A World to Win: Posters of Protest and Revolution (V&A)

View into one of the two exhibition rooms Photograph by reviewer

View into one of the two exhibition rooms
Photograph by reviewer

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 Blue Bra Girl Image: Reuters

The Blue Bra Girl
Image: Reuters

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’).

Kiyoshi Kuromiya, Fuck the Draft, lithograph, 1968 Photograph by reviewer

Kiyoshi Kuromiya, Fuck the Draft, lithograph, 1968
Photograph by reviewer

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.

Designers Republic, Work, Buy, Consume, Die, offset lithograph, 1995 Photograph by reviewer

Designers Republic, Work, Buy, Consume, Die, offset lithograph, 1995
Photograph by reviewer

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.

Natalia Murray on the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and the Quest for the New Art

Street festival May 1926, Leningrad

At the end of January, Natalia Murray spoke about ‘The Proletarian Art Enigma’ as part of the Modern and Contemporary Research Seminar. She began with the social and historical background of the Russian Revolution of 1917—aimed at establishing a homogenous socialist state and culture to serve purely political needs—and ended with the year 1921. In her lecture, Murray sought to question whether proletarian art was a reality or a contradiction during this interlude.

The French Revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries set an important precedent for the Bolsheviks. Influenced by the writing of Gustav le Bon, renowned French social psychologist, the Bolsheviks understood the power of the image for manipulating the masses. In his work on the psychology of the crowd, Le Bon believed that sentiment, not rational nature, is key. It follows that images, not words, are more powerful in controlling and manipulating crowds. Note that le Bon has been quoted by Mussolini, Stalin, Lenin and Hitler.

Russian Futurists and Leftist artists were quick to support the Bolshevik Revolution and moved to the forefront of new proletarian art . Murray took us through images of the first expressions of this art: from the Futurists’ sculpture of a fumbling eagle located at Peterhof Station nearby the Summer Palace of the Tsar, which symbolised the collapse of autocracy, to agitational propaganda on trains and trams with slogans in German due to the influence of Karl Marx to street decorations reminiscent of parade floats from the French Revolution to items of porcelain and posters by Natan Altman and Vladimir Lebedev.

Possibly the most well-known surviving artistic work from the period is the dramatically staged “Storming of the Winter Palace” by Soviet Russian film director Sergei Eisenstein. Recall the heroic toppling of the statues and masses with torched flames clambering over the palace gates. He based his film on the 1920s public re-enactment of the supposed legendary event of the 1917 Revolution. It epitomised Bolshevik mythology and points towards social manipulation, as in fact the Red Guards entered the government buildings to take control without a shot being fired.

Did proletarian art achieve its individuality; did it create a seismic effect on socialist society? Art as propaganda certainly continued beyond 1921 and was successful for agitational purposes. However the Futurist artists were removed as they ultimately failed to engage the workers who preferred more realistic decorations in a conventional style.