Art Nouveau and the Illustrative Designs of Milton Glaser

Milton Glaser, King Lear for Signet, 1963

I first encountered Milton Glaser’s design work about 6 years ago, though at the time I was unaware of who he was, or of any significance that his work held. I was 14, and had just inherited my parents’ turntable and record collection after they’d been gathering dust for years. I was intensely fascinated with the physicality of vinyl at the time, and particularly enamoured with the art featured on record sleeves, as well as any additional unexpected lyric sheets etc. that could be found inside of them. One such surprise was a folded-up copy of Glaser’s 1966 poster for Bob Dylan:

Milton Glaser, Dylan, 1966
Milton Glaser, Dylan, 1966

Needless to say, this poster hung from my wall for years to come, and to this day I’m personally inspired by the design. However, it was only upon my second encounter of Glaser’s work that I actually bothered to find out who he was. This was about a year later, when I picked up a used copy of King Lear published in 1963 within the “Signet Classic Shakespeare Series”, for which Glaser designed the front cover:

Milton Glaser, King Lear for Signet, 1963
Milton Glaser, King Lear for Signet, 1963

Now, as nostalgic and inspirationally indebted as I feel towards Glaser’s design work, the point of this blog post is not to discuss my influences, but to discuss his. The linear style used in these covers, as well as the sparse application of colour and strong attention to negative space are reminiscent of the work of certain designers within the art-nouveau movement. Glaser, having come into his fame in the era of psychedelic art, clearly shares the movement’s admiration of the art nouveau style. His use of blocks of flat colour in contrast with linear black and white structure, as well as a thoughtful attention to negative space attest to this. This style, particularly in the use of colour and form, spoke, like the art nouveau, to a feeling of bold sensuality that formed a big part of the psychedelic era, both in its popular aesthetics and in its changing social norms. Like many popular poster designs of the art nouveau era, the examples of glaser’s work that I’ve chosen advertise entertainment, be that in the form of a musical performance or a play. I find that, particularly with the King Lear cover, Glaser particularly echoes some of the design work of Aubrey Beardsley, such as this print based on Oscar Wilde’s “Salome”:

Aubrey Beardsley, J'ai Baisé ta Bouche, Iokanaan, from The Studio, vol. 1, no. 1, 1894
Aubrey Beardsley, J’ai Baisé ta Bouche, Iokanaan, from The Studio, vol. 1, no. 1, 1894

In comparing these two pieces the most notable similarities can be found in their similar use of decorative fine lines that flow throughout the piece, guiding the viewer to the focal point, which in the case of both of these designs, is a portrait of the shows’ key figure(s). In both pieces also, we see a the greatest attention to detail present in this portrait, with the rest of the figure comprised of a solid simplified form, a stylistic trait found in numerous other works of art from Beardsley’s peers. Both Pieces work as striking representations given to popular culture of the era, and have proven to be enduring in their popularity as images. 

 

Works cited:

Eskilson, Stephen John. Graphic design: a new history. 1st ed., Yale University Press, 2007.

image sources:

pinterest, images uncredited