But is it art? Jenny Nicholls

Paste Up – A Century of New Zealand Poster Art
Hamish Thompson
Godwit, $39.95,
ISBN 1869621042

In February, Auckland Mayor Banks found himself compelled to tell immigrants not to spit in public. “Many of them come from countries where spitting in public is acceptable and when they come here they assume it’s the same,” he fumed, presumably without spitting. I refer His Worship to p72 of Hamish Thompson’s important collection of New Zealand posters, where he will find spitting was once a popular New Zealand pastime. DON’T SPIT! roars the copy of a 1940s public health poster: IT’S DISGUSTING AND DANGEROUS! The graphic shows a huge dribbling gob of sputum, covering a drawing of people in suits looking distinctly caucasian.

Posters are everywhere: they trap social and stylistic nuance as if in amber; they are, in fact, visual history in the making. Their job description is dispersal, impact, instant coherence and attractiveness, in that order. They are simple, direct, to the point. The painted 1940s poster aimed at child pedestrians – “Always walk on the footpath” – seems shocking now: a bunny has been knocked down by a snarling blue motorcar and is bleeding red ink all over the road.

The need to be noticed, among all the visual noise of their surroundings, and then understood in seconds, robs posters of a certain status. Posters are filed, humiliatingly, among “ephemera” in libraries.  It’s this kind of thinking which led Guardian art critic Jonathan Jones to make this recent dumb-ass remark about a publicly funded sculpture: “An object whose meaning is so forthright, so plain … falls short of being art … Poetry, ambiguity and difficulty are necessary constituents of art.”

Are posters art? Thompson’s book mounts a persuasive argument for the defence. These works are often incredibly beautiful. They are careful, complex arrangements of lettering, which has an emotional flavour of its own, and illustration, photography and computer imagework of sometimes breathtaking skill. Every designer here has an almost radioactively obvious style; the ability to take the viewer out of their own skull and into yours is surely one of the hallmarks of art. But perhaps these posters only seem obvious and lacking in complexity when they are made. They are, after all, often sales pitches. It takes time before they stop blending in with the world, the pitch loses its meaning, the style of their creator and decade are detectable, and they become art.

And, note: despite Jones’s obvious disapproval of obviousness, it has patently got along famously with art for years. Mediaeval masters painted scenes from the Bible on church walls for their illiterate public; the message was as pellucid as one of the posters in this book. Perhaps Raphael, if he were alive today, would be quietly working at Saatchi’s (Rome branch).

Whether posters are art when they are made, or will become art one day, or were never art at all, they are at the very least fascinating cultural debris. This book is a big event in a country not known for its aesthetic sense. It collects some of the finest visual culture New Zealand has ever produced, and collates it lovingly for the very first time. To state another bleeding obviousness: a lot of posters have been made in this country since the first press arrived. Thompson’s task was Herculean, and his book has all the appearances of an obsession. There are over 400 idiosyncratically selected posters in here, culled from libraries, museums, and private collections, and they are nearly all beautiful, hilarious, and fascinating.

Nostalgia, anyone? Remember when Girls Can Do Anything? Nambassa? And what about The Silver Star: “The Silver Star is good for business. Between Auckland and Wellington North Island Buffet car service.” Curiously, the artwork has a man with a wide tie and alarming hair, cradling a cigarette with the self-conscious air of a porn star.

The biggest problem, nearly the only problem, with this astounding collection is the way Thompson has chosen to organise the posters. Instead of arranging them usefully and conventionally by era or by designer, he has done a rather strange thing. He has catalogued them by the message they contain, and written small paragraphs explaining what this message is, with some notes on printing techniques. One theme per page.

This format, reminiscent of a high school project, may be useful for design students (four different ways of selling biscuits), but it obscures the changing of styles, technologies, and social preoccupations through the years, which would have made a fascinating journey, and made much of his captioning redundant (“from the 60s, photography had replaced illustration”).

Thompson is a designer, not a writer. His prose has an awful forced zippiness, managing to be banal and convoluted at the same time: “Back in pre-World War II days, swimming in the sea was fun and exhilarating. But dragged down by heavy woollen swimming costumes, it had none of the freedom or buoyancy or style that is inherent in lounging in beautifully cut swimsuits ‘on the crest of fashion’ – as the poster has no border or tight wave to confine movement.”

A different format would have eradicated the annoying little subheadings on every page (“Focus on the Arts”; “Lingerie Upfront”). And seldom have headings deserved eradication more. The editing, too, seems sloppy:  “These posters show the flare [sic] of Kate Coolahan’s illustration technique …”

The extremely impressive contents pages of the book, a credit to Thompson’s research skills and accuracy (the index is excellent), would have been much better served by Phaidon-style seriousness: let the posters do the talking. But a little essay at the back written by someone who could write would have been nice, with a few more posters to illustrate points of technology or style. The design, text and layout lacks the authority that such a major work demands.

At least Thompson knows enough about printing to ensure the posters are well reproduced, though: the colours glow, every one is crisp and luscious. A smaller quibble: comprehensive though this book is, it’s oddly conservative when it comes to contemporary work. There are none of the club and band posters, often virtuoso examples of computer-aided design, which have decorated inner city walls for the last decade. Noveau, deco, surrealist, modernist, kitsch and hippie are represented. Rave culture, photoshop surrealism, chaotic typography and sexy are missing: they would have made an interesting contrast with the work of earlier eras.

A last criticism must be made, because it’s so ironic: although Thompson is a typographer, and this book is about typography, the type throughout the book is stilted. The cover lacks the finesse that would have made it a crucial buy for designers. That’s a shame, because it is a crucial buy for designers – and for everyone else, too. My argument is with the book’s format, but Paste Up is still a funny, educational and hugely culturally important publication. Design in New Zealand has yet to claw its way into the public consciousness. Most people barely know what it means: the notion that it can make them happier or even move them in any way has yet to dawn in the collective New Zealand psyche. Perhaps Thompson’s greatest achievement is to illuminate the work of some of our most brilliant and unsung designers and illustrators, and bring them blinking into the light with his list, next to the index, of potted biographies.

Bravo, and about time. For many of these masters, this may well be their first mention in a New Zealand book. Nobby Clark, Bret de Thier, Max Hailstone, Bill Haythornthwaite, Marcus King, Linwood Lipanovic, Howard Mallitte, Stan Mauger, David Payne, Jurgen Waibel – they’re our Hundertwassers, our Diors, our chroniclers, our New Zealand-made geniuses.

 

Jenny Nicholls is art director for Metro magazine. She won the third industry award in a row for Best Cover at the 2003 Qantas Awards, as well as Best Designer in the 2004 Magazine Publishers Awards.

 

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