Hoarding treasures

The V&A is staging an exhibition of colourful and influential posters from the museum’s vast archive. Liz Farrelly gets a sneak preview of the preparations.

From deep within the stores, plan chests and rolling stock of our National Museum of Art and Design – the one with the “ace caff” according to the Messrs Saatchi – comes a blockbuster of a graphics exhibition. Three hundred and thirty posters, taken from the permanent collection housed at the Victoria and Albert Museum which runs to over 10 000 items, comprise The Power of the Poster. The selection on show may represent a partial tip of an impressive iceberg, but, as the V&A’s first exhibition of posters on this scale since 1931, just be glad that it’s happening in your lifetime.

Judging from the sneak behind-the-scenes preview I was treated to by curator Margaret Timmers, I’d hazard a guess that those select 330 examples represent the crème de la crème of what is a world renowned collection. But far from simply being an aesthetic choice of accepted greats and high-value collectibles, this exhibition presents the thesis that posters reveal, in Timmers’ own words, “… an archaeology of our time”. Along the way they also present much food for thought concerning the discipline of advertising, the mechanisms of propaganda and the formal and metaphorical languages of design.

Having studied at the V&A and spent summers working in the National Art Library, I have an idea of the museum’s achingly “thorough”, meaning slow, bureaucratic processes. Despite, and maybe because of, adopting a fast-track approach, that strong thesis shines through the selection and offers a basic definition of the genre. For the sake of organisation, the exhibits have been divided into three distinct groups with the chronologies spiced-up by a number of notable “stories”.

Once selected every item made a trip to the conservation department (and so did I to witness the operation). Whether the item was a four-colour litho “wheat-paste” poster (as they call flyposters in the US) announcing the latest release by the Wu Tang Clan, or a recognised masterpiece of the genre, the covetable and fragile Beggarstaff Brothers’ Rowntree’s Elect Cocoa from 1896, the same process applied. After being separated from any unsuitable backing (many of the older items had been backed with canvas, and folded!), cleaned, re-backed on to flexible yet durable Japanese paper, and stretched on to a wooden frame, the rejuvenated item would be wrapped and delivered to the exhibition site. As that process could only begin last August after the selection had been finalised, and the accompanying catalogue dispatched to the printer, the achievement of getting such an undertaking on the walls on time, appears even more impressive.

Timmers’ definition of a poster is a useful starting point for anyone involved in either designing, commissioning or assessing such a thing. That it’s mass-produced and ink on paper is a given, but not always the rule. Quoting from the exhibition’s introduction panel, “… the originator of the poster has a message to sell; the target audience must be persuaded to buy it. The interchange takes place in the public domain… (the poster must) seize our immediate attention and then retain it for what is usually a short but sustained period, so that we are provoked into some form of response or even action.” Whether it’s “cor blimey” at the sight of a 48-sheet-sized “Hello Boys… The one and only Wonderbra” (art director and copywriter Nigel Rose at TBWA); wistful nostalgia excited by the Shell-Mex & BP commissioned series of genteel views of pre-war motoring; or a stand-up-and-be-counted response to the Lynx anti-fur poster, “It takes up to 40 dumb animals to make a fur coat. But only one to wear it”, shot by David Bailey and produced by Yellowhammer, the response elicited by a successful poster is the one intended by its maker.

With over 80 000 hoarding sites in the UK alone, and the average Londoner being witness to around 2000 advertising images daily, such saturation results in both confusion and “tuning-out”. By dividing the exhibition into three categories, Timmers has recognised the need to bring some order to the mix.

Pleasure and Leisure, the first category, includes some forerunners to the poster, such as the theatre handbill, and gathers together examples of announcements for performances, sporting events, leisure activities, exhibitions and, of course, the cinema. This section also features those lauded Parisian exponents of the art of the poster, Jules Chéret, Toulouse-Lautrec and Steinlen, as well as Alphonse Mucha’s quintessentially Art Nouveau renderings of the actress Sarah Bernhardt and Aubrey Beardsley’s exotic and erotic extravagances. In 1889 Chéret was made a Chevalier of the Légion d’Honneur for “creating a branch of art by applying art to commercial and industrial printing”, and in the following decade his work was highly sought by the fashionable advocates of the new craze for poster collecting.

