The writing on the walls

“With Brexit, Covid and the climate crisis, posters have suddenly returned to our streets as public markers of motivation and despair”

Christian House

An unusual rash has popped up recently in Britain’s GP surgeries. A pox of pandemic posters produced to show the public how to bin it and kill it. Four years ago, a similar outbreak sprang out of the EU referendum, when the German contemporary artist Wolfgang Tillmans created posters declaring “What is lost is lost forever”. On the other side of the fence was Boris’s billboard.

Since they first appeared some two centuries ago, posters have been many things: sales pitches, artistic expressions, mechanisms of social change, propaganda and collectors’ items. And with Brexit, Covid and the climate crisis, they have suddenly returned to our streets as public markers of motivation and despair.

In the new book The Poster: 200 Years of Art, curator Jürgen Döring writes that “each one represents an attempt to convey a message on a clearly delimited surface—a message that will, it is hoped, be received by the viewer despite competing perpetually and pitilessly with an indefinite number of others found in the immediate vicinity”. The poster was the tweet before Twitter.

Döring’s study is focused on the poster collection in the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe in Hamburg for which he is responsible. Its publication coincides with that of The Poster: A Visual History, a tour through the poster collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. While the V&A volume takes an entertaining and barrelling thematic approach—consumption, sport, protest, transport—the German book is an elegant piece of scholarship that delivers a chronological tour through the work of some 200 artists.

Both books highlight how these scrappy punctuations of student halls and derelict walls have in reality been societal game-changers. Since its conception, the poster has delivered politically explosive, anarchist and avant-garde arguments and consistently crossed boundaries of artistic and social norms. Their power lies in the primacy of the messaging: the poster needs you!

“La chienlit—c’est lui!”, an anti-De Gaulle poster by the
Atelier Populaire from May 1968

This first-person shout out to the passer-by began with Kitchener’s call-up posters—replicated by both the German and US forces during the First World War—and in the decades since posters have pressed the public to combat communism and capitalism, ban the bomb and wear a condom. During the May ’68 riots, French students set up their own Atelier Populaire to disseminate witty digs at De Gaulle in a poster campaign plastered throughout the boulevards of Paris. Jan Lenica, the maestro of Polish avant-garde design in the 1960s, observed that the poster “has a job to do, and it must fulfil its duty”.

In terms of design, posters have always papered their own path. In Belle-Époque France, advertising sheets delivered curlicues of limbs and palm fronds; Imperial Germany invented the sachplakat—object poster—which isolated a product on a plain of bold colour (shoes were a popular sachplakat subject). Later, neither the Third Reich or the Soviets could print posters fast enough: both pumped up their muscular self-image at the  press. And then in the 1960s things got kaleidoscopic with incomprehensible counter-cultural compositions.

For artists, the poster is the perfect conduit for trial and error. Low-cost, in terms of material, production and time, it allows them to test boundaries of aesthetics and wreak havoc with the relationship between typography and imagery. Schiele, Kirchner, Picasso and Warhol all played around with the medium.

“Shaw or the Irony (Shaw oder die Ironie)”, poster for a lecture by Egon Friedell, by Egon Schiele, 1912

As these two books highlight, the really intriguing case studies, however, are the pioneering but less famous graphic designers. Characters like Edward McKnight Kauffer, the son of a travelling musician from Montana who shaped the visual identity of the London Underground during the interwar years. His posters of Kew Gardens and Westminster Abbey mashed together Vorticism and Cubism without losing an English sensibility. And then there were the Stenberg brothers, two Soviet film poster designers who blended photomontage and Constructivist tics to sell Buster Keaton to their Muscovite comrades.

Designers like these understood that a successful poster required a visual shorthand. Kauffer described it as a search for “a simplified, formalised, and more expressive symbol of the things represented”. A cross-pollination of iconography is another trope. In a Socialist Worker poster from 1983, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher embrace in the midst of nuclear fallout for a Gone With The Wind parody (“The Most Explosive Love Story Ever”).

Posters have “given dissenters the graphic language to agitate”, observes Gill Saunders, head of the prints department at the V&A. “Their designers have used every possible strategy—humour, seduction, provocation, shock—to get their message across.”

