By Katalin Bakos
The Hungarian posters for “Modiano” have an obvious graphic quality. Towards the end of the twenties, Hungary’s most celebrated graphic artists were working for this company. Recent intensive interest in these posters was reason enough for us to invite an authority to tell us more about Modiano.
From the end of the 1920’s until the mid 1930’s, smokers in Hungary came to know exactly what “Modiano” stood for. This was the result of a carefully planned advertising campaign which was developed in logical stages over a number of years. The intellectual driving force behind this extraordinarily successful campaign was the energetic and perpetually cheerful Greek Sokrates Stavropulos. Art connoisseur and friend of all the leading Hungarian commercial artists, he was Head of Advertising for the Hungarian subsidiary of the Italian firm “Modiano,” based in Bologna. It was largely due to his campaign that between 1924 and 1930 (i.e. within just 6 years), “Modiano” acquired a market share of 80%.
This success was built not on the sale of exclusive tobacco products but rather basic smoking requirements such as cigarette papers and skins. Modiano reached a very broad consumer base, primarily drawn from the middle and lower social classes. The company sited its posters not just in the capital Budapest, but blanketed the entire country, which was something of a novelty in the comparatively poorly developed rural areas. The high point of the campaigns did not coincide with the economic boom years in Hungary (1924 – 1926), but with the subsequent period of economic crisis (1929/1930). The battle for a market and profit became more intense and cheap products therefore became most popular. Stavropulos came out on top in this battle thanks to his bold choice of the artistic form for his advertising campaigns. Modiano did not try to produce a uniform series of posters, but chose the opposite path, with a constant stream of original ideas and forms and new names.
Lengthy slogans were avoided. The simple mentioning of the brand name deemed sufficient. Talented young artists ensured time and time again that the power of attraction and persuasion emanated directly from the poster’s visual image. This could only be achieved by guaranteeing complete artistic freedom, which would be channeled – but not restricted – by some advertising facets.
Initially, Stavropulos was using the original logo produced by an artist from Trieste, which also adorned the packaging, namely a circle containing the homely figure of an old, bespectacled man reading a newspaper, with the handwritten word Modiano beneath. Soon, however, he turned to the modern artists, choosing in 1926 Sandor Bortnyik, who had just returned to the country from Weimar, where he had associated in the Bauhaus circles. Bortnyik brought into Hungary the constructivist and functionalistic principles of the Weimar school which his first posters for Modiano exemplify. Instead of the old handwritten logo, he now used geometrically constructed letters which he integrated into the composition.
A large “M” towers up in his first poster; at the top two circles, representing the heads of smokers, pass each other a light. In the second poster – executed with brilliant irony – he varies the theme himself. His geometrically stylized figure is shown standing in front of the advertising pillar studying an old Modiano poster, which is actually Bortnyik’s own first Modiano poster. This poster (96 x 63 cm) can be considered prophetic since before long the new Modiano posters which appeared every month were a daily sensation in Budapest, anticipated with great excitement by the public and the press. They were the subject of fierce debate, lauded and criticized in equal measure. Constant reviews also meant free adverts for the company, all of which contributed to implanting the brand name in the public and individual consciousness. Stavropulos managed to transform the streets into an “exhibition” which had always been the dream of poster designers.
The next great presence in Hungarian art to be employed by Modiano was the painter Robert Bereny. His poster featuring the diagonal image of the smoker, the dandy sporting top hat and monocle, became a poster sensation not just in Hungary. Together with the Bortnyik series, it was even then among the most widely publicized Hungarian posters. Bortnyik and Bereny associated the Modiano brand with the image or the modern city gents and their works were joined by those of Gyözö Vasarhely (more widely known as Victor Vasarely), a pupil of Bortnyik’s at his private graphic design school “Mülhely” (Work-shop), Endre Farkas, Imre Lanyi and Pal Moinar Jr. Bortnyik and Bereny collaborated on a number of posters.
For use in rural areas, Stavropulos commissioned posters by other outstanding designers and painters, who had earned a reputation for their language of form. Whether naturalistic or stylized, caricatured or narrative, they all drew their motifs from small town life. In their posters for Modiano, Tibor Polya, Arpad Bardocz, Istvan Pokary – to name but a few – partly emphasized the glamour of smoking, and partly used “exotic Hungary” or images borrowed from folk art to make smoking attractive to their countrymen. Istvan Irsai, a representative of the younger generation, very artfully combined the different interests for the city and the surrounding provinces. For a while, Stavropulos also employed the poster stars of the 1910’s, Mihaly Biro and Zoltan Konya.
PATRON OF THE ARTS
Modiano, with its demanding commissions, acted as an important patron of the arts. The progressive commercial artists saw it as their job from the start to use the poster to disseminate and popularize high-quality and above all modern art, and for this they found an excellent partner in Sokrates Stavropulos. The Head of Advertising ensured that technical production methods were of commensurate quality. Of the many Hungarian printing houses with excellent lithographic workshops, “Atheneurn Budapest” was selected as the best. The 125 x 95 cm format posters prove today that this was the right decision as the freshness and vitality of the colors are still evident over 80 years later.
Modiano was conscious of its role as patron of the arts, as evidenced by the four Modiano albums produced in Budapest as “adverts for the adverts.” They contain numerous reproductions of advertisements and posters as well as a complete profile of the commercial artists working for Modiano. These included, in addition to Hungarian artists, artists from Slovenia, Austria and, of course, Italy. The albums are a testimony to the extraordinary artistic diversity of Modiano’s commitment.
A modernized version of the original Modiano logo – Irsai’s young, bespectacled newspaper reader, now with a much more knowing air, and the handwritten legend “Diadal” – was early evidence of the decline in the company’s activities in the mid 1930’s. The brand name Modiano could no longer be used due to a drop in quality. Its successor introduced the name Diadal/Triumph and maintained a good level of advertising for some time. The reputation of the Modiano advertising campaign rapidly spread far and wide: the December Issue of the “Gebrauchsgraphik” journal of 1933 (p. 60) depicts Japanese matchbox labels which feature Bereny’s “Dandy” and Polya’s “Billiardspieler”, carrying the name of Modiano even to these distant shores.
The article was originally published in PlakatJournal (Issue 1/1994, Wir schwören auf Modiano). We want to thank the author, Katalin Bakos, and the publishers of PlakatJournal, Rene Grohnert and Jörg Weigelt, for their permission to publish this article in our blog.