Edward McKnight Kauffer produced some of the most iconic and influential commercial imagery of the early twentieth century. A remarkably versatile artist, his work drew inspiration from a wide variety of styles ranging from Japanese art to Fauvism, Vorticism and Constructivism, and encompassed painting, applied art, interior design and scenography. Yet it remains his celebrated posters created for clients such as London Underground and Shell during the inter-war years for which he remains most famous. Kauffer's pioneering work in the field of graphic design ranks alongside the achievements of fellow avant-garde figures such as T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis, all of whom – like Kauffer – had roots in the United States yet established their careers in London.
Born in Montana in 1890, Kauffer's precocious artistic talents were first employed painting stage scenery at his local opera house. They were also recognised by an acquaintance named Joseph E. McKnight, a professor at the University of Utah, who in 1912 paid for Kauffer to pursue his studies in Paris. As a mark of gratitude, Kauffer subsequently incorporated his benefactor's surname into his own.
Upon the outbreak of the First World War Kauffer fled to England where in 1915 he received a commission to design publicity posters for the Underground. The originality and vibrancy of these images led Kauffer to receive commissions from a variety of companies and publishing houses over the following two decades, including Fortnum & Mason, Lund Humphries and Chrysler Motors. With a finger on the pulse of the latest artistic trends, Kauffer's special genius lay in his ability to adapt the language of the avant-garde to the needs of advertising, creating works that were not simply visually striking but also rich in artistic merit. With commissions increasingly scarce following the declaration of war in 1939 Kauffer made the painful decision to return to America, where he continued to work for a number of years prior to his death in 1954.
Focusing on Kauffer's time in England, The Poster King was a celebration of the ways in which this remarkable artistic émigré enriched the visual culture of our country. In addition to the renowned graphic work it included a fascinating nucleus of lesser- known paintings and prints as well as a selection of photographs, working drawings and original designs.
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