Witty and Whimsical Posters in New Haven
"Art for All: British Posters for Transport," a new show at the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, is a hoot. British mass transit, the railroads and Underground (subway), wanted riders to be adventurous, comfortable, and well-informed. They had a brilliant idea to make this happen ---the power of persuasive art. To encourage the doubtful to ride the rails, they hired artists to design posters that displayed a lot of whimsy and imagination.
The 1908 No Need to Ask a P'liceman!, the earliest poster in the exhibition, is by John Hassall, one of the most independent artists of his time. Maxwell Ashby Armfield's 1915 Go to Kew is typical of posters that encouraged riders to explore beyond London. Another favorite theme was to get shoppers to the stores as in Horace Christopher Taylor's 1926 To Summer Sales by Underground.
Charles Pears 1930 The Film-Lover Travels Underground is one of the few posters in the show that is both literal and abstract. At the time, one of London's newspapers speculated that the leading man in the poster might be Ronald Coleman in the popular film "Two Lovers." The well-dressed couple striding across the aisle and most likely the feet of those already seated are perhaps an inside joke. In the poster everyone is eventually seated, even the couple who came late. They can enjoy the film just as riders, late or not, can enjoy the Underground poster.
During World War II and afterward, fewer posters were commissioned. They also became far less creative. One major exception is the clever Hans Unger 1956 The Tower of London which shows Lady Jane Grey (queen for nine days and executed in the Tower in 1554). Her head is separated from her body, not by the ax of an executioner, but by a pair of scissors as it cuts the paper along dotted lines that say "cut here." According to Teri J. Edelstein who organized the show, this poster doesn't just urge riders to visit a popular site, but it's a "self-referential" riff on the nature of posters themselves. The British Transport Posters are on view from now through August 15. Details at yale.edu/ycba.