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Designing Democracy: Posters and the Political Transformation of Europe 1989–91

'High Noon 4 June', lithograph election poster by Tomasz Sarnecki, Poland, 1989. Museum no. E.3125-1990, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

'High Noon 4 June', lithograph by Tomasz Sarnecki, Poland, 1989. Election poster issued by Solidarity Independent Trade Union. Museum no. E.3125-1990, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

As part of the 2009 Children of the Revolution project, marking the 20th anniversary of 1989, over 250 political posters relating to democratic change in Europe were made available to view online using Search the Collections.

The original posters can be viewed on request at the V&A in the Prints & Drawings Study Room.

About the posters

The October Revolution of 1917, that swept Lenin to power in Russia and marked the formation of the communist world, produced few immediate images. It was hardly captured on camera and few calls to arms were printed, such was the unexpected nature of this watershed in history. Soviet artists and filmmakers spent much of the next 70 years commemorating this event, as if to compensate for the Revolution’s failure to leave adequate visual traces.

By contrast, the events of 1989 to 1991 in Central and Eastern Europe which led to the end of Moscow’s domination of the region and, ultimately, to the dismantling of the Soviet Union itself, were recorded in close detail. Photographers and TV crews were on hand to capture the smoky meetings of dissidents, the massive demonstrations which filled the squares of Prague, Budapest and Bucharest and linked the Soviet Baltic republics in 1989 and the cheerful queues of voters in the first free elections in the months that followed. At the same time, designers produced dozens of posters to record injustice and 'blank spots' in official history, as well as to encourage people to join in the task of creating democracy.

Poster issued by Sajÿdis, 'We've already

Poster issued by Sajÿdis, 'We've already "voted" for them', Jonas Varnas, Lithuania, 1989. Museum no. E.3108-1990, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Given by Atgimimas newspaper

Much of the V&A's collection presented here was gathered by curator Margaret Timmers in Central and Eastern Europe in the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia in 1989. She collected posters directly from their designers as well as gathering ephemera from the streets. These posters were augmented by others donated by anti-communist groups based in Britain, galleries and independent cultural organisations in Central and Eastern Europe, and journalists reporting events as they unfolded.

The result is one of the largest and most diverse collections of posters from Central and Eastern Europe produced during the final months of the Soviet Bloc and the early days of democracy. Although expressing their clear opposition to communist rule and the desire to ‘rejoin Europe’, these posters are indelibly marked with the experience of life in the Bloc. Poster designers had become skilled masters of metaphor and allegory, often to escape the censor's red pen. At the same time hand-rendered letters were used to signal the dignity of the individual in the face of bureaucracy. Many of the designs produced during these tumultuous years exploit these techniques. Others rework the imagery of Soviet power, sometimes obliterating its consecrated symbols.

Whilst these posters clearly capture the drama of history, what do they offer their viewers today? Certainly they can help us better understand attitudes and views found in these independent Central and Eastern European states today. Traces of the vigorous nationalism which shapes much political life are found in the array of symbols on display, many of which had once been prohibited under the communist authorities. Others remind us of the respect for the rights of the individual on which democracy depends, a value which is still much defended by democrats in post-communist Europe today.

Cataloguing the collection

During 2009 we revisited the collection, twenty years since the posters were created and collected. As part of the project to digitise the collection, the V&A worked with an international group of poster curators and art historians to further our understanding of the posters. They helped fill gaps in the core catalogue information and provided explanatory texts for each poster. This object by object research deciphers the posters' visual means of communication, the symbols, references and wordplay. It questions what styles, strategies and improvisations designers employed in response to a transforming political landscape. We sought, where possible, to retrieve the stories behind how each poster was conceived, produced and viewed. What particular political events and debates motivated and anchored these posters? What do they reveal of the political imagination of 1989: the desires, the uncertainties, the humour?

The following researchers contributed catalogue information and text:

Czechoslovak posters: Marta Sylvestrová (Curator, Moravian Gallery in Brno)
Estonian posters: Ene Hiio, Researcher of the Estonian History Museum, Toomas Hiio, Deputy Director of the Estonian War Museum, Tõnis Liibek, Research Director of the Estonian History Museum.
German posters: René Grohnert (Director of the Deutsches Plakat Museum [German Poster Museum]
Hungarian posters: Katalin Bakos (Curator, Hungarian National Gallery)
Lithuanian posters: Juozas Galkus (former Professor, Graphic Department, Vilnius Academy of Arts
Polish posters: Agata Szydlowska (Poster Museum at Wilanow)
Romanian posters: Alina Serban (independent curator and PhD student at the Courtauld Institute of Art)
The cataloguing has been edited by Catherine Flood (Curator, Victoria and Albert Museum) with assistance from Marion Friedmann and Lauris Ashton.

Reading list

Aulich, James and Sylvestrová, Marta. Political Posters in Central and Eastern Europe 1945-95, Manchester University Press, 1999
Aulich, James and Wilcox, Tim (eds.). Europe without walls: art, posters and revolution 1989-93, Manchester City Art Galleries, 1993
Bartelt, Dana and Sylvestrová, Marta. Art as Activist: revolutionary posters from Central and Eastern Europe, London: Thames and Hudson, 1992
Kenney, Padraic. A Carnival of Revolution: Central Europe 1989, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003

Digitisation of the posters was supported by the the European Commission Representation in the UK http://ec.europa.eu/unitedkingdom

The cataloguing project was supported by:

Embassy of the Republic of Bulgaria London
Czech Centre London
Estonian Embassy in London
Goethe-Institut London
Hungarian Cultural Centre in London
Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Lithuania and Lithuanian Embassy in the UK
Polish Cultural Institute in London
Romanian Cultural Institute in London 

children of the revolution logo
European Commission 1989-2009 logo

Designing Democracy is part of the Children of the Revolution project.

We are grateful to all the artists who have granted permission for us to reproduce their posters on the V&A website and to Archiv Grünes Gedächtnis der Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung, Berlin and Archiv für Christlich-Demokratische Politik.

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