Paul Colin (1892-1985) is renowned as perhaps France’s greatest poster artist, having developed an Art Deco style that was in step with the times and so highly personal it was impossible to categorize. In addition to his posters—he created more than 1,900 of them—he also worked for more than 40 years in the theater, creating numerous sets and costumes. As a teenager, he was enrolled at L’Ecole des Beaux-Arts and later studied under Eugene Vallin and Victor Prouve.
Colin earned praise for what was seen as his masterful integration of organic and figural subjects and geometric forms. His style, though highly Art Deco, was influenced by both Cubism and Surrealism. He frequently employed bold shapes, striking colors, caricature and highly stylized forms. Many of his best-known illustrations were for jazz-age music and theater. His iconic image for La Revue Nègre (1925) helped launch his career and that of dancer Josephine Baker.
In fact, it’s hard to discuss one without the other. Josephine Baker (1906-1975, born Freda Josephine McDonald) was a black, American-born French entertainer, activist and French Resistance agent. Colin was so taken by her beauty and talent, she was the frequent subject of his work. But on top of that, she also became his companion and muse. He recalled in an interview his first encounter with Baker at a music hall and how that led to a years-long relationship:
“I had observed the troupe for two or three hours of rehearsals, and I knew what to do. The star was a fine woman, but too hefty and physically not very interesting. So I looked among the girls for a more pleasing subject and I found a very beautiful girl who above all had a very beautiful body. Her head was like that of many Negro women, very nice, but any average face can be made to look beautiful with make-up. It isn’t so easy to change the breasts and legs so easily.”
Colin continued, “So I looked for one such perfect body, and I found her – Josephine Baker. She was in my studio, completely nude, sensational in her perfection. I convinced the theater to make her the star of the show instead … Then we organized a great theatrical event, with dinner, including caviar and champagne. The next morning, she was hailed by the Paris press as ‘The Black Venus of Paris’ and the ‘Bronze Goddess’ of the 1920s-era Jazz Age.”
Not surprisingly, Paul Colin’s work enjoys broad collector appeal on both sides of the Atlantic. Patrick Bogue of Onslows Auctioneers in Great Britain said that “at a recent auction in London some original maquettes (3-D studies) for poster designs and artworks illustrating fabulously the Jazz Age sold for extraordinary sums.” These included a set of 25 lithographs titled Le Tumutte Noir done in 1929 (£118,000), and a gouache and pencil design titled The Blackbirds (£60,000).
Bogue added, “Colin designed posters for many French companies including Transatlantique French Line, Air France and French Railways, plus lottery and exhibitions and car companies. Collectors can expect to pay £500-£6,000 for his posters, but the very rare 1929 poster for “Andre Renaud” showing the artiste playing two pianos, brings over £20,000. The good news is, because of his long and active career as a designer, there is a wide range of affordable posters out there.”
Jack Rennert of Poster Auctions International and Rennert’s Gallery in New York City, said, “Paul Colin was the right artist in the right place at the right time—his background in painting and his immersion in theatre propelled him to be one of the most important French posterists of the 1920s and 1930s. He compels attention through a use of movement, Cubist angularity, a spare color palette, and an innate ability to harken the energy and personality of his subject.”
Colin achieved this, Rennert said, “with the sharpness and wit of the Art Deco movement. And he applied these techniques to three major, though drastically different, uses of the poster. Most famously, he represented the French entertainment world—film, cabaret and theater—and heralded the sensational black music explosion in Paris. His iconic La Revue Nègre introduced Josephine Baker to the world. It is one of the finest examples of Art Deco work in this medium.”
But Colin was also a fierce anti-totalitarian French patriot, Rennert pointed out, who made many posters for humanitarian causes, including national exhibitions and events, as well as posters that declared the atrocities of World War II. “He also an astute sensibility for product advertising: He brought his independent spirit and sensitive intellect to every client, and made inspired designs with his singular force to create universal appeal. Colin was truly emblematic of his generation.”
That sentiment was echoed by Rick Unruh of Clars Auction Gallery in Oakland, Calif. “Colin used vibrant colors with exaggerated lines to convey the overly dramatic—but pleasantly effective—message of his themes for dance revues, theater, travel and other venues. His original illustrations are most sought after by collectors, often selling in the five figures at auction.”
Don Treadway of Treadway Gallery in Cincinnati added, “Paul Colin was a great artist of his period. His vintage posters are quite valuable and I’ve handled ones that brought around $2,500.” But, as stated, he was so prolific and so many of his posters were produced (and signed), there are bargains to be had. It’s possible to start a Paul Colin Art Deco poster collection for a couple hundred dollars – indeed a bargain for an artist whose work today remains relevant and fresh.