Posters – the other art form

Image from Christie's

Oscar Wilde on ce said: “The moment you think you understand a great work of art, it’s dead for you.”

Whilst the art world bickers about what is more interesting, a painting or a sculpture, or which is the most valuable, a Rembrandt or Da Vinci, there is an art form generating the same excitement, if not more. An art form adding yet another dimension to the word appreciation, and which brings emotions that never dies. It’s the art form of posters.

When your parents or grandparents were walking down the street back in the day, they could see a variety of advertisements dressing up walls and billboards. What they would consider to be info rmation, collectors of today consider to be art. Who in the early 20th century thought something as simple as a poster would be worth hundreds of thousands of pounds years later?

Vintage posters is a somewhat underground art form, and maybe even looked down upon by other art enthusiasts. But when finding out that London’s Reel Poster Gallery sold a poster from the German film Metropolis for record-breaking £416.000 in 2006, you realise that it’s not a small business.

“I think a lot of people, still to this day, are not aware that posters can be bought, that they are expensive and that they have some artistic quality to them. It’s a very emotionally driven thing,” explains Tony Nourmand of the Reel Poster Gallery. He continues, “For certain types of art work, for instance a Jackson Pollock painting, you need to have a certain level of understanding of the art world and how things are involved to understand it.”

When broken down, Nourmand’s words on emotions speak for the whole genre. The deceptive simplicity of early to mid-20th century posters brings out feelings in people that paintings don’t seem to do. When looking at an old movie poster, your mind flashes back to the day you went to the cinema to see that movie. When seeing an old sports poster, you can feel the same excitement as you did in the crowds of that event. When finding an old travel poster, the memories of getting your first passport stamp from that same destination comes back. Can you relate to a painting in that way?

However, you don’t have to be a collector to enjoy posters. Simon Dwyer, 49, of the Shaking Street Gallery, sells an overwhelming majority of his posters to people simply wanting to cover up their walls. And there is a clear reason why people chose posters rather than paintings. “People don’t want to put up a Monet or van Gough because it means nothing to them. Posters are an alternative to that; or going down to IKEA and buying some non-descript image, which is deliberately bland because it’s not suppose to raise emotions or controversy. Those buying posters want something more interesting,” Dwyer says.

The debate whether posters or paintings raise the strongest emotions will always remain personal, but there is one clear distinction between the two: posters are there to sell a product.

“Posters are the sharp edge of advertising. In the old days, if they didn’t deliver, the guy who owned the cinema didn’t get any money, and he didn’t eat. Vintage posters had to sell much harder than those of today, because there were 4-5 times as many cinemas during the golden age, and they all competed with each other,” Dwyer said.

What would come to revolutionise the poster industry was the birth of computers and Photoshop in the eighties. “In the sixties it was realised you didn’t have to use poster illustrators, you could use trendy designers. But Photoshop basically killed the designer,” said Dwyer. By that, posters became a product to sell rather than an advert selling a product.

And Tony Nourmand is on the same track: “With for example graphic artists, photographers and film makers, today there’s not as much thought that goes into the work. For example when I was a student doing photography, I had to save money to buy rolls of film; there was a cost involved. So every photograph I took, I had to think about to make sure the lighting was right etc. Today, with the digital stuff you just go click, click, click.

“It’s the same thing with designers; in the old days, graphic designers would experiment with different things. A result that would take two weeks to come to, now people can do with the click of a button. This I think is really good, but one thing that’s missing from a lot of that is the thought process of ‘why you’re doing that?’ and ‘should you be doing that?’”

Image from Christie's


Such thoughts went into most work up until the eighties. This is much proven in movie and travel posters, but also in advertising for sporting events. Posters tend to reflect the period they’re from, and sports posters are no exception.

The Uruguay 1942 World Cup poster has an almost surreal feel to it, with the ability to bring out memories only the people who experienced it can relate to – and with no real caption, your imagination does a lot more work. Meanwhile the poster from England’s World Cup finals in 1966 has a way of summing up what the games were all about in an astonishingly simple way. Just as when it comes to old movies, the stars of the time were never more important than the game.

And no matter if the narratives featured on posters are from movies, sports or travel, they all tell stories difficult to find anywhere else. They’re stories of a time more real and honest than that of today. Stories told through emotions lasting a lifetime.

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