Towards the end of the 19th century, the Swiss art scene underwent thorough transformation. The central figure in this development was the painter Ferdinand Hodler. He was the first among Swiss artists who dared to radically be himself. Even though Hodler never took on students, the art world soon coined the term “Hodlerians” for a small group of Bernese artists. What they all had in common wasn’t a clearly defined, shared style, but rather that they followed Hodler’s example and dared to go their own ways. Emil Cardinaux was part of this circle, next to artists like Cuno Amiet and Max Buri.
Cardinaux was born in the city of Bern in 1877 and spent most of his youth there as well. His background however was French Swiss; his family had its roots in a place called Palezieux, in the canton of Vaud. His childhood was happy and carefree. He attended the Eschenbacher Private School, were he was noticed to be a talented but not terribly hard-working student with a vivid imagination. At a very young age, he had already developed a passion for drawing and painting.
Having completed three semesters of law at the University of Berne, Cardinaux left for Munich in 1898 to further his artistic training. He learned figure drawing in the studio of Franz Stuck, who was one of the founders of the Munich Secession. Among Stuck’s students were such extraordinary talents as Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky. For two years, Cardinaux enthusiastically worked in Stuck’s studio. On top of that, the valuable collection at the Munich Pinakothek provided the young artist with ample opportunities to study the art of the old masters. While in Munich, Cardinaux never neglected his second big passion, the mountains. On his trips to the Kaisergebirge, he would occasionally paint as well. It was on such an occasion that he painted “Evening” in the area of Dachau in 1900.
In 1903, Cardinaux returned to Switzerland with the firm conviction that there is only one way for each artist: his own. During the summer he painted in the Bernese Alps and in the fall, he left for Paris where he got exposed to the French Avant-garde and the Impressionist painters in particular. As valuable an input that was, Cardinaux was never at risk to limit himself to a particular style; instead he was always concerned to develop his own visions. Such rigorous individualism required, apart from the obvious talent, a fair bit of courage.
Back in Switzerland in 1904, Cardinaux painted his first design for a poster, a scene at Lake Oeschinen. The following year led him to Florence, Siena and Bologna. Starting in1905, his name started to appear more and more in the Bernese art scene. He became well known as a painter and poster artist and just like Amiet, Boss, Colombi and Buri he was soon thought of as a thoroughbred “Hodlerian”. Hodler’s works evolved around values of order, strength and simplicity and that’s what made it relevant for Cardinaux.
During the years of 1906/07 Cardinaux spent a lot of time on Pass Jaun painting the winter landscape. He then briefly returned to Munich for the summer months of 1907 where he temporarily took over Carl Liner’s studio. In 1908 Cardinaux’s mother died, his father followed a year later. Cardinaux now moved to Muri near Bern where he built himself a house with a studio- in full view of the breathtaking panorama of the Bernese Alps. In 1914 he got married to Marie Herren. At about that time, his cousin Oskar Bider learned to fly and invited Cardinaux to come along as one of the first passengers on his flights through the Jungfrau region. For Cardinaux, these flights opened up a whole new perspective on the much-loved mountains.
Cardinaux: The Painter
Cardinaux’s multifaceted interests, his well-developed sense of beauty and his proven talent distinguished him from the majority of his contemporaries. He was known to be readily excited, but at the same time sensitive and never shallow. Working on landscape paintings allowed him to enjoy a deep sense of connection with nature, while being artistically active. His paintings are unmistakable in their intimacy with nature. However, Cardinaux’s relation to the mountains was entirely different from Hodler’s, who loved the Alps primarily for their strength, their sheer size and harshness.
