THE POWER OF THE POSTER: An exhibition, which highlights the impact of posters over the years, has opened at the V&A. LEON JAUME reviews the event

Here’s a pretty reassuring thought for any man who supposes he has a difficult girlfriend: ’The ’easy’ girlfriend spreads syphilis and gonorrhoea which, unless properly treated, may result in blindness, insanity, paralysis and premature death.’

Here’s a pretty reassuring thought for any man who supposes he has

a difficult girlfriend: ’The ’easy’ girlfriend spreads syphilis and

gonorrhoea which, unless properly treated, may result in blindness,

insanity, paralysis and premature death.’

Such comforting words from a 1943 Health Education poster are alone

worth the price of admission to the new exhibition at the V&A, the Power

of the Poster. It’s a wonderful array, drawn from the V&A’s collection

of more than 10,000 originals, and should be seen for two good


The first is pure pleasure; I defy anyone not to enjoy a selection

eclectic enough to include Toulouse-Lautrec, the Economist and the

Council for Health and Cleanliness, whose 1920s ’Where there’s dirt

there’s danger’ poster compared the alphabet of the Not-so-Clean and the

Clean families; would you rather be Angry or Amiable? Frowsy or Fresh?

Vapid or Virile?

The second reason, for anyone in advertising, is that the birth of our

business is displayed on these walls.

There are some recent-ish posters - Nike, Smirnoff and Heineken are here

- but it’s a fairly arbitrary scattering. What’s far more fascinating is

the surprising relevance of some very old work.

Naturally, sex weaves a sinuous thread through the entire exhibition,

from Jules Cheret’s swirling Loie Fuller at the Fol- ies Bergere, dated

1893, to Eva’s ’Hello Boys’ in full 48-sheet magnificence.

It takes in ’the divine Sarah’ Bernhardt by Mucha, Levi’s bare bum from

the 70s and Rooney and Larry’s Haagen- Dazs poster. (Oh good, I’m

working with a man featured at the V&A. Oh God, I’ve replaced a man

featured at the V&A.) Surprising frissons were caused by Dudley Hardy’s

’Yellow Girl’ poster for Today magazine in 1893 about which the

biographer, A.

E. Johnson, wrote: ’The Yellow Girl refused to be ignored. There was

something almost immodest in the way she danced along the decorous

streets of London.’ Even more aquiver was Jean Cocteau, who drew

Nijinsky for a 1911 poster and described him as ’vigorous beyond

anything human and feline to a disquieting degree’.

But there is a darker side to the role of sex in posters that is equally

compelling. The Suffragettes are well represented, one poster pointedly

reminding us ’what a woman may be and yet not have a vote’ (mayor,

nurse, doctor) and ’what a man may have been, and yet not lose the vote’

(convict, lunatic, proprietor of white slaves (!)).

And if this seems amusingly anachronistic, one’s smile is tested by a

poster not ten years old asking, ’Do women have to be naked to get into

the Met. Museum?’ - as fewer than 5 per cent of the artists displayed

are women but more than 85 per cent of the nudes are female.

Sex is even used to lure the boys to war in a 1917 American recruitment

poster featuring a girl in a sailor’s suit alongside the caption, ’Gee!

I wish I were a man. I’d join the Navy.’

But it’s a light moment in the bleakest section of the exhibition,

Protest and Propaganda. Here the poster’s power to shock is fully


Some items were even too much for those commissioning them. A vivid

rendition of a British soldier bayoneting his German counterpart so

enthusiastically that he lifts him off the ground, headlined, ’Put

strength in the final blow, buy War Bonds’, was softened to read, ’Back

him up, buy War Bonds’ and the German’s feet were returned to earth,

which must have made all the difference.

Even more horrifying, given the immediacy and brutality of the

photography, is the anti-Vietnam poster featuring the aftermath of the

My Lai massacre, brilliantly captioned with the final question and

answer from an interview with one of the soldiers involved: Q. And

babies? A. And babies.

