Art exhibitions come in many volumes. The more and more frequent stentorian blockbusters make London’s art offering both important and substantive. However, the noise made by these grand shows – aided by dense crowds, zig-zag prams, loud conversations et al – can drown out the sometimes unassuming but potentially very rewarding tones of smaller displays dotted around the capital.
This display of a century of protest posters, packed into two plain, serene rooms at the V&A, try to jostle, agitate, manipulate and seek attention in various ways. The fact that each work has something specific and immediate to say means that being hung in close proximity to others does nothing to blunt each poster’s impact.
The posters have been loosely categorized under nine headings, ranging from revolution and agitprop, via war and activism, to more unmediated, home-made media. The latter includes self-made prints and digital messages, as in the viral video of an unknown woman in a blue bra beaten by Egypt’s military in 2011 in Tahrir Square.
These posters, as with anything that has elements of poetic, indirect communication about it, reward sustained contemplation with deeper insights and knowledge at many levels: aesthetic, semantic, historical, cultural, national and more. There is characteristically subtle but dark and even menacing word-play in a British poster that urges that the Tories not only be metaphorically kicked ‘out’ but, one can only assume, physically kicked ‘in’. This contrasts and reveals telling cultural differences with, a less aggressive, less punning German admonishment about the CDU’s complicity with Chile (‘Since Chile, we know exactly what the CDU thinks of democracy’).
Unlike much art and design, language is a critical tool of the protest idiom. Unsurprisingly, it often borders on the manipulative and borrows from advertising, modulating into ‘subvertising’, as one of the sections is called. In quite a few of the posters, the stark shapes of letters and words and their direct meanings vie with, and even overwhelm, the visual, as in the unequivocal message towards the Vietnam draft by Kiyoshi Kuromiya.
In the most successful, they combine and complement each other and create a communication that is multivalent, even existential, as in the self-critical poster made by Designers Republic (DR) of Sheffield, in 1995. DR were disenchanted with corporate-driven consumerism but acknowledge their role in the process. The imaginary company Pho-Ku (say it aloud – but not in polite company) stands for an anti-corporate identity in the face of increasing global branding.
If you are thinking of popping over to Tate Modern for the Matisse, but just don’t fancy the decibels and prams, it might be worth changing course to Kensington and remembering: s/he who shouts loudest certainly does not shout best.
Percy Darukhanawala is an MA graduand at the Courtauld
A World to Win: Posters of Protest and Revolution is in Room 88 at the Victoria & Albert Museum until 2 November 2014.