During a very hot summer a few years ago I came face to face with a poster for a soft drink. It featured the can with its well-known logo, drops of condensation sliding on its cylindrical side, indicating the coolness of the liquid inside it. A single word “Thirsty” was followed by a question mark. “Yes! Very thirsty” I replied to the poster in my mind - and made a beeline for the nearest kiosk to purchase a can – identical to the one on the poster. I don’t even like sweet drinks. But the poster made me aware of a need I didn’t know I had. The ad man knew better.

We know that an image is worth a thousand words, we recognise the power of words – but the combination of words and pictures provides an incredible synergy, a powerful way of communicating: it can create contrast, it could imply or include alliteration, it invites interpretation.

The poster is an art form so familiar it has ceased to receive the respect it deserves. Much of the teaching and writing about modern art bypasses the poster and even advertising literature features it scantily. Given its power of delivering messages quickly and effectively, it is hardly surprising that the advertising industry has adopted it as a favoured medium. When we consider the ability of a TV advertisement to inform, educate and reposition a product in 30 seconds, we are rightly impressed. The poster can and does change attitudes and behaviour in the fraction of a second it takes to glance at it. But it is possible that the poster’s rise in importance in advertising has also contributed to its neglect as an art form.

A few history notes

It was the intensity of colour, the ability to combine text and images, to create subtle nuances and such as Cheret, Alphonse Mucha and of course Toulouse Lautrec, rapidly elevated the status of the poster to fine art – a position that has been consolidated over the years.

In these days of glory, the poster offered excellent opportunities for combining the aesthetic with the conceptual. Making full use of recently invented chromolithography to print large text and boldly coloured images and mass produce without compromising quality, the poster was an ideal medium for advertising the more traditional art – painting exhibitions and salons,concerts, theatre shows.

It was a highly charged intellectual and artistic scene in Paris: Monet and Cezanne were moving from Realism to Impressionism to Post-Impressionism, Freud was working on his “Interpretation of dreams” and le tout Paris was obsessed with performing arts; which were, indeed, experiencing a golden age. Shows, concerts, concert spectacles, plays, opera, cabaret – the night life of Paris was promoted in full, bold colour by Cheret (Casino de Paris) Mucha (Sarah Bernhardt) and most significantly, Henry de Toulouse Lautrec who designed a series of stunning posters featuring Jane Avril as well as the iconic posters for Moulin Rouge shows.

The flowery, ornate style of Art Nouveau was counteracted by the minimalist starkness of the German Plakatstil: the use of symbolism and simple shapes, the notion of negative space, heralded the beginning of modern design. The move was also a conceptual one: pretty things sell, so while the colourful, florid and fancy style was suitable for advertising Dubonnet aperitif or Pears soap, the poster was turning towards using its powers to promote ideas, to influence change in society. The poster was growing up.

Art is propaganda

In the sense of disseminating a message of a biased nature, designed to promote a specific point of view – all art is propaganda and each artist projects his point of view, by whatever means he considers to be more effective.

The propaganda posters of Lord Kitchener pointing out to YOU, Uncle Sam wanting YOU for the US army three years later and Dimitri Moor’s poster for the Soviet army addressing YOU, although quite different in graphic style, bear more than a passing resemblance. They illustrate eloquently the explosive power of the image combined with the word, the ability of this juxtaposition to attract and engage the viewer.

Soviet propaganda posters used bold blocks of colour, mainly bright red and black, and strong lines. They created a form of street art which decorated the walls of the cities. Themes like the empowerment of women, education for all and cooperation of workers were depicted with limited but effective artistic and technical resources. The style and technique of these early posters inspired the graphic designers of the late 20th century.

Art for advocacy

It is clear that a rectilinear chronological analysis of the role of the poster is not possible. Nor is it useful to separate into categories such as advertising or ideas posters, since all posters are based on an idea, and the artists are committed to advertising this idea.

One artist likened the poster to a short circuit, a dramatic connection between idea and image, with explosive results. Attracting attention, informing the viewer, engaging the viewer, - need to happen immediately, or it doesn’t happen at all. All works of art have limitations; the poster is limited in time, it is the art of the present tense. Like a good joke, the poster has to get to the punch line quickly, or it is not funny.

The message of the poster has an immediate meaning – at a particular time in a specific culture. The primary effect must be direct and immediate, although it can contain layers of meaning – and there is always room for misinterpretation, even for unintended offence. Increasingly in the current environment the poster takes its role of conveying a message seriously. Because today’s message is serious. It has to do with the failures of our society, it aims to promote equality, food and education for all, combat racism, reduce consumption and save the planet. All in a day’s work for the humble poster.

Talented designers make the most of the symbiosis between image and word, stark shapes and bold colours (red is still a favourite) to create a conversation with the viewer. The element of surprise, sometimes the juxtaposition of contradictory concepts, often the originality of the message, attracts attention, holds it, makes the viewer curious.

Keep calm and carry on

We will not give any more space to the familiar slogan, the white sans serif font on a red background, with the crown above it - one of the most recognisable modern icons, and an interesting moment in the history of the poster.

Sometimes society or cultural groups fall in love with a certain style, or a certain medium. We never fell in love with the poster, and we are not going to divorce it either. Over the last hundred years, the poster had to adapt to many changes of style, preferences and fashion. In the 21st century it continues to morph and adapt – the poster carries on.

As we spend more time looking at our tablets and phones than at the city walls, the poster has migrated to the tablet. The internet has enabled – indeed has forced – a paradigm shift in the creation and production of posters. The manipulation of images, fabulous colours and an infinity of shades, graphic design programmes and super-size printers have been used to create very impressive posters.

It may be safe to predict that the poster will no longer have to elbow its way into the history of art, as a bona fide art form. It may be safe to predict that generations of talented designers, with brilliant ideas and using modern techniques will continue to produce posters that will stand proudly alongside the best works of art.