Little did we think as we stuck posters to our bedroom, bedsit and halls of residence walls that we were initiating what would become a rite of passage and a marker of our progress through life. We thought our choice of poster said a little bit about ourselves and our similarity to or our differences from other tribes.
There wasn’t much choice, back in the day. Alberto Korda’s renowned photo of Che Guevara was a safe option, indicating right-on credentials.
Posters of Marcel Duchamp’s Mona Lisa with beard and moustache hovered on the borderline between being knowing and just following the herd. Van Gogh’s Sunflowers indicated a desire to be thought of as arty, while anything referencing Lord of the Rings screamed fey and fanciful and to be avoided.
Lena Dunham’s 2010 film Tiny Furniture refers to freshers arriving at college with their posters of Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss. This is probably a safe choice for the kids. Painted in the early 20th century, the image is not so current as to date quickly and its status as a significant work of art proclaims the owner’s taste and discernment. Its mix of Art Nouveau and Arts and Crafts, opulent gold leaf decoration, flowers and vines and elaborate clothes and the sensuous image of the lovers embracing strikes many chords and taps into many eras.
When you move on, what do you do with the tatty, dog-eared posters, sometimes covered in graffiti after an enthusiastic night in the bar, which have almost become part of the wallpaper? You usually throw them away and say goodbye to a bit of yourself.
Unless you happen to preserve your posters in impeccable condition (some hope) and end up lending them to a museum. Hello to all sisters whose memorabilia enhanced the terrific Propaganda exhibition, recently at the British Library. Who knew we would become part of history when our walls warned us that we would start by sinking into his arms and end up with our arms in the sink, and asked us YBA wife? (Nothing to do with the later YBA of Young British Artists)
Some posters, however, make the transition. Two other images of kisses have become an enduring part of our cultural consciousness. One is depicted in VJ Day in Times Square, a photo by Albert Eisenstaedt showing a sailor kissing a woman in a white dress, and the other is Robert Doisneau’s Kiss By The Hotel Ville. Another poster with timeless status is the 1932 poster of the New York construction workers eating lunch on a cross beam high above the city. These and others like them are framed and displayed with pleasure.
Anyone for tennis?
Other best-selling posters have a more complicated relationship with changing times. You remember the Athena poster of The Tennis Girl? Yes, you do know the one. You probably had a copy on your wall. It depicts the photographer’s girlfriend hitching up a short tennis dress to reveal her bare bottom. Two million loved it enough to buy it. Now it seems less provocative but also seems an unlikely choice to still have on your wall, unless you’re being ironic.
Mind the gap
My favourite poster art is the body of work commissioned to promote London Transport, in particular posters from the 1920s and 1930s. The posters were so elegantly designed, so lively and original, that standing on a tube platform was like being in an art gallery.
The artists’ works incorporate influences from early 20th century avant-garde European art movements, Cubism, Futurism and Vorticism, resulting in striking dramatic images, abstract designs, geometrical figures and a touch of Bauhaus.
Not the obvious choices for commercial advertising but these posters avoid the obvious.
Mood over mode
They work on suggestion, foregrounding a destination or creating a mood rather than leading with the mode of transport. Stylised images of umbrellas tell us that we will be dry and warm on the underground.
Impressionistic pictures of fashionable people having a good time in ‘Brightest London’ suggest that we can join them if we take the tube.
Pictures of a buzzy restaurant and silhouetted heads watching Ronald Colman on a cinema screen with captions Why go home? and Why wait till later? encourage us to extend our day in town.
Laura Knight’s strong-lined depiction of two players in a rugby tackle reminds us how easy it is to get to Twickenham by tram.
Landscapes showing the rolling hills of Dorking, the bright hop gardens of Kent, the lake at Wisley remind jaded town dwellers that the countryside can easily be reached by London Transport.
Paul Nash and Graham Sutherland were among the artists whose posters, a mixture of collage and photography, are designed to make us aware of the ease with which we can slip between town and country, enjoying the benefits of both.
Edward McKnight Kauffer, an American designer and commercial artist, was a leader in the field of avant-garde design and graphic art. Of all his posters, my favourite is the set depicting winter sales in London, designed between 1921 and 1924. They could be on my wall any time.
Winter is evoked through simplified, abstract images of raincoats and umbrellas, in swirling lines whose pattern draws you right in. Wind and rain are suggested through diagonal strokes. Monochrome figures struggle against the elements. But fear not! There it is, present in a half-hidden sign, or even in just a suggestion of red in the distance, but the Underground will deliver you safely into the welcoming warmth of department stores with bargains galore.
Derry and Toms, the Kensington store founded in 1860 which closed in 1971, is named in one poster. Looking at it now, the poster evokes a bygone era, the long years when department stores were the hub of shopping and stores such as Derry and Toms, Gamages, Marshall & Snellgrove and Swan & Edgar were a part of British life and winter sales helped to mark the rhythm of a year.
The London Transport Museum in Covent Garden held an enthralling exhibition recently of its Poster Art, which included some of Kauffer’s works. Here I learned that one of the Winter Sales set which was on display features in Evelyn Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited, set in 1923. The narrator, Charles Ryder, puts the poster on the wall of his college room at Oxford. He is a little embarrassed by this choice and by the other objects he chooses to define himself. Was the poster, for him, a too obvious way of showing he was familiar with modern art?
He shouldn’t have worried. Wouldn’t you salute the person who has a Kauffer or similar on their wall and who resists the urge to seek safety in The Kiss?