Designing democracy: two plus two must always be four

David Crowley welcomes a move to digitise the V&A’s archive of European pro-democracy posters

This autumn has seen a spate of events marking the anniversary of the end of Soviet-style commun-ism in Eastern Europe. Some have been poignant, such as the recent memorial march along the route taken in November 1989 by peacefully-protesting students in Prague, which was met by police wielding fists and batons. Some commemorations have been grandiose, like President Obama’s video message to Berliners. He announced that, in the style of some Hollywood star at the Emmy Awards, “I can’t be with you tonight”. Others, like the recreation of the Berlin Wall on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles (complete with arty Shepard Fairey murals), have been downright bizarre. Such stunts notwithstanding, the 20-year anniversary has been a chance for Europe to reflect on an extraordinary moment of hope. In our gloomy age, such glimmers of optimism seem particularly appealing.

One moment of retrospection took place at the V&A Museum in London in November when a group of curators came together to reflect on the collection of posters, badges and banners which had been assembled by curator Margaret Timmers as the wheels of history turned in Berlin, Prague, Vilnius and, ultimately, Moscow, at the end of the 1980s. With a tiny budget, Timmers had turned to the networks of anti-communist offices like Solidarity with Solidarity in western European cities and called on returning journalists, fresh from the demonstrations, to build the collection. And, on the eve of the first democratic elections in East Germany, she went to Berlin, knocking on the doors of the budding political parties. In just a few months she amassed one of the best collections of graphic ephemera marking the rise of demo-cracy from the ruins of communism.

Gathered in London, the curators from Warsaw, Brno, Vilnius, Essen, and Bucharest had been working on filling in the gaps in the historical record: who designed that logo? What does that enigmatic symbol mean?

The result of their work is Designing Democracy, an online database which makes 275 posters available to the public (almost three-quarters of the entire collection). Curator Catherine Flood points out that “the value in the collection lies in its sheer range. Sometimes the designs capture the sense of a dramatic situation in flux at other times they are highly beautiful and finished designs.”

History is a selective process. Some events and experiences are forgotten, sinking to oblivion. Others rise to the surface. One cannot help but think that the fortunes of Tomasz Sarnecki’s High Noon poster for the first (almost) free elections in Poland have risen over the last 20 years, becoming a kind of emblem of the changes which occurred in the region. It features on the front page of the V&A’s website announcing the Designing Democracy project. It is available as posters, postcards and, one suspects, T-shirts and tea-towels.

It’s not hard to see why. Sarnecki’s image grips the imagination. It shows a steel-jawed Gary Cooper marching out from the Solidarity logo, a turbulent flag-waving crowd of letters. The gun which the Hollywood actor once carried has been replaced by a ballot paper. Evidently, rule by force – the Soviet method – was being exchanged for rule by law and democracy. There are other historical echoes in this poster which are not hard to hear: there was a cowboy in the White House when Sarnecki made his design. Poland in 1989 was about to join a world where politicians and celebrities are easily and sometimes wilfully confused.

Sarnecki’s poster casts a long shadow. The value of the V&A’s Designing Democracy project is that it allows light to be shone on the forgotten posters and themes of 1989. High Noon points to the rugged individualism beloved of free-market capitalism. But this coin did not have much currency in 1989: power lay with the crowd. In August, two million people gathered to form a human chain across the Baltic states, a distance of over 400 miles. The citizens of Prague filled Wenceslas Square in the autumn to wave keys in unison, as if to say to their rulers ‘we’ve got the keys to the gaol now’.

Societies unified in opposition defined anti-communist protest. Similarly, the early posters produced in the months of highest drama include relatively few portraits of political leaders. Havel, the playwright-president, stands out. This makes sense. Many of the first generation of leaders after 1989 (like Havel) had been dissidents, obscured from view by censorship and imprisonment. Their faces were largely unknown.

Other themes evidenced by the posters in the V&A’s collection include demands for truth. In 2+2 must always be 4, lauded Polish poster designer, Henryk Tomaszewski, invoked Orwell’s famous indictment of the twisted logic of the totalitarian state (“two plus two equals five”). The communist authorities led by Big Brothers like Nicolae Ceausescu in Romania and Moscow’s stooges elsewhere in the Bloc were fearful of free speech. They simply banned the views of those who disagreed with them and struck out damaging episodes in history. Stalin’s crimes were largely covered up. Dissidents dubbed this Orwellian world of dissimulation ‘Absurdistan’. This was a fitting label when, for instance, the prison authorities coerced informers (‘bonzaks’) to write reports on Havel, the most famous prisoner in their midst. Illiterate and so unable to complete their task, the bonzaks turned to the dramatist to pen these ‘confidential’ reports on their behalf.

It is tempting to look for signs of the present in these posters. The euphoria of the early 1990s has been broken on the mill of hard-nosed economic reforms and dirty politics. Eastern Europe has seen the rise of populist politicians who stir the pot of bitter nationalism to gain advantage at the ballot box. But there is little of this mean spirit in these posters. In fact, one of the most persistent refrains is the idea of ‘returning to Europe’, often expressed in visual clichés like bridges and maps. Europe in 1989 meant not only democracy and free markets but also freedom of speech and the right to travel. Where national motifs do appear in the designs, they were usually concerned with restoring prohibited symbols rather than promoting nationalism. When the Poles restored the regal crown over the white eagle, no one was demanding a restoration of the monarchy. Similarly, Lithuania’s interest in the heraldic imagery of the 15th century was not a call to seize the territory once occupied by medieval Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The appeal of these images lay in the pleasure of being able to say and show things which had hitherto been prohibited.

Funded by the European Commission and supported by members of the European Union National Institutes for Culture, Designing Democracy is a small triumph of internationalism. What neither a database or a museum cannot capture is the drama of the moment in which these images were first seen on the streets. After all, the museum puts things in cryogenic suspension, frozen with the skills of conservators and destined never to be allowed outside in the ‘real world’ again. Sometimes torn down from walls in 1989, they exist today in conservation-grade Melinex sleeves.

Nevertheless, as digital images their future is not necessarily frozen. The Designing Democracy project represents the latest stage of the V&A’s commitment to putting more than a million records and images of objects in its collections on the internet. As images, major works of applied art and design can escape the confines of their South Kensington home. They will no doubt surface all over the internet in the months to come. In an age when most copyright owners are interested in tightening control, this is another kind of democratisation.

David Crowley is deputy head of Design History at London’s Royal College of Art

The V&A’s online poster collection is housed at Search for ‘Pro-democracy poster’ to find out more about the posters included here and to see hundreds more examples from the period

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