That craze never really abated, and over the century has created some interesting aesthetic cross-pollination. Poster images, it would seem, can become so firmly entrenched in the public imagination that particular styles and images enter the lexicon of graphic communication, to be reused, subverted or lionised by later exponents. An exhibition at the V&A in 1963 of posters by Mucha, and another in 1966 of Beardsley’s work, attracted what critic George Melly described as devotees of “the emerging underground”, and have been credited with introducing a new generation of creative types to Art Nouveau. Following the contemporary edicts of Pop, which sanctioned every form of cultural “borrowing”, the eager converts sparked a stylistic revival which in the equally acid-tinged music industry mutated into psychedelic graphics, and helped to fuel a new era of exoticism within the realms of interior design and fashion.

In the following section of the exhibition, Protest and Propaganda, two of Timmers’ “stories” reveal how a seemingly obvious message may be subverted by the artist unbeknown to the client, and how a fictional poster character becomes shorthand for a particular set of moral values. In the accompanying collection of essays edited by Timmers (The Power of the Poster V&A Publications, 1998, 30) Ruth Walton unpacks meanings behind these war-based propaganda posters. Frank Brangwyn’s controversial “Put strength in the final blow. Buy war bonds” (1918) shows a British soldier bayoneting the enemy in graphic detail, and even though it was accepted and published by the client, the National War Savings Committee, it has been interpreted as an anti-war statement prompted by the death of Brangwyn’s nephew, who had been inspired to join the army by his uncle’s posters.

Walton goes on to unravel the series of recruitment posters based on the “finger pointing” personality, from Alfred Leete’s Britons Want You featuring Lord Kitchener in 1914, to James Montgomery Flagg’s Uncle Sam version of 1917, and the I Want OUT (1971) subversion designed by the Daniel and Charles Agency and published anonymously by The Committee to Unsell the War, during the US conflict in Vietnam and Cambodia.

The final section, Commerce and Communication, features posters selling products and services and charts the advertising industry from the birth of the modern agency at the end of the 19th century (the V&A holds the entire archive of SH Benson, one of London’s earliest agencies which survives today as Ogilvy and Mather). The introduction of “brands” at that time meant manufacturers could sell packaged goods direct to the customer, cutting out the retailer, who until then was able to weigh, wrap and adulterate a “loose” staple. The device of creating a “friendly face”, or reliability, for a brand produced the Bisto Kids, Guinness’s cast of zoo creatures, the Michelin Man, Bubbles, Rowntree’s Cocoa-Nibs children and Bovril’s “sinking feeling” man in pyjamas. An exhibition at the Bethnal Green Museum in 1973 of the SH Benson collection, revealed that the agency originated those characters for Guinness, Bovril, Colman’s Mustard and Rowntree’s Chocolate, and brought a whole host of familiar faces back into the limelight.

As press and television advertising took over from posters (in 1993 62 per cent of advertising revenue in the UK was spent on press, 30 per cent on television and 4 per cent on posters), creative teams have increasingly used the medium for its inherent ability to shock by means of scale and location. Kinetic, collaged and live-action posters are a common site along major routes, so watch out for the V&A’s publicity stunts, planned to coincide with the exhibition… as yet they’re still under wraps.

After a century of collecting, the poster has become an accepted art form, whether it’s bemoaning the futility of war or selling us sweaters. That there’s an equally comprehensive exhibition dedicated to the poster about to open in Washington DC, drawn from the Library of Congress’s collection of 100 000 examples, is a not insignificant coincidence. It could be that the uncompromising fin de siècle aesthetics of Chéret and Toulouse-Lautrec, which prompted the first wave of interest in the medium, are being mirrored by our pre-millennial fascination with the power of the poster to communicate a direct message, amid an environment over-stuffed with meaningless ephemera.

The Power of the Poster at the Victoria and Albert Museum runs from 2 April to 26 July

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