In 1896 this famous poster designed by Theodore Steinlen was used to advertise a tour by the company from Le chat noir cabaret in Paris. With its alley cat looking as fierce as a Japanese kabuki actor and the bold use of red and black, it helped set the tone for what was to come, both the forthright appeal of modern advertising and the eclectic appeal of modern art. Steinlen was not the first artist to mix the skills of printmaking and commercial art. In Britain, William Blake had learned his skills as a fine commercial engraver in the late C18th but the reliance on imagery over content was new and the effect in Britain, Austria and Germany was immediate.
The whole thing really is a story. Artists are forever picking up ideas and Le chat noir attracted so many kinds of people, everyone from bohemian artists and performers to Edward, Prince of Wales, it's hardly surprising a mere poster could have such a large effect. Others perhaps were more subtle but perhaps no one was more effective. But if we have to start somewhere, we have to begin with the Swiss artist, Felix Vallotton, who led the way with a woodcut of Paul Verlaine (himself a patron of Le chat noir) in 1891. It remains odd and perhaps isn't much of a woodcut in itself. I prefer his later woodcut of Verlaine from Le Livre des masques (1898) but Vallotton went on to describe a world in woodcut where all the creatures lived, from bohemian poets to communards to cats, they were there. His remarkable image Two cats was published by the German magazine, Pan, in 1895.
I think his debt to Vallotton is obvious and like Vallotton he also went on to make his own series of woodcut books for the publisher, William Heinemann (whose nerve had failed him over H.M. The Queen). Where Nicholson did move forward was in his use of colour. Curiously, Nicholson's woodcuts were not cut at all but engraved on end-grain. I suppose he had needed to provide his publishers with a durable material like box-wood. He certainly had no intention of using the finicky wood-engraving style commonly used by newspapers.
Just as influential was his book An Alphabet. (The date is usually given as 1st January, 1898, but it appeared in time for Christmas, 1897.) For all his modern boldness, Nicholson regularly fell back on a folksy style and the longer he went on the more he relied on a period feel that tends to set the tone for a lot of British illustration. But once the folksiness is removed, we are left with the sumptuousness of images such as Moriz Jung's Jaguar from his Tier-ABC made about 1906 while still a student at the Vienna Kunstgewerbeschule. By comparison, Jungnickel's Tigerkopf is conventional. Jaguar is out-and-out Vienna Secession while Tigerkopf is Secession modified by a visit to the zoo.
Huehner (1907) was the nearest Carl Thiemann came to the commercial poster style but he was a fine artist by training and more associated with Munich than the more radical styles of the Vienna Secession. All the same, I have always thought this woodcut was Thiemann at his exquisite best. It sums up the modern need for fine but uncomplicated imagery. His woodcut landscapes tend to start looking like paintings for all the woodcut feel they have. The sheer decorativeness and subtlety of colour is what makes this Thiemann's greatest and most telling print. But then Thiemann had looked around the farmyard, not just the zoo.