HAMBURG.- The exhibition presents in excess of 180 works by approximately 90 internationally renowned artists and thus offers a fresh and comprehensive overview over protest and opposition movements in the course of the past 60 years. At the same time it highlights the tensions between utopia, the wish for participation and political history looking at the newly reviewed protests this subject is highly topical. Artists posters tell the story of protest, commitment to freedom and human rights, the fight for equal rights and tolerance. Power to Fantasy was the artist Pierre Soulages slogan of support to the students protesting in Paris in May 1968. The Post-War period when Picasso emphazised his support for peace with his doves of peace, was followed by the rebellions of the 60s. A decade later the freedom of minorities was at the centre of attention, and shortly after artists such as Joseph Beuys focussed on the pollution of the environment. By the mid-80s AIDS drew attention to discrimination and exclusion of minorities and equality was pursued by American artists especially, examples are Keith Haring or Jenny Holzer. Globalisation after the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 left its mark on posters by Robert Rauschenberg and others. The history of international protest, illustrated by powerful designs by the great artists of our times is equally the history of art of this time narrated selectively, yet expressing an astonishing continuity and authenticity.
In 1949 Pablo Picasso, who was a member of the Communist Party of France, designed the poster for the first international peace conference, organised by European Communists. Together with Louis Aragon, the partys president, he chose the motif: a white dove simply sitting on the ground, lithographed in black ink. Until then the dove in art had symbolised the Holy Spirit. Carrying an olive branch in its beak it became a sign for reconciliation of God and man, as once it had delivered Noah the message of the end of the Flood. Now it became the dove of peace the white dove in flight and without any attributes has become a universally recognised sign for peace.
Since Picasso numerous international artists are creating posters and are thus taking part with political events; they criticise, denounce or project a worthy alternative. Only rarely have they agreed to speak for those in power. Artists such as Lissitzky and Rodchenko, who inspired by Lenins enthusiasm for revolution spread demolitionist slogans shortly after the Russian revolution, form a noteworthy exception. Ever since then, avant-garde artists kept their distance to totalitarian regimes. Instead they designed for those without rights, drew against famine, war and oppression, in support of human rights and the protection of the environment; they were on the peoples side and not with those in power. When Miró published his poster against the Spanish fascists in a magazine in 1937, he added in handwriting: In the current fight I can see on the one hand the fascists and the power of the past, and on the other hand the people, whose boundless creative resources will boost Spain to a degree that will astonish the world.
The history of the political poster begins surprisingly recently: Nearly one century passed since the introduction of the contemporary poster, before the first political posters followed. With a few exceptions, the first political posters appeared at the time of the First World War. First came cultural posters theatre groups and publishing houses began to advertise with posters from the first half of the 19th Century in the middle of the century companies began to advertise commercial products; then followed politics. The precursors were Newspaper ads and the political standpoint communicated there was consequently transferred to posters. The exhibition opens with two works by Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen, a politically active artist, who worked as illustrator for papers, as cartoonist and commercial artist. He was strongly involved in the dissemination of images, which later, at the time of the Russian revolution, was recognised as the epitome of the revolutionary pictorial canon.
In 1830, under the impression of the July revolution in Paris, Eugène Delacroix had painted Liberty Leading the People (La Liberté guidant le people) and thus created the prototype of the revolutionary image. The embodiment of liberty is always female, powerful and guides the way forward. Her attributes are the red flag, burst bonds and flying hair. She is closely related to the allegories of peace and the republic, representing the progressive counterpart to monarchy in the 19th Century. It is Steinlen, who introduced these allegories, the precursors to which reach far back into European art history, into revolutionary propaganda after the First World War. Even when one of Niki de Saint Phalles Nanas, another embodiment of modern woman, is claiming power, she is part of the same tradition.
Posters that are designed by artists instead of graphic designers, stand out through their individual pictorial vocabulary, a vocabulary that is not determined by quick accessibility and general intelligibility. This is also valid for political posters by artists, which at a first glance differ from other political posters such as propaganda by authoritarian regimes or the predominantly boring posters for election campaigns of Western democracies. In the first half of the 20th Century artists posters were an exception. Only when they had been introduced in Paris with great success in the 50s, became they a regular feature in the international art scene in the 60s. Often the posters advertised exhibitions of the artists or other cultural events political issues were the exception. This changed in 1968, when a greater number of artists used posters to take a stance. They commented on the War in Vietnam, Paris in May 1968 and generally turned against the armed allies of the Cold War.
