Whether they aim to make us laugh, to shock or to inspire, we are constantly bombarded with images that promise to improve our lives. This exhibition, however, presents us with images that actually changed lives and offers a visual diary that bookmarks significant social and political moments during the past hundred years.
Over seventy original protest posters, on loan from V&A and private collectors, are organised into eight sections around the gallery. Clusters of posters in themes such as “Smashing the System” and “Print it Yourself”, give the viewer the opportunity to reflect on their content in terms of subject matter without the constraints of chronology. From a post-Russian Revolution poster depicting a horse and plough raking over old order paraphernalia to an iconic photo of political activist Angela Davis, these posters carry with them the political burdens of their time and offer us the vantage of considering these events through hindsight.
During the exhibition, I wondered whether some of these posters would have the same impact in our digital age, but that is, perhaps, one intention of the display. The collection represents a range of organisations and movements, including communism and women’s right to vote, and offers an insight into political and design history. Activists worldwide have used cheap, low-tech print technologies to sidestep mainstream media, employing graphic design as a visual language to give a voice to the people, despite social barriers such as illiteracy.
For me, the Ulster Says No poster lingered particularly because of its moving representation of a real event. The poster is designed around a photo that shows over 100,000 people gathering at Belfast City Hall to protest the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement. Other than this image, the poster is quite simple: nothing much more than “Ulster says No” printed in blue and orange letters. The historical event of this protest speaks far louder than any attempt at manipulative text or clever sloganising, presenting us with the poignant reality of a people united through mutual objection. This poster, which sits in the “No” theme, is even more interesting, perhaps, in light of the recent Yes/No vote in Scotland.
Whilst it is reassuring to see that some of these posters’ concerns have been resolved, it is more often disturbing to see how others have become so ingrained in our lives that they’re almost invisible. A poster in the “Subvertising” theme that attacks Schweppes for converting their bottles from reusable glass to throwaway plastic now seems absurd in our plastic world. A letter from Starbucks threatening legal action for the appropriation of their logo raises further questions about the society we live in, but it would be interesting to see the poster the letter actually refers to.
The way that the exhibition presents us with these strivings for a utopian world is at once inspiring and also unsettling, illustrating an unresolved history of ever-evolving ideologies. The posters sit in the past; yet constantly draw your attention to the present by encouraging you to consider the present state of the world.
Overall, it is a very engaging summary of one hundred years of protest in posters, yet it might have been interesting to feature some examples from before the 20th century to give a better sense of how this tool for social progress has evolved through time. Posters remain a vital way of communicating ideas beyond the mainstream and, if nothing more, this exhibition provides a solid groundwork for understanding the future of this media, which is especially relevant considering the upcoming general elections.
The exhibition is part of the V&A’s pre-opening program in preparation for V&A Museum of Design Dundee. This well-curated collection of posters is absolutely worth a visit and promises good things from the impending V&A London-Dundee collaboration.