Interestingly, though, even in the toughest of times, being grim doesn’t

always work. One of the most famous poster campaigns run in this country

is here, but only because research blew out its predecessor.

To encourage its good people not to gossip their way to early defeat

during 1939-45 war, the government produced a pompous, typographic

campaign to wag its finger at the public. The public resented it and it

was replaced by Fougasse’s ’Careless talk costs lives’. These ads were

so popular that they were reproduced on hankies and fabrics (which are

here) and it’s worth remembering how cleverly they were made to work.

Their simplicity and the clarity of the headlines worked from a

distance, but the small captions forced people closer to read them.

Fougasse believed this personal contribution was the key to remembering

the message and acting on it.

Such astute understanding of the way ads work reminds us how little we

have to teach the past. Many of the recurring themes of our working

lives are here.

The earliest known version of ’the ads are better than the programmes’

must have been the actor-manager, Herbert Beerbohm Tree, looking

ruefully at the ads for his production at His Majesty’s Theatre and

commenting, ’It’s difficult to live up to one’s posters.’

Benetton is here with its deathbed scenes and bloody new-born baby of

questionable relevance - but such controversy is nothing new: in 1895,

Aubrey Beardsley’s design for a theatre poster bore no relation to the

tone or subject matter of the play and much hubbub ensued. Punch

lampooned it, but an-other critic wrote that ’nothing so compelling, so

irresistible had been posted on hoardings before’.

Clever, poster-related ideas, such as VW’s ads on petrol-pump handles,

have been done before: Fougasse designed a ’careless talk’ sticker for a


Politics recycles the same old muck to sling. Here, side by side, sit

Saatchi & Saatchi’s ’Labour still isn’t working’ and ’Workless’, a 1910

Labour party poster. A masked Norman Lamont as ’Vatman’ glowers beside

an equally unprepossessing masked figure from decades earlier

brandishing a gun beneath the claim that ’Socialist schemes mean pounds

250,000,000 a year in taxes’.

Early creative preciousness is wonderfully exemplified by the

Beggarstaffs’ poster for Rowntree’s Elect Cocoa. They refused to

compromise their minimalist approach by adding packs or copy, so

Rowntree’s presented the poster as a puzzle and ran press ads

challenging people to guess the subject. I wonder if Rowntree’s would do

that now ...

We see the importance in the pre-television age of memorable figures on

posters. Gert and Daisy advertise Macleans and there’s a lovely old

Underground poster for an advertising exhibition which brings together a

host of brand characters from Johnnie Walker and the Michelin Man to the

Kodak Girl and the Bisto Kids - the Cap’n Birds Eye and Energiser Bunny

of their day.

This poster was commissioned by the man who proved another eternal

adage: clients get the advertising they deserve. Frank Pick, responsible

from 1908 for the London Underground advertising, got some of the best

posters ever done - and he must have been the loveliest client since the


He commissioned 40-plus posters a year and after his retirement in 1940

Nikolaus Pevsner described him as ’the greatest patron of the arts ...

in England’.

Which brings us to the most delicious argument of all: is advertising

art? Should it be? And does it matter? Of course, most advertising is

nowhere near art (then again, nor is most art). But it’s difficult,

wandering through galleries adorned by the work of Lautrec, Hockney,

Whistler, Sutherland, Rauschenberg, Cassandre and Millais, not to think:

’Mmm, pretty arty.’

And probably the most pertinent comment is: ’Looking at the matter from

the commercial point of view, the really artistic work pays better in

cash results.’ Frank Lowe, 1988? John Hegarty, 1998? No, Joseph Thacher

Clarke, 1894.

Yes, the power of the poster is its art and, if you don’t believe me,

get on down to the V&A.

Leon Jaume is joint creative director of WCRS. The Power of the Poster

runs until 26 July and the exhibition is sponsored by the Maiden group,

J. C. Decaux, Mills & Allen and the More Group.


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