Pleasure, leisure, protest, propaganda

The Power of the Poster
July 3, 1998

While electronic reproduction has become the key to communication in our epoch, the poster has not lost its special role. This is the view of Margaret Timmers who has curated the Victoria and Albert Museum's first major display of posters since 1931 (on show until 26 July). She sees the poster as a product whose aim is to publicise and to persuade the public. It has acquired a new and more universal importance because the poster can appeal to a broader spectrum of "passing trade" than television and satellite advertising.

To select 330 posters for the current exhibition - 200 are illustrated in this book - from the museum's vast archive of 10,000 was difficult. The aim was not to present a history of the poster but to focus on its functions. Three sections are presented: pleasure and leisure, protest and propaganda, commerce and communication.

The opening section groups theatre and cabaret advertising from "Gay Nineties" Paris with British theatre posters of the same period. We are treated to gems such as Hugo d'Alesi's advertisement for the Centenaire de la Lithographie from 1895. An elegant lady wearing long black gloves admires lithographs on a stall overlooking the river Seine. The delicate mauves, the spatial and light effects, the enjoyable display of books and posters, the gesture of admiration, are uniquely informative. This was the glorious heyday of the innovative and aesthetic poster by artists like Toulouse-Lautrec, Jules Cheret, Alphonse Mucha and Theophile Steinlen, perhaps never to be achieved again.

Then, due to the intervention of the first world war, we are catapulted into the mid-1930s, and from there to the 1960s, ending with a Herb Ritts poster for a Madonna album cover.

David Crowley discusses the poster as a symbol of authority and, conversely, as an "urgent image to spur on the rolling force of revolution". During the first world war, governments invested more in poster production than ever before, to coerce and cajole populations. His skim through history falls, however, into the old cliche of equating right and left regimes. The unique development of propaganda art and design by designers such as Rodchenko and Lissitsky in association with poets and writers is presented in a rather confusing way.

Dawn Ades's essay remarks on the curious inversion whereby "in its early days, the poster aspired to the status of art", whereas, in the 20th century, "pictorial art has often aspired to the condition of the poster". She refers to the new arena occupied by the poster: "a public space that was not framed for art, as a museum or gallery, and raised new questions of aesthetics which tangled explicitly with commerce and ethics". This public space is inseparable from the modern metropolis, with its high concentration of people forming a permanent audience not only for commercial products, but artistic and political ideas of all kinds.

Julia Bigham documents the mushrooming of advertising agencies and the vast post-war expansion of advertising, which increasingly focused on the "ordinary man". Agencies recognised the "common man and woman" as "the focal point of all our endeavours". This idea has become the underlying concept in the exponential growth of advertising.

While the poster is the simplest of media - images on a sheet of paper - it can also be the most sophisticated. It must tantalise. Thus we find posters in which the reference to the idea or the product is hidden, in which the viewer is teased and the appeal is precisely to qualities which do not have a financial value.

The book includes the Benetton posters showing a new-born baby and a man dying of Aids. What has a dying man to do with selling clothes? Marketing requires shock techniques to penetrate the information overload affecting potential customers. The Benetton posters express the ultimate alienation of the individual in today's world. Even the most intimate experiences, of birth and death, are up for grabs.

Corinna Lotz is a freelance art historian and critic.

The Power of the Poster

Author - Margaret Timmers
ISBN - 1 85177 240 5
Publisher - V&A Publications
Price - £30.00
Pages - 252

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