Made in France

Made in France

Is there a college dorm room or a starter apartment in the US that has not been improved by a vintage French poster advertising absinthe, the ocean liner Normandie, or La Vie Parisienne? Remember the oversized Art Deco poster for Jouets et Objets Pour Etrennes that hovered over Monica and Rachel’s bobbing heads on Friends?

Reed Darmon, author of the beautiful new book Made in France, celebrates the graphic world of French advertising throughout the 20th century. Using artwork taken almost exclusively from his own personal collection, Darmon explores the aesthetics of French posters, magazine covers, print ads and product packaging, ranging from Belle Epoque travel posters touting Marseille to a 1980s squeak-toy version of Bibendum, the Michelin Man.

Darmon (also the author of Made in China and Made in Japan) points out that French graphics have always been tied to the artistic movements they parallel. “To explore French graphics,” he writes in his brief and insightful introduction, “is to watch the fine arts movements of the day feeding into commercial culture with a sophistication unmatched anywhere in the world.” And indeed it’s clear throughout his delightful visual tour through nine decades that French commercial culture and fine art are closely entwined, and not only in the works of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Cubism crops up in furniture advertisements, Modernism invades theater playbills and Mondrian’s primary color grids influence fashion spreads and cosmetics ads.

These great graphics have not lost their seductive power over the years. Flip through the pages of Made in France and you’ll be tempted to rush right out and pick up a tin of 1940s Roger & Gallet talcum powder, or at least track down that Savon Mimosa Unico ad to hang over the mantelpiece. The advertisements also offer a window into the zeitgeist of the past. Unthinkable today, a cartoon-like drawing of a boy with a striking resemblance to the Coppertone baby sells Gitane cigarettes, and—a still-notorious case in France—a beaming Senegalese infantryman, with a fez and a wink, promotes Banania, a banana-chocolate powdered breakfast drink.

But by far the majority of the commercial art in Darmon’s collection is neither racist nor controversial, but simply bawdy, sexy, charming, audacious, funny and unmistakably French.

Made in France by Reed Darmon. Chronicle Books, 2009. $14.95

Originally published in the April 2009 issue of France Today

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