The poster artist
Emil Cardinaux was one the first artists to recognize the specific qualities a poster had to fulfil. Even in his earliest designs, he tried to create tightly structured pieces of art that would function as independent of their surroundings as possible. Cardinaux was well aware of the fact that posters were meant for short term display and that normally there wasn’t a lot of money to be made with a design. Accordingly, the designer didn’t have to come up with timeless pieces of art. Their job was rather to attract attention with new ideas, strong compositions and well thought-out colouring. He realised that the successful poster had to achieve light fastness, high luminosity and a maximum range of effect, while keeping the litho costs low. Cardinaux had learned to lithograph during his time in Munich and was therefore as familiar with litho printing’s specific qualities as with its technical limits. His posters stood out from the masses of ordinary ads put up on a daily basis and their ingenious simplicity and masterly execution excite collectors up to the present day.
The first Mono Cards were published by the founder of the International Mono Company in Winterthur, Karl W. Bührer in 1905. His goal was to introduce good art and literature into ordinary households while at the same time educating the business world to create tasteful advertising. Even though the cards became well traded collective items, they never turned into a financial success for their disappointed inventor who gave up on the idea pretty quickly. Among the first of the published cards were some designed by Cardinaux. As far back as 1906, he came up with an extraordinary representation of Mount Matterhorn for the municipality of Zermatt. The same image that was originally created for a mono card was printed as a poster two years later. The “Matterhorn” is arguably the most beautiful and influential Swiss tourism poster ever. The bold black outlines of Mount Matterhorn stand in a stark contrast with a purplish morning sky. Such daring simplicity captures the viewer’s attention up to today.
Design competitions: the Swiss Railway and the National Exhibition
In 1903, the Swiss railway put out a call for submissions for new poster designs. In retrospective this competition was an important basis for the further development of Switzerland’s design history. In the original call for submission it said: “Competition for Swiss nationals or resident artists to create original designs for six coloured, illustrated posters which will be primarily displayed in railway stations, hotels and on steamboats abroad.” Offering 100 Swiss Francs for each design, the printing company Benteli AG in Bern asked the following painters to participate in the competition: Christian Baumgartner, Edoardo Berta, Edmond Bille, Eduard Boss, Emil Cardinaux, Plinio Colombi, H. Harbuger, Ernst Linck, Carl Liner and Hans Beat Wieland. Emil Cardinaux’s design of Lake Oeschinen was awarded an honorary.
Some of Cardinaux’s posters polarized the public. In 1914, he won the well endowed competition for the creation of a poster for the Swiss National Exhibition. A large part of the population however felt that the massive green horse was a scandalous, inappropriate image. In short: it was nothing they could identify with. Cardinaux’s poster didn’t offer the usual clichés people wanted to see; in fact, the organizers were in such a hard pressed position that they had to come up with a different poster for the advertising campaign abroad.
Posters for the Private Sector: Villars, Bally, PKZ
After his success with the Swiss Railway competition, Cardinaux was approached by the chocolate factory Villars and asked to come up with two designs for them. Thanks to their wit, the two posters “Fox and Raven” and the “Pied Piper of Hamelin” appeal to us up to the present day more than a hundred years later. As one of the first among poster designers, Cardinaux knew that a poster had to both attract attention and send out a strong message. He convincingly applied that marketing insight, which was quite remarkable for his time, to all his designs whether they were for tobacco or coffee, for Rihs shoe polish, the shoe manufacturer Bally, or for the fashion company P.K.Z.
Advertising for the growing tourism industry
Cardinaux’s posters for the up and coming centres of tourism demonstrate what a keen observer he was. His love for the mountains is obvious in these designs and the human figures harmoniously fit into the surrounding landscape. Wonderful examples of this kind are the lithographs which Cardinaux created for the luxurious tourist destination of St. Moritz, for instance “Palace Hotel”, “Winter Landscape” and “Golf in St. Moritz” or the “Mount Cervin” for Zermatt.
Cardinaux’s posters were very influential on the way Switzerland saw and represented itself in the early 20th century. It is only now that his contribution to our cultural history is receiving full recognition, both nationally and internationally. He was and remains one of the most outstanding artists in the history of Swiss poster design.