6 September 2013

Propaganda: Power and Persuasion Exhibition at The British Library

My third exhibition of the day was Propaganda: Power and Persuasion Exhibition at The British Library. I had been meaning to go to this for some time and just managed to sneak in before it closed.

My interest here was mostly in the political posters. I have long loved these and they are often the highlight of a museum or gallery visit in a strange land. They were also the highlight of several visits to the Tate Modern.

The thing about propaganda is that it is trying to deliver a clear message that can be quickly understood, whereas most art is trying to do just the opposite. This makes propaganda simple, bold and dramatic.

The British Library showed how to do this with their poster for the event which reused a familiar propaganda image and added a few short words to explain what was on show and to persuade people to go. It worked on me.

Inside the exhibition there was a lot more on show besides posters including audio, video, monuments (including lots of models of the Eiffel Tower that forced me to thing about The Lavender Hill Mob), t-shirts, board games, mugs and much more.

Sadly I have no pictures of these as photography was strictly forbidden and those that I did manage to take were either not very good (no flash, obviously) or I could find better examples on-line. So all these pictures were stolen from the internet and not from the exhibition.

I have chosen two images from China not because the exhibition was full of them but simply because I like them visually.

The exhibition was nicely done with explanations given for each of the items, particularly important when I did not understand the political or cultural context.

For example, the white haired girl above is a figure from a ballet based on Chinese legends and the picture of Mao has him carrying an umbrella to show that he carried on his work whatever the weather.

It is these visual symbols that I find so appealing in propaganda. The words are almost irrelevant except for their appearance which is always best in a striking solid font and preferably in a different alphabet.

I expected the political propaganda but there was a lot more than that on show. The exhibition was split into themes ranging from health (small babies should not mix with pigs apparently) to self-promotion by counties.

I had to admire the French for their "we are better than Germany" poster from before Word War I that proclaimed the successes of Napoleon and Joan of Arc and the technical might of their automotive and aerospace industries.

The example below is a wonderfully evocative picture in a series showing a British family going to India via places owned by the Empire which, at that time was vast and still included places like the Suez Canal. Of course it is highly topical today with the recent sabre-rattling between Spain and Britain over Gibraltar.

The biggest shock of the exhibition came at the end when a tannoy announcement said that it would shut in ten minutes. Somehow I had spent two hours looking at and reading about propaganda without noticing the time slide away. Luckily I had built plenty of contingency in to my schedule for the day, all I had to do was take out the time allocated to "rest".

Propaganda: Power and Persuasion was an interesting exhibition that informed, surprised and delighted. The British Library has every right to be very proud of itself.

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