Form or function? In the history of poster art, the two sides are constantly at war

Reagan Upshaw

THE WASHINGTON POST – “Who takes the eye takes all,” said Mary Lowndes of the Artists’ Suffrage League in the early 1900s, neatly summarising the need for striking graphics on the banners that suffragists were making for their marches. Lowndes’s statement could serve as the motto for all those who attempt to persuade by visual means, be they propagandists for political parties or advertisers selling soap.

The Poster, edited by Gill Saunders and Margaret Timmers of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, is a beautiful and entertaining account of the history of the medium, illustrated with examples drawn from the museum’s extensive collection.

While handbill-sized fliers affixed to surfaces had long been in existence, it was the development of the large-scale colour lithographic technique, with images composed of several pieces that could be pasted together into one picture, that made possible the explosion of graphic media campaigns in the 19th Century. The first-rate artists who turned their talents to such designs make an impressive roster. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Alphonse Mucha and Aubrey Beardsley were early practitioners of an art form that would be continued a century later by David Hockney, Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg.

The history of posters has been a continuing battle between word and image and between simplicity and complexity. How detailed should a visual image be? How much of the space should be allotted to picture and how much to lettering?

“Maximum meaning. Minimum means,” was the byword of influential 20th-Century designer Abram Games. On the other hand, The Poster tells us that during San Francisco’s psychedelic era, designers often “deliberately ignored traditional rules of poster design – that lettering should be legible, the message communicated immediately and disturbing colours avoided.” Those of us, stoned or not, who tried to decipher one of Victor Moscoso’s trippy rock concert posters would agree with the assessment.

The essays in The Poster detail the change in images, methods and public response over the years, sometimes looking back at “humorous” imagery that would now seem problematic, as in a poster showing a suffragist abandoning her hunger strike to sample a bowl of delicious Plasmon Oats. By the Mad Men era, poster advertising had shifted from original artwork to a reliance on photography. The commercial artist had been replaced by the graphic designer working with a creative team within an ad agency.

While money spent on poster advertising dropped drastically as television advertising became ascendant, some poster campaigns still broke through. The shock value of the United Colours of Benetton campaigns during the 1980s and ‘90s drew plenty of attention to the brand.

A chapter titled The Poster in the Digital Age is a fascinating look at the current scene, when posters composed of paper or vinyl are being replaced by digital billboards, with images that are visible for a few seconds before the next image appears. Yet the fleeting image is not the only survivor of the poster today. Social media platforms have added a new, smaller dimension. Homemade posters, photographed at rallies, go viral, being shared, adapted and answered as they spread across Facebook and Twitter. In the end, what compels us to take note of such a poster – a witty slogan or a harmonious blend of line and colour? Nineteenth-century poster artists would recognise the question as a familiar one.