Laurence Alster goes to the wall at the Vamp;A's 'Power of the Poster' exhibition.
While critics argue about whether advertisements can be art, all agree they can make excellent entertainment. This is only one lesson to be drawn from The Power of the Poster, an intriguing and often amusing survey of changing poster styles, on at London's Victoria and Albert Museum.
In three parts - Pleasure and Leisure, Protest and Propaganda and Commerce and Communication, the exhibition has posters from the past 120 years, mainly European and American.
With such colourful exhibits, the organisers have opted for a traditional display, with a small block of text by each exhibit. The result is too stark.
Exhibits such as "Q. And Babies? A. And Babies", the title on Ron Haeberle's picture of the 1968 Mai Lai massacre in Vietnam, for example, would mean more to younger visitors if framed by contemporary news clippings. Teachers will have to do a fair amount of explaining.
More than 300 images give plenty of scope for reflection and discussion. So it might be wise to concentrate on a few themes.
Students of cinema, for example, might compare the advertisement for the unmissable-sounding 1928 Soviet film The Hero of the Blast Furnace with that for a 1937 James Cagney vehicle, Something to Sing About.
From the anti-Vietnam war movement come such superb visual parodies as the 1971 "I Want Out", with a bloodied and bandaged Uncle Sam, a traumatised version of James Montgomery Flagg's juxtaposed 1917 "I Want You for US Army". It says everything about an age that openly scorned authority. Stalin would have had none of it, as we can see from a 1935 poster of the Politburo minus a member, erased as he had probably been rubbed out in real life.
One enduring device is the use of a pretty girl to sell a product or message, from a 1917 US recruiting poster ("Gee!! I Wish I Were a Man. I'd Join the Navy", to Eva Herzogovina giggling "Hello boys" in her Wonderbra. Much material here for an exercise on images of women - or on changing notions of good taste. Would an advert today show a bull exclaiming: "Alas! My poor brother" at the sight of a jar of Bovril? It passed without comment in 1905, when the massive picture of a new-born baby, in a recent Benetton advertisement would have been unthinkable.
Provocative and evocative stuff. And it doesn't end in the exhibition hall. The Vamp;A shop has some wonderful entries from a competition for advertisements for the show. Art or commerce, it would be a shame to miss them.
'The Power of the Poster', the Vamp;A, South Kensington, SW7 2RL, to July 26. Monday 12-5.45pm, Tuesday to Sunday 10am-5.45pm. Entrance pound;5, concessions pound;3. Under-18s, students, pre-booked educational groups free. General enquiries: 0171 938 5000