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The tough task of defining art

Art is a word that mutates and evolves as we do as a society. We have all used it at one time or another, but few know how to define it. The concept of art is intrinsically linked to our subjectivity, our values and the way we perceive the world.

However, in order to talk about art, we need to create a base concept, which serves as a starting point.

So, how do we define art?

Let’s start by saying that Art is a term enveloping a multitude of styles, movements and techniques. Besides, art is a way of expression humanity uses to channel stories and messages. Born from the artist’s vision, an idea becomes an artwork, by using materials and apply techniques. Consequently the artwork allows the observer to experience feelings and emotion, hence transmitting a message. This is precisely true in visual arts, where artworks are created to invite the public to reflect, think deeply or identify themselves. A visual art experience embraces cognitive and emotional components. This experience culminates in a unique personal sensation felt by the observer.

Considering this, visual art is an aesthetic stimulus that triggers an emotional response.

Now, what is Art Fiduciaire?

© Banknote Art Concept | French banknotes artistic evolution

From the first promissory notes released to our printed modern banknotes, an abundance of innovations came along. The banknote’s components, such as material, ink, security features and printing techniques have accomplished constant improvements and sophistication. Although challenged by the technologic evolution and requirements, artists and banknote designers utilise artistic styles and techniques along their creativity in the conception of currency.

Banknotes and coins are pieces of visual art which, by means of symbolism and imagery, through iconographic choices echoing their time, have a power to relay a nation’s identity. It’s essential to notice that a currency becomes part of a country’s symbols when its design echoes to the population’s values. Then, even after its removal from circulation, the currency will last in a shared national heritage, transmitting the message it was designed for.

This is how Banknote Art Concept recognises Art Fiduciaire as a form of visual art.

Case Study: Artistic evolution in French banknotes

In the early 1900s, the first French multicoloured banknote was released. Migrating from the nineteenth century allegoric illustrations, banknote design evolved to patriotic styles. The printing and security processes modernisation in the 1930s generalised the polychromatic banknotes, followed by realistic designs which included the first portraits of famous individuals. Post war, a major disruption in style emerged with the first “modern” designs, introducing a French school style in portrait banknote design.

Le Verrier

This model created in 1946, the 50 francs “Le Verrier” banknote is part of the first “Famous creators and scientists” series released by the Banque de France. These banknotes replaced the previous temporary notes, easily forgeable. Robert Pougheon, painter and book illustrator, was inspired by the Art Deco style. By creating this series, he gave a modern and elegant twist to French banknotes.

The design commemorates the centenary of the discovery of the planet Neptune by astronomer Urbain Le Verrier, and is generally identified as the first French commemorative banknote. The front includes the astronomer’s portrait, with a compass in his hand, a symbol of the celestial mechanics he used. Behind him the Paris observatory, where he spent most of his career.

Robert Pougheon
Original image © Gettyimages

The back offers a metaphorical interpretation of the planet Neptune, with an allegory of the roman god of water, seating on two dolphins, also visible in the watermark. Behind him the ecliptic and the Capricorn sign, where the planet was first observed.

The historical context meant that this banknote was created with urgency, for a temporary use, and as a result didn’t integrate new anti counterfeiting technologies. The choice made to use such a graphic composition in blue shade, highlighted the banknote’s value, easing its identification by the public in their daily transactions.

This is a great example of how Art Deco, as a worldwide artistic movement, entered currency design. Art Deco had been present in visual arts, crafts and architecture, associated with luxury and modernity, celebrating progress and optimism. Artistically, this design was a breakthrough in the nation’s banknote style. The decision to choose an unfamiliar astronomer for the protrait, as opposed to other popular scientific figures, is surprising. It happened that, shortly after this banknote was released, the Berlin Observatory confirmed the astronomer’s discovery. Therefore the message this banknote conveys is a potential sign of the will of reconciliation between the two countries.

De La Tour

De La Tour banknote recto released by the Banque de France in 1976.
© Banknote Art Concept |

This example designed in 1967, only released in 1976, the 50 francs “De La Tour” is part of the second “Famous creators and scientists” series, mostly celebrating painters and musicians. Prompted by the Banque de France need for an innovative protection against counterfeiting by photography, and secondly a desire for a modernised ornamentation. Lucien Fontanarosa, painter, engraver and illustrator, is associated with the Expressionist and Figurative artistic movements.

Dedicated to the artist Quentin de La Tour, this design includes a figurative interpretation from a Rococo style self portrait, which also appears in the watermark. Behind him the stairs ascending to the Chateau de Versailles, as seen from the palace’s garden. The back, in lighter shades, shows the see-through portrait along with the artist’s birthplace city hall, where he founded his school for drawing.

Lucien Fontanarosa
Original image © Gettyimages

At the time, this combination with a range of blue tonalities highlighted of yellow proved hard to reproduce by photography. It was also the first French banknote produced with offset printing along with taille-douce, a security technique innovation. Compared to previous series, a decisive change of style occurred with this design, with less detailed drawing and a simple selection of colours, however elegantly united in a melancholic atmosphere.

Saint Exupéry

Saint-Exupéry banknote verso released by the Banque de France in 1992.
Saint-Exupéry banknote verso released by the Banque de France in 1992.

Designed in 1992, the 50 francs “Saint Exupéry” is from a series celebrating the country’s contribution to the twentieth century in literature, art, architecture and science. At the time, compact scanning and printing devices were made available to the public and triggered the need for a new design to reduce the counterfeiting risk. Roger Pfund was a painter, engraver and graphic designer, a contemporary artist known for his Swiss banknotes and passport designs.

This banknote celebrates the writer and aviator Antoine de Saint Exupéry. At the front, the writer’s portrait inspired from a photography, also visible in the watermark. Behind him, an airliner and the flight routes he used over Europe and Africa. Elements from the novella “Le Petit Prince” include: the little prince on his planet, the “boa digesting an elephant” drawing, a micro text from the novella and a sheep in invisible ink. The back shows the aviator’s biplane flying over the desert, a compass used for navigation and the see-through picture of the little prince.

Roger Pfund
Original image © SRF

Using the latest security and technology innovations, within a highly detailed composition, in a contemporary style emphasised by bright colours, all added to the writer’s notoriety make this banknote one of the most emblematic released by the country.

Analysis: Banknotes as a key piece of a nation’s identity

Noticing the evolution of these banknotes through the second half of the twentieth century, important parameters include: the need for more security, and the choice of an artistic style that integrates the technological innovations, to a design that aligns to the population’s culture and values.

In consequence, one can learn about other people’s cultures by the mean of art in currency. Art Fiduciaire allows the observer to interact with the currency, and communicate a nation’s history. By integrating art in currency, the population recognises banknotes and coins as a part of their national identity.

Art Fiduciaire involves an extensive work in research and creativity, to associate a country’s symbols to technology and industrialisation. In such a delicate process that is banknote concept, manufacturing constraints and security requirements, are challenges to the creativity. Banknote Art Concept considers that it is important not to let the artistic vision aside, as it contributes significantly to the popular success of a currency.

When the population reflects on a design, they identify themselves to its symbols, which in turn becomes part of their identity and culture.

Featured Image: Fragment of “Flower Power house note” © Koenig & Bauer Banknote Solutions