Since the mid-19th century, when lithographic printing revolutionised the practice, hot colours have punctuated those points. You can make a lot of noise with a few hues. “Limiting the number of colours makes a poster not only cheaper, but also better,” explained one 19th-century German curator. “A poster printed in just a few colours will be visible from afar.”

What is less clear are the origins of the poster. Early examples are immensely rare due to their frailty and small print runs. As an independent source of public information, they date to the early 19th century, as Jürgen Döring explains: “Before the French Revolution, censorship had a firm grip on the European continent. Public proclamations were the royal prerogative of the head of state and his government.”

“5 fingers has the hand—with 5 you grab the enemy!—Vote for List 5 Communist Party! ” by John Heartfield, 1928 (JOHN HEARTFIELD POSTER © The Heartfield Community of Heirs / VG Bild- Kunst, Bonn 2020)

By the turn of the century a full-blown poster frenzy—affichomanie—had taken hold. There were magazines for poster fans in Paris and London. In fin-de-siècle France, Alphonse Mucha, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec and others made their names creating posters featuring bohemian women entwined in tactful foliage, romantic images that were used to advertise railway routes and department stores, cabarets and cigarette papers. The actress Sarah Bernhardt kept a whole raft of artists busy with her theatrical posters. Another prolific designer of the period was Leonetto Cappiello whose posters were marked by “a dab of colour” and a dash of audacity (high-kicking showgirls were his forte).

These designs were intended for indoor use in foyers and corridors and the walls of upmarket boutiques. The street poster came into its own in the 20th century. Technological developments and a revolution in typography coincided with a growing urban population to create both the means and motivation for widespread poster production. It promptly became a favourite with dictators and dissenters everywhere.

A poster for the 1939 New York World’s Fair by Albert Staehle ( © 2020 Victoria and Albert Museum, London)

During the post-war years, posters got down with the young ones. Rock posters became design classics: psychedelia took the medium on an acid trip and punks did their thing with subversive collages. Meanwhile, in their distillation of a film’s atmosphere into a single image, cinema posters became an art form in their own right. In Hollywood, Saul Bass—poster designer to Alfred Hitchcock, Otto Preminger and Billy Wilder—had the poster tally with the opening credits to create a visual branding, what he described as “a simple visual phrase to tell you what the story is all about”.

In recent decades, posters have fractured the conservative mindset of marketing executives. Companies became campaigners and campaigners got slick. Benetton’s ads of kissing nuns garnered outrage and acclaim. Meanwhile, the anti-fur organisation Lynx employed David Bailey to shoot their bloody billboards (“It takes 40 dumb animals to wear a fur coat. And only one to wear it”). Taste is a fluid concept in the advertising world: Levi’s probably wouldn’t now go with their “logo on a woman’s bare-buttock” campaign of the early 1970s.

A recent resurgence in print posters in the US has been fuelled by the live music and street art scenes and various activist groups. Shepard Fairey, designer of the Barack Obama “Hope” poster in 2008, has designed for all three arenas. But elsewhere there has been the inevitable digital overhaul. Oxymoronic “digital prints”—those ingratiating screens that “rotate” next to you at the bus stop—have ratcheted up the immediacy of poster recognition, demanding audience attention in the programmed time it takes for the screen to change.

“Daddy, what did YOU do in the Great War?”,
by Savile Lumley, published by the Parliamentary Recruiting Committee, 1915 ( © 2020 Victoria and Albert Museum, London)

The digital sphere is hostile to the charms of the traditional poster. And while the paper poster has authority—its argument is literally fixed in ink—a screen “poster” is a removable and deniable despatch. Perhaps it is that conviction that accounts for the emotional heft of the traditional poster. Consider the passive-aggressive punch of the First World War poster designed by Savile Lumley for the Parliamentary Recruiting Committee in 1915. A father is shown in his armchair, surrounded by his adoring children. The tagline: “Daddy, what did YOU do in the Great War?” One assumes that Lumley told his kids that he did his bit hitting print deadlines.

Yet, while doctors, environmentalists and Europhiles—as well as anti-vaxxers, climate sceptics and Brexiteers—have all embraced the poster in recent years, the medium is perhaps ill-suited to the present political landscape. With the ever-changing messaging—the management of crises one slogan at a time—there isn’t enough paper to go around.


The Poster: 200 Years of Art and History is published by Prestel, £45. The Poster: A Visual History is published by the V&A  and Thames & Hudson, £45

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