This protest was appeased in 1972, when in the USA the Democrat President McGovern and in Germany the Social Democrat Chancellor Willy Brandt introduced goals of the protesters into government politics. Other topics followed and new ways of publicising were tested: some comprehensive poster series were printed by the UNESCO or international human rights organisations, where in the 70s artists protested against Apartheid in South Africa, Torture in South America or demanded independence of Catalonia, which was being suppressed by Franco. The protection of the environment was another chief issue of the 70s and 80s. Soon after, the fight for equal rights took over the politically correct treatment of those of different opinions or the disadvantaged. The end of the Cold War and the globalisation changed the view of the entire world and were also reflected in many artists posters. Robert Rauschenberg took the lead and organised an international touring exhibition to cross all animosities and borders. The Goethe-Institut initiated a remarkable series of posters using the motto I am you to emphasise a sense of togetherness of all people.
Liberty Equality Fraternity: this motto of the French revolution still serves to summarise the contents of artists posters today. Equal rights, freedom in life and fair treatment of one another today these idealist ambitions seem romantic and naïve. But artists posters are not bound by realist aims unlike election or propaganda posters; they neither need to glorify nor sugar-coat. Independent of commercial or political interests artists can elect to support something and they are absolutely free in the choice of image and content. It is remarkable that modern artists hardly ever side with those in power. As opposed to the world of politics, where opposing interests clash and are then fought out, the art world seems determined by a great consensus in favour of democratic rights and individual freedom.
What motivates an established artist to publically comment on a political issue? Is freedom of art not also constituted by its independence from commissions? While it is true that the form of expression is free which commissioner today would prescribe the artist which motives to use, after all it remains fact that from the Expressionists in the 20s through to contemporary Concept artists, the designers of posters are commenting on issues that they were made aware of. They were approached to create an advert of an event in their style or to oppose injustice. Normally this would be the job of graphic designers whose profession it is to communicate content in a manner that is poignant at the same time as accessible.
Artists political posters on the other hand articulate the message in their individual voice, firmly grounded in modern art. This rarely increases the intelligibility something that Joseph Beuys, founding member of the Die Grünen (Green Party), learned quickly, as his election campaign poster for the party was rejected by the majority of its members: Well, with regards to the poster we quickly found out that most of the other Greens preferred wholly different posters. They thought ours too aloof, too non-political, too arty and were of the opinion that it would sooner put off the voter (Johannes Stüttgen, Zeitstau. Im Kraftfeld des erweiterten Kunstbegriffs von Joseph Beuys, Stuttgart 1988, p. 133). Instead the party opted for a colourful poster of a sunflower painted in a naïve style, which soon reached a popularity that the intellectual design by Beuys would never have matched.
Too arty this might describe many of the posters in the exhibition. After all, the series I am you commissioned by the Goethe-Institut in Munich when it was posted, unlike many other designs presented in this exhibition, met with some alienation. The 20 large-scale posters were placarded in the German province as well as in Ulan Bator or at the great stairs in Odessa. The organisers managed to communicate their message against intolerance and xenophobia, but passers-by unfamiliar with contemporary art frequently felt distanced by the pictorial language and voiced this alienation. It seems that the expectations of public images are quite different to those of images in a museum. Much as in the commercial world, the viewer expects readable slogans and clear motifs relating to each other in a straightforward way. This clarity is the exception when it comes to artists posters. The majority of the designs seek to irritate, to inspire and to arouse an interest.
Artists do not necessarily work on the content of a given theme, they might also offer a work with a subject that is not immediately related to the occasion. Yet the artists name might help to finance a concern or lend it more weight. Numerous artists publish their designs of their own accord to interfere and to take sides, to wake up and to admonish. Kokoscha did so, when after the Second World War he financed the posting of his representation of starving children on the London tube. Richard Serra is another case in point, as he aggressively campaigned against the re-election of George W. Bush on the internet.
Artists: Marina Abramovic, Max Bill, Joseph Beuys, Sophie Calle, Felix Gonzales-Torres, HAP Grieshaber, George Grosz, Guerilla Girls, Keith Haring, John Heartfield, Jenny Holzer, Robert Indiana, Jasper Johns, Martin Kippenberger, Oskar Kokoschka, Käthe Kollwitz, Barbara Kruger, Marie-Jo Lafontaine, John Lennon, Roy Lichtenstein, El Lissitzky, Joan Miró, Claes Oldenburg, Yoko Ono, Max Pechstein, Pablo Picasso, Michelangelo Pistoletto, Robert Rauschenberg, James Rosenquist, Dieter Roth, Niki de Saint Phalle, Richard Serra, Saul Steinberg, Antoni Tàpies, Wolf Vostell, Andy Warhol et. al.