It was nice to see and hear the traditional ringing of the bells in Britain yesterday, signalling the beginning of the London Summer Olympics. Nearly all of the British institutions that I regularly “visit” have their own take on the Olympics this summer: the Museum of London has a general exhibit, while the British Museum focuses on medals and the British Library offers up Olympex 2012, an exhibition on collecting the Olympics. My favorite Olympic-themed presentation, thankfully very accessible on-line, is the Victoria & Albert Museum’s presentation, A Century of Olympic Posters . It’s so interesting to see how the posters reflected the times in which they were produced, while at the same time projected national images to the world which were carefully chosen by the host countries.
There was no official Olympics poster until the 1912 Stockholm Olympics, but it seems appropriate to begin with the program(me) cover for the first London Olympics, held in 1908 at the newly-constructed White City Stadium in Shepherd’s Bush. This Olympiad was originally scheduled to be held in Rome, but the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius diverted it to London. It’s a nice nostalgic image, and you can see the White City in the background.
The first official Olympics poster, printed in 16 different languages and alternative formats, was the work of Swedish artist Olle Hjörtzberg,. The original design, featuring completely naked athletes in a reference to the ancient Olympics, was replaced by this version, with its strategically-placed streamers, but this was a bit controversial too.
After a long break due to World War One, the Olympics resumed in war-devastated Belgium for the 1920 Antwerp games. Maybe it’s just my own national bias, but that looks like a very prominent American flag on the poster: perhaps an expression of gratitude for the timely entry of the US into the war? The poster for the 1924 Paris Olympics by Jean Droit has become iconic, and we first see the five Olympic rings representing the continents of the world on the posters for both the 1928 Olympics: summer (Amsterdam) and winter (St. Moritz).
The poster for the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics, the first to be held outside of Europe, looks a bit odd to me: apparently the artist Julio Kilenyi sculpted the figure and then photographed it, and I’m not sure how the lettering was produced. There’s very little sense of place here; it does not read Los Angeles or America to me, but it’s interesting that “California” had to be added. I suppose that the City of Angels was not yet the international city that it would become.
Few images are as ominous as the official poster for the 1936 Berlin Olympics with its menacing Nazi symbolism and the Four Horsemen, which can only be seen as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in historical perspective. And then there are two very similar, one might say identical, posters from the canceled 1940 and 1952 Helsinki Olympics. Clearly Finland–and perhaps the world–decided to pick up where they left off.
There is some semblance of place in the Helsinki posters, but I think that emphasis becomes pronounced in the post-war era, beginning with the image of the second British Olympics, the so-called “Austerity Olympics” of 1948. Jumping forward to the early 1960s, the sense of place seems to overwhelm the sheer athleticism of the earlier posters in the images from the 1960 and 1964 Olympics in Rome and Tokyo.
Of course, the images get more abstract and symbolic in the later 1960s: the poster for the Mexico games represents the psychedelic age perfectly, as does one of the slightly-cynical images of the 1976 Montreal Olympics.
The posters for the more recent games just don’t seem as textured to me as those from the past, although I really like the official poster #1 from the 2000 Sydney games, “Peace Roo”, designed by David Lancashire. The trend seems to be for whole series of posters to be produced rather than just one, representing individual sports as opposed to the entire event. This was certainly the case for the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, which was represented by over 50 posters, and the organizers of the third London games commissioned posters from 12 eminent British artists. Pictured below is “For the Unknown Runner” by Chris Ofili, who used the vase outline to reference the Greek origins of the games.