Poster Art: the aesthetics of usefulness

by Thomas Kadelbach

Thomas Kadelbach, né en 1979. Après des études d'histoire et littérature française à Angers, Fribourg et Madrid, il collabore au projet de recherche FNS Les relations culturelles internationales de la Suisse, 1945-1990. Thèse de doctorat sur Pro Helvetia et l'image de la Suisse à l'étranger. Actuellement collaborateur scientifique à l'Université de Neuchâtel.
, Thomas Kadelbach, born in 1979. Studied history and French literature in Angers, Fribourg and Madrid. Research assistant in the SNSF research project Switzerland's International Cultural Relations, 1945-1990. PhD thesis on Pro Helvetia and the image of Switzerland abroad. Currently scientific collaborator at the University of Neuchâtel.

concrete art

Is Switzerland a country in which poster art expresses the mentality of its inhabitants more accurately than anywhere else? The prominent position occupied by graphic designers throughout the latter half of the 20th century in the promotion of Switzerland’s image abroad seems to confirm this view. In the catalogue of a poster exhibition shown in many countries in the 1950s, Pro Helvetia even asserted that the graphic arts were the artistic genre, which expresses the Swiss national character most fittingly.

A brief look at the history of Swiss art confirms a close relationship between Swiss painters and graphic design. Even if poster art was developed much later in Switzerland than in neighbouring countries, in the early 20th century many artists discovered the artistic value of the poster. In 1904, Ferdinand Hodler, the most famous of them, created a poster for an exhibition of the Vienna Sezession movement.

Yet, according to Jean-Charles Giroud, the true Swiss style of graphic design emerged only in the 1930s and 1940s. The flourishing of the graphic arts is certainly due to the continuation of research in Switzerland after the National Socialists had closed down the German Bauhaus in 1933. The artists, committed to the principles of the Bauhaus, renouncing ornamentalism and bridging the gap between the fine arts and arts and crafts, inspired a major renewal of poster art. Under the influence of concrete art and geometric abstraction, a poster was no longer regarded as a mere tool for advertising a product or an event, but rather as an integral part of the vision of an ideal commonwealth based on the democratisation of the arts.

After World War II, a group of artists, especially in Zurich and Basel, continued the work of the pioneers of the inter-war period. They developed a unique style characterised by simple symbols, refinement of chromatic perception, effective use of sophisticated typography and a decisive renunciation of figurative art. The prize for best poster, annually awarded by the Federal Department of Home Affairs since the 1940s, established the official standing of graphic design.

The international recognition of the “Swiss Style” transformed posters into an attractive and inexpensive export item, often used by Pro Helvetia. Between 1950 and 1980, Pro Helvetia sent poster art exhibitions abroad on an annual basis, often to faraway places, to show the innovative work of Swiss graphic designers.

Abroad, these exhibitions reinforced the stereotypes of precision work and formal perfection usually associated with the label “Swiss Made.” In some cases, poster art exhibitions were used to support commercial promotion.
In 1949, the Swiss Office of Business Development asked the panel appointed by Pro Helvetia to award a prize to some posters displaying watches, intending to promote the country’s leading export article. The request was not refused.

AFS E9510.6 1991/51, Vol.320, 321, 322, 425

Giroud, Jean-Charles : Les artistes suisses et l’affiche, un siècle de fascination et de confrontation, Neuchâtel, Association des amis de l’affiche suisse 2001


Niklaus Stöcklin

Poster by Niklaus Stöcklin, 1923. Niklaus Stöcklin is the most important Swiss protagonist of the New Objectivity.

Article on Niklaus Stöcklin at Sikart:

© Pro Litteris

Jean Tinguely

Poster by Jean Tinguely for the 700th anniversary of the Swiss Confederation, 1991

Article on Jean Tinguely at Sikart:

© The Niki Charitable Art Foundation / 2011, Pro Litteris, Zürich

Dieter Roth

Poster by Dieter Roth for his exhibition at the Helmhaus, Zürich, 1981

Article on Dieter Roth at Sikart:

Dieter Roth Estate Courtesy Hauser & Wirth  

Herbert Leupin

Poster Swissart by Herbert Leupin, 1949

Article on Herbert Leupin at Sikart:

© Collection Leupin

Max Bill

Max Bill initiates a profound renewal of the artistic poster. In his work, mathematical deliberations determine the relations between its elements. Bill’s work is characteristic for the Swiss style in poster art, which in the 1950s has a big impact on the international scene.

Article on Max Bill at Sikart: © Pro Litteris

Amnesty International, 1977

© Pro Litteris

Johann Handschin

Poster Silvaplana by Johann Handschin, 1934. In Switzerland, the development of poster art profits from the tourist industry.

Swiss National Library, poster collection


A “second path” for Third-World countries

1970 to 2000

By their very nature, museums of ethnography are part of a country’s cultural relations.

The Swiss abroad – promoting cultural influence

1916 to 1976

For  a long time, Switzerland had been a country of emigration, its inhabitants leaving because of

Cultural relations and the National Commission for UNESCO

1949 to 2016

By joining UNESCO in 1949, Switzerland not only became part of one of the agencies of the UN, but

Rousseau made in Switzerland

1945 to 1968

Quite often, Rousseau was instrumentalised, reinvented and “helvetised” by Switzerland’s cultural

A brief survey of Swiss culture in Japan

1950 to 1970

In Japan book fairs enjoy high regard.

A young historian thinking about Switzerland’s cultural influence


Pro Helvetia was founded in 1939 to join the struggle for the Spiritual Defence.

The architects and the renewal of cultural relations between Switzerland and Germany after World War II


After the war, the question of cultural relations with the German neighbour remained something of

The origins of the Swiss pavilion at the “Cité Internationale Universitaire de Paris"

1925 to 1933

Combining cultural and science diplomacy, the Swiss pavilion at the “Cité Internationale Universit

Men and women working for Pro Helvetia

1939 to 2012

First and foremost, Pro Helvetia is a Board of Trustees, originally consisting of 25 members, and

Switzerland and UNESCO - a culture of peace


“Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must b