A Short Biography of Rene Gruau

September 3, 2011 § 5 Comments

Among poster artists, only a few have had a career as long and prolific as Rene Gruau’s. From the beginning of his career in the 1920’s to the year of his death in 2004, Gruau never ceased to draw and work, leaving an oeuvre of “chic” posters encompassing the best of the old world’s fashion style.

Gruau was born in Italy in 1909 , with an Italian father and a French mother. His father was an aristocrat, withgreat expectations for his young son: he wanted him to be a diplomat and resented his son’s passion for drawing. But Gruau followed his elegant mother — his first model — a jetsetter, traveler and fashionista, throughout Italy and then to Paris. Of his mother the artist said “My mother was mad about travel, so I began to wander all over the world before I learned to walk” and “I feel I owe my calling as a draftsman to my mother.” She introduced him to painters and fashion magazine editors who encouraged him to pursue his craft. At 15, thanks to his mother, her friends and his own talent, Rene Gruau already had a promising career as a fashion illustrator awaiting him.

During the post-war period, he reached the summit of his career as he worked with the most brilliant fashion designers such as Dior, Givenchy and Lanvin, and high class music-halls such as the Moulin Rouge and the Lido — clients whom he continued to work with later on.

Gruau was a man of the world and of many skills: an illustrator and a poster artist, he also sold paintings, designed costumes and stage sets, and even created his own collection of clothing in 1948-49. In Gruau’s many and varied works, one thing always shone through: his style — a notion he strongly defended at a time when the use of photography in advertising threatened poster artists.

A photograph of Dior (man with towel) poster

Original "Dior (man with towel)" Poster by Rene Gruau, c.1978

A photograph of Dior (couple) poster

Original "Dior (couple)" poster by Rene Gruau, 1979

One of the main characteristics of Gruau’s style is the importance he puts on what he calls “la ligne” (the line) — as the line that forms his star-topped signature — a concept reminiscent of Cappiello, whom Gruau greatly admired, and his “arabesque.” La ligne is this one brush stroke that defines an image, gives it its movement, its structure, its style. In Rouge Baiser for example, it’s the delicate profile of the woman: one single line encapsulating all the feminity and refinment of a red lipstick.

A photograph of Rouge Baiser (beret) poster

Original "Rouge Baiser (beret)" poster by Rene Gruau, c.1949

For Gruau, a line also often implies a movement. Therefore, throughout his long career, Gruau always made a point of working with models, refusing to create pure paper beings. The artist based a lot of his creations on his models’ movements, attitudes, expressions. Because for Gruau a poster should have ‘a strong personality’ and because, to him, drawing was so much about style, he chose his models very carefully. Some of the most elegant ladies of the time, such as Nitzah Bricard, Dior’s muse, or the model Bettina Graziani, posed for him.

A photograph of Moulin Rouge Frisson Poster

Original "Moulin Rouge Frisson" Poster by Rene Gruau, 1965

Another noticeable quality of Gruau’s work is his clever and varied use of perspective and composition. Using high angles, low angles and negative space, he creates images that naturally attract the eye. For Ortalion stockings, he draws a beautiful woman, looking down at the viewer from almost outside of the poster, playfully daring him to look up her dress and attracting his attention to her long legs, wrapped in bright red stockings. The diagonal created by the model’s legs directs the eye both to the product and its name.

A photograph of Ortalion poster

Original "Ortalion" poster by Rene Gruau, 1967

For the Dior campaign, Gruau creates a frame in the poster itself and encloses the Dior man between two dark panels, reminiscent of Japanese woodblock prints. By doing so and throwing light over the naked character, Gruau playfully invites the viewer to intrude upon the model’s intimacy, and gives him the delightful thrill of being a voyeur — and getting a peek at the product.

A photograph of Dior (man in doorway) poster

Original "Dior (man in doorway)" poster by Rene Gruau, 1978

Most importantly perhaps, what defines Gruau’s style is his use of colors, generally three: black, white and a third — red. This sacrosant trio’s symbolic is obviously highly charged, but Gruau’s reason for choosing those colors might have to be sought somewhere else… Before becoming a poster artist, Gruau was an illustrator : he made his debut drawing for newspapers and magazines, which often meant drawing in black — and using the white of the paper as a color — sometimes adding one color. Red is the color our eye perceives the most rapidly, an undeniable advantage for advertisement. Gruau himself personally liked red but also insisted on the fact that it is a color that always reproduces well, even on ordinary paper.

A photograph of La Cigarette Poster

Original "La Cigarette" Poster by Rene Gruau, 1983

There lies Gruau’s talent as a poster artist: Gruau always worked with, and not against, the technicalities of his trade. Even his simple lines and broad brush strokes were not only a mark of his style, but also designed to be reproduced easily and in a great number. Working and sketching endlessly, Gruau thus strove to make his designs as simple as possible, to only keep the essential, the quintessential idea, that was to finally come like a sneeze (“un éternuement,” in Gruau’s own words). Sometimes that idea was an elegant line, sometimes it was a smart design, as in the Bemberg fabric’s campaign, with bikers to advertise the fabric’s strength and an acrobat to advertise its flexibility.

A photograph of Bemberg La Fodera Che Va Forte Poster

Original "Bemberg La Fodera Che Va Forte" Poster by Rene Gruau, 1973

A photograph of Bemberg Poster

Original "Bemberg" Poster by Rene Gruau, c.1980

If you want to get a better idea of Gruau’s brilliant career, come to our showroom in Berkeley or to one of our upcoming shows. You can also visit our website to see our extensive collection of fashion and cosmetics posters, and compare Gruau’s style to his contemporaries, Villemot and Savignac.

“L’Art de la Plublicité — The Art of Advertising: Rene Gruau,” by Réjane Bargiel and Sylvie Nissen. Published by Le Cherche Midi Editeur in 1999.
This blog post authored by VEP Intern
Candie Sanderson
Student at La Sorbonne Nouvelle
Edited by Itinerant Poster Collector and VEP Owner Elizabeth Norris

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