Underground Art Movement

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‘Why, if one wants to compare life to anything, one must liken it to being blown through the Tube at fifty miles an hour – landing at the other end without a single hairpin in one’s hair!’ This is how the narrator of Virginia Woolf’s remarkable The Mark on the Wall (1917) characterizes the experience of using London’s Underground network.

This year the Tube is celebrating its 150th anniversary, with a scintillating display of posters to show for it. The current exhibition of material selected from the London Transport Museum’s archive proves Woolf’s narrator to have been justified in her exhilaration; it demonstrates the extraordinary diversity of talent that has been put to work on making urban journeys beautiful.

The posters are organized thematically, under titles like ‘Finding your way’ – posters to reassure newcomers and remind passengers of the appropriate etiquette. Under the theme ‘Capital culture’, presenting ‘cultural encoun- ters, be these at the zoo or galleries and museums’, a tiger has been constructed out of segments of the iconic Underground roundel, advertising the zoo at Regent’s Park. The ‘Keeps London going’ posters emphasise reliability and technological advancement. No doubt any Londoner who saw the bold announcement of 1909, ‘NO WAITING’, will wonder, while waiting between stations on the Piccadilly line, whether it was truer then than it is now.

The posters on display embody the sprawling spirit of the city, and exhibit its changing relationship with the Underground: some early posters emphasise the Tube as a democratic space and present carriages populated by people of diverse classes. A 1911 poster in dignified suffragette colours depicts a woman pointing confidently at a sign reading ‘THE WAY FOR ALL’. Posters of the ’20s and ’30s are characterized by a close association with glamour and modernity. Bursting with bold shapes and dynamic lines, these often advertise social and sporting events: the Boat Race, the football, the dogs and innumerable sleek bobs. The war changes the face of posters in the ’40s, the transport authorities requesting the public’s patience as the system undergoes rehabilitation.

A cornerstone of the Tube’s public image is the Johnston typeface, introduced in 1916 and used ever since; although now in a modified form. The development of typographic design can be traced from the posters on display: the very earliest are covered with the ungainly jumble characteristic of Victorian advertising.

The exhibition’s greatest strength is its fantastic range of styles and concerns. The modernism of Moholy-Nagy sits next to the traditionally pastoral green and pleasant meadow in Hampstead. Individual artistic accomplishments of the designers are impressive, but together they create a portrait of London as a city steeped in history and culture. The Tube is an icon of London life, with a formidably strong aesthetic identity, and the current exhibition is a fitting way to celebrate its continuing service and importance to endless streams of travellers through the city.

‘Poster Art 150’ is on at the London Transport Museum from 15 February to 27 October 2013. The museum is wheelchair-accessible.

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