Oh, to have been a fly on the wall in 1989 Berlin, 1917 Petrograd, or a myriad of campus demonstrations in the ‘60s. Or, perhaps, a humble poster on the wall — for the bills, placards and polemical papers in this new display have seen it all.
The V&A has collected posters from the last 100 years — doubtless aware that delving further back through the centuries would have yielded even more rich material, but choosing to focus on events fresh in the consciousness of the western world. Some posters try to unite people, others to divide them.
‘It’s easier for people to agree on what they stand against than what they stand for’, muse the explanatory notes. Defining ourselves by negative association seems a universal human trait. So too the visual impact of surging bodies and raised fists: the imagery of radicalism goes beyond political party or ideology, and at times, adversaries use the same motifs. For instance, propaganda by the Nazis, the Soviets, and later the Hungarian revolutionaries employ strikingly similar images of hulking labourers smashing up the establishment.
Some posters – particularly in the 1960s student activism section – still possess an urgency potent enough to get caught up in. Anti-Vietnam War posters bellow ‘F*ck the Draft’, or ‘The Elections Don’t Mean Sh*t’; their visceral slogans matched by violently cut-and-pasted pictures of war. During the Civil Rights Movement, a simple, wordless photo of Angela Davis was sufficient to rouse supporters on the other side of the Atlantic.
Others, less immediate by nature, attempt to not rock the boat, and inspire optimism rather than rage or fear. They may — like one recent North Korean state-issued poster, catchily titled ‘Grasp the Seed of Revolution and Groundbreakingly Improve Agricultural Production!’ — even offer the viewer some form of pseudo-revolutionism, as if to channel any wayward rebellious spirits. The hopeful vision of utopia in one peaceful post-WWI German Democratic Party image now has an acute poignancy.
A section on ‘subvertising’ exhibits protesters’ doctoring or parodying of corporate logos to administer a good kicking to Shell et al. One of these campaigns, ‘What’s Wrong with McDonald’s’, only took off when the restaurant decided to sue the publisher, Greenpeace. Just as posters may go viral, they may be rejected, like the early-century German socialists’ ill-advised deployment of expressionist art to rally together farmhands.
The most effective posters, though, are bona-fide works of art: the anti-apartheid yin/yang design by the Boycott Committee, in particular. And — whether it’s suffragettes or Syria, revolutions Chinese or Cuban — all of them are absorbing artefacts of passion and turbulence.
A World to Win: Posters of Protest and Revolution runs at the V&A until 2 November. Admission is free.
By James FitzGerald