Introduced in the 1870s as a cheap form of communication, the humble postcard was raised to an art form in the early years of the 20th century.
The idea that the fine arts were for everyone, rather than a cultured few, was a new one in the 19th century, and evolved slowly at about the same time as the postcard.
Printing techniques improved steadily, too, and by the 1890s colour reproduction could achieve superb results.
This was the time when art nouveau, the art and design movement, was sweeping through the European capitals, as young artists banded together to explore new and exciting ideas.
One of these groups was the Vienna Secession, the name indicating artists who had seceded (broken away) from the conservatism of the official art world. The Secession had its first exhibition in 1898, and the occasion was marked by the issue of a series of 12
specially designed postcards, perhaps the first art postcards ever issued.
At this time, all postcards had to have a whole side devoted to the address, so that the designs on the front had to leave room for a message.
Postcards in the modern style, with a picture on the front and a divided back to take both message and address, first appeared in 1902 in Britain, and were gradually accepted by postal authorities in Europe.
EMPHASIS ON ORIGINALITY
Art postcards remained primarily a concern of mainland Europe. The Wiener Werkstatte (literally 'Viennese Workshops' - a kind of craft guild) issued 1,000 cards in the six years before World War 1, all of them original designs.
This emphasis on originality distinguishes true art postcards from those which merely reproduce paintings and other works of art, although one famous Austrian painter, Gustav Klimt, often had his paintings
reproduced on contemporary cards.
The most influential figure in the creation of art nouveau postcards was the Czech painter and designer Alphonse Mucha, who had an international career and made his name mainly in Paris. He was particularly famed for his posters. There was also good work done in Germany, where artists revived the style seen in old woodcut illustrations.
Some postcards were advertisements, pure and simple, while others tended towards fine art subjects. Young women, in and out of national costume or fashionable dress, were popular subjects. Typical motifs included stylized flowers, which often appeared in borders, and bold silhouettes, often in colour.
ART POSTCARD COLLECTOR'S NOTES
Art nouveau postcards were often sold in sets, especially the purely decorative subjects. Some of the Viennese ones appeared in limited editions. German and Austrian cards are fairly rare in Britain and America, where they fetch high prices.
Mucha is the most collectable of postcard artists, though others, such as Basch Arpad, Hans Christiensen, Raphael Kirchner and Alexandre Steinlein also attract great interest.
There are plenty of other artists worth collecting, though, and many copyists working in the style of the major figures. Art nouveau embellishments or borders, even if the main picture is not in the same style, will add value to a card.
ART DECO CARDS
Don't ignore unsigned cards if you like the subject. Continuing research may identify an artist. Not yet as popular, but growing more so, are post-war postcards in the new art deco style, a reaction in many ways to what was seen as the decadence of art nouveau.
Bold angles, colours and shapes typify the style, which adapted well to children's, glamour and greetings cards. Look out for the work of Anne French, Mela Koehler, Jessie Wilcox Smith and Alice Wanke.
Because it is such a specialist area, you're unlikely to find art nouveau postcards outside specialist postcard outlets. It's always a good idea to cultivate dealers who seem to know your subject, and leave them with wants lists.
Magazines on general postcard themes will have postal sales and auctions, and will alert you to various fairs and catalogues.
Condition is, as always, important. Postcards are generally rated as Mint, Very Fine, Fine, Very Good, Good, Fair or Poor. Mint cards are rare. They should not be confused with those classified just as Unused, which means that they have not gone through the post. They should be just as they left the printer, with no marks from being put in an album or any other signs of handling.
Store your collection away from bright light and guard it from damp; moisture will cause the layers of paper making up the card to separate and will lead to foxing - brownish patches of discolouration.
Less valuable cards can be kept in a shoe-box or something similar, or in old albums, but be careful not to damage their corners. Never stick them to anything. The cards you value most should be kept separately in transparent wrappers.
A soft eraser, used with care, will remove some marks, but don't use harder ones, which will damage the card. Always handle cards by their edges, and never pick them up by one corner, which may bend or crease them.
You'll find some antique postcards in on-line auctions, but retail
availability is quite limited, with only a few stores scattered around the nation.