The 1960s has become a mythic decade and the recollections, retrospectives and revivals show no signs of slowing down. Those who were there love to tell stories about the glory days when it seemed that if only more people would turn on, tune in and drop out the world could be remade as a groovy Garden of Eden where everyone would be too busy getting blissfully stoned and enjoying all the free love to think about greed and war.
Even if the 1960s happened before your time, its vibrations can still be felt in every aspect of popular culture. It has become routine to live a life of hedonistic excess – it’s practically a duty now. The drugs are more plentiful than ever, 1960s music still sounds astonishingly passionate, inventive and fresh, the fashions and furnishings seem to be stamped with a timeless patina of cool, and the Day-Glo graphics and metallic paper pulse with undiminished psychedelic abandon.
The V&A has gathered together just about all the most significant British images for 60s Graphics, a small exhibition tucked away upstairs in the 20th Century gallery. The title is a bit of a misnomer because the decade produced a much broader range of graphic styles, but we know what they mean. These designs are part of social history and now seem to define the era.
One thing the display makes clear is how brief this moment was. It more or less begins in December 1966 with Michael English’s Nite Tripper poster for the UFO rock music club at 31 Tottenham Court Road. English decorates the face of Who guitarist Pete Townshend’s girlfriend with bubble lettering. Many of the images we remember – and most of them are in the exhibition – were created in just a few months in 1967. English teamed up with Nigel Waymouth to form Hapshash and the Coloured Coat and they set about producing a series of posters for Osiris Visions, an offshoot from the underground magazine International Times. Waymouth was co-owner of the Granny Takes a Trip boutique in King’s Road.
As the show is keen to remind us, the V&A played its part in the development of the new visual style. The museum presented exhibitions of Alphonse Mucha in 1963 and Aubrey Beardsley in 1966 and both artists’ linear styles and an atmosphere of decadent sensuality can be seen in many of these pieces. Sometimes there are wholesale “quotations”. English liked the dragon in Mucha’s Lorenzaccio poster so much he borrowed it twice. Hapshash’s imagery is quintessential hippy-trippyness. In one poster, a naked woman with wings appears to pull a castle on a rock through the sky, while metal bird-planes and flying saucers zoom around her. Elsewhere, we find exotic jewellery and clothing, pipe-players, mushrooms, mountains, cascading stars and a world of primeval innocence.
English is an excellent draftsman and the Hapshash posters are artfully constructed and often make brilliant use of screenprinting possibilities. But the star of the show, for me, is Australian graphic artist Martin Sharp, who worked as Oz magazine’s art editor. In its first version, in Sydney, Oz had been a satirical paper, a bit like Private Eye. The toothy smile on the cover of the first London issue, in February 1967, radiates menace and, even at the height of the Summer of Love, Sharp’s visual commentary never lost its mordant wit.
If Hapshash conjure up an impossible dream of cosmic harmony that now looks naive, Sharp’s fantasy mindscape is darker, stranger and more like a bad trip, a place where the ego might be permanently frazzled. On the cover of his masterpiece, the Magic Theatre issue of Oz, Sharp issues the warning: “Price of admittance your mind.” His posters, usually for Big O, are filled with squishy, cloying, tubular forms, like limbs and plant-life sculpted out of dough. Eyes on stalks look out at you and stray globules of mysterious soft matter float about. You never feel that he is totally sold on the hippy idyll and this gives his work a lasting depth. On his iconic “Blowing in the Mind” Bob Dylan poster, also used as an Oz cover, he places a photo of Dylan over the word “tambourine” so it can be read as “Mister Urine”. He seems less inclined to put a flower in his hair than a Venus flytrap.
Hapshash and Sharp dominate the exhibition, but there are less familiar designers, too: Mal Dean, Jim Kirkpatrick, Simon Posthuma and Marijke Koger, otherwise known as The Fool, and Michael McInnerney, who once told me that all his own copies of his posters had been lost in a flood. McInnerney’s luscious UFO: Dusk to Dawn poster in the show is very rare. The V&A has gathered album covers by everyone from Jimi Hendrix to the Incredible String Band, flyers for the 14 Hour Technicolour Dream at Alexandra Palace, Oz trial stickers from 1971, and lapel badges with slogans such as “Pills please”, “Copulate for co-existence” and “I’m an enemy of the state”. Heady days.
By the end of 1967, the mainstream media had noticed the poster craze and George Melly wrote a thoughtful article for The Observer. The moment was already passing and few psychedelic posters appeared after that, though Oz continued, without Sharp, into the 70s. His remarkable talent was lost to British design when he returned to Sydney.