtleties of an object measuring
roughly two by three feet.
Swann and Christie's in London are largely responsible for nurturing the newfound interest in ski posters, starting in the mid-'90s. Sales at both houses were initially driven by the late Mason Beekley, the founder of the International Skiing History Association (his collection now resides in Mammoth, California) and a single-minded collector of ski memorabilia. Lowry credits him with seriously raising the stakes in the world of ski posters.
"If he didn't have a piece, he'd buy it at any price," Lowry recalls. "When we first started selling ski posters, back in 1996, Mason Beekley was the market. He jump-started it."
And while there are a handful of dealers who have gotten in on the game, not all are created equal. Omnibus in Aspen has an incredible collection, but with an extra zero or two attached to each poster, it's a gallery clearly aimed at Aspenites who never ask the price of anything.
What makes ski posters, like any posters, rare, desirable, and collectible is their ephemeral quality. Printed on flimsy paper, they were pinned up in train stations, pasted on kiosks and the sides of buildings, and left exposed to the elements. That so many survived the vagaries of time and, in Europe, the war, is a minor miracle.
Blue-chip examples include pre-1910 images, early American ski posters for Sun Valley and other resorts from the 1930s and '40s, and virtually anything by Broders, Cardinaux, or Maurer. Ludwig Hohlwein's poster for the 1936 Olympics in Garmisch-Partenkichen, Germany, where a skier's upraised arm more than suggests the Nazi salute, is also favored. And there are anomalies, like the posters produced for the Dartmouth Winter Carnival (above) from the 1920s on. Few of them hold much graphic interest, but middle-aged Dartmouth grads from Wall Street furiously bid them into the stratosphere.
"Ski posters are like real estate," Lowry says. "What tends to sell really well is location, location, location. If you have a chalet in Zermatt, you want an Art Deco image of the Matterhorn for your wall. The same is true in Aspen, Sun Valley, or Stowe. The better known the ski resort, the higher the price tends to be."
Which means that their status, as well as their value, has increased as well.
"Skiing posters have joined the blue-chip group of elite travel posters," Lapides observes.
Given the fact that these brilliantly colored and painstakingly designed images can quickly transport you to the uber ski village, a fantasy of sport, style and joie de vivre, it's not at all surprising.
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