Art of the state

Today's government has exchanged visual propaganda for verbal spin. But the political poster will su

Collectors are a pretty rum lot at the best of times, and those with no scheme or plan can often end up with a load of junk. Two eager American collectors, Leslie and Alice Schreyer, are stranger than most, pursuing examples of the 20th-century political poster with jackdaw enthusiasm, even up to and beyond their divorce. Starting as students at Yale in the 1960s, they collected what they saw around them, and then widened their interest to take in earlier decades. Finally, in 1999, doubtless daunted by the size and incoherence of their collection, they dumped most of it at the doors of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, hoping that someone would look after it.

Museum collectors are also a strange breed, since they usually find it difficult to look a gift horse in the mouth. Presented by the Schreyers with some 3,000 political posters, they must have hoped that some of them might come in useful some day. So to keep the donors happy, the V&A's word and image department has staged a little exhibition of their acquisition, hidden away in a forgotten corner (on the third floor of the Henry Cole Wing) of this lovely but always impenetrable museum.

Almost any collection of old posters will spark some interest, whether for its historical or its graphical content, but this amorphous exhibition is almost entirely devoid of point or meaning. There is plenty for the jackdaw to pick over but little to get one's teeth into. Yet the range is impressive and unusual, from White Russian posters from the period of the civil war, social democrat posters from Austria and Weimar Germany, posters from nationalists and republicans in Spain, and war posters (from all sides) from the Second World War. Thrown in are also some Black Panther and women's lib posters from the 1970s, which rather muddy the waters. For although political posters come in all shapes and sizes, and come from official and unofficial sources, the essential and most characteristic posters of the 20th century were those manufactured by the state.

The state-encouraged art of the 20th century has had a bad press over the years, yet state-sponsored posters were among its most successful products. The revolutionary posters produced by the Russians, the Chinese and the Cubans are likely to remain as the most lasting memorial of those revolutions, just as religious icons are the permanent symbol of the Orthodox Church. They spoke originally to a largely illiterate people, yet they are easily accessible to us western sophisticates since they transfer easily to cultures with a different language. We may not understand the words beneath a Chinese poster from the cultural revolution, but the general message is clear from the image above. (A more interesting and popular exhibition, specifically of "Soviet Graphics", containing works from the collection of David King, a more knowledgeable and focused collector than the Schreyers, is on a semi-permanent display in the History/Memory/Society section at Tate Modern, on the fifth floor.)

The V&A exhibition is labelled "Propaganda Posters", which seems to suggest that the posters on display go beyond the merely political and have an element of cynicism or artifice about them (the 20th-century definition of the word having long outgrown its Roman Catholic roots). The V&A seeks to argue that such posters "sell ideology", and that they "seek to manipulate our intellect and emotions". Their aim, it suggests, is "to persuade us to support a cause or take up a point of view".

This, it seems to me, is almost certainly wrong. Unlike most advertising, the purpose of which is to sell a product, the political poster is essentially a message to the converted. It operates as a sign marking out territory, most commonly seen today in the "tagging" of city streets, as well as railway bridges and tunnels. The poster is designed to bring comfort to those who have already made up their mind, who are glad to be reinforced in their beliefs by the (perhaps unexpected) realisation that they are not alone. Conversely, it serves as a warning that the enemy is still about.

For much of the 20th century, the political poster was an obvious art form for politically minded artists hostile to easel-painting, looking for a way to link their politics and their art. Yet not all political artists had the talent to turn themselves into brilliant graphic designers. Many simply produced bad art. Famous illustrators and cartoonists, pressed into service by the state, often proved unable to meet the challenge. Indeed, some of the most memorable posters have no known creator.

It is usually easy to spot the ideology of the poster, though not always. The left may have invented the cult of personality, but the right was quicker to give its leaders poster status. Here, mistily unconvincing portraits of Petain and de Gaulle (and Denikin) seek to provide reassurance and command respect, but they lack the drama of an anonymous, in-your-face worker or peasant, the favourite icons of the left. A cross (and not just a crooked cross), or Christ carrying a cross, invariably denotes a right-wing message. Left-wing theology seems to have eschewed poster art, except perhaps in Brazil (not represented here). Yet anti-Semitic imagery, typically represented in the White Russian attacks on Trotsky, their enemy as commander of the Red Army, was also mirrored in the Soviet anti-religion posters of the Stalinist 1930s.

Sadly, the Schreyers seem to have collected none of the romantic, rural, Rooseveltian posters of the New Deal era, which echoed the social realism of the Soviets, but some of their American wartime posters veer towards an overtly fascist aesthetic. One frightening image of 1942 shows a gigantic worker, familiar from both fascist and communist imagery, ladling out metal from a steelworks that is visually transformed into an unending stream of aeroplanes, ships and tanks. Superimposed on this unpleasant image, the words "Pour it on!" seem almost redundant.

Nor was the message always as obvious as the artists intended. "Give 'em both barrels", the words on another American wartime poster, depicting a soldier with a machine-gun in the same pose as a worker with a rivet gun, seems clear enough. A subsequent survey revealed that many actual workers thought that the worker on the poster was a gangster. They believed that the poster was part of the FBI's "war on crime", rather than a design to assist the war effort.

Misreadings are easy. A Nazi poster from occupied Holland, which is illustrated with a row of steel helmets, is urging Dutch young men to join the SS. On a neighbouring wall is a similar poster from a year or two later, this time Dutch, with three fearsome, green-helmeted figures standing guard. The poster is entitled "The civil guard watches", and was printed in the Indonesian city of Surabaya in 1945-46 after the Dutch had recovered their empire from the Japanese and needed to recruit a new police force. One of the faces is Dutch, the other two are Indonesian. According to the V&A's blurb: "After the capitulation of Japan in the Far East, Indonesian insurgents attempted to seize power from the allies in their own country." Well, hold on a minute! It was the Indonesians, led by Ahmed Sukarno, who got there first. After the defeat of Japan, they declared their independence and were surprised to find the British on their shores a few weeks later (the Dutch having no forces in south-east Asia at the time).

The moment of the political poster has been relatively brief, spanning from the time when most people were illiterate and urban living demanded visual reminders of the nature of trade and commerce, to the more recent past when film and video have replaced the single vivid image. In the 1930s, London Transport sought to advertise its Metropolitan and Green Line services with posters extolling the healthy virtues of the countryside. In the 1980s, when Margaret Thatcher's government wanted to warn people of the dangers of Aids, it put across its argument with film. Consumers are no longer convinced (or reassured) by the simple message of a poster. Yet as an evocative art form of the 20th century, the poster - as this exhibition shows - will surely have an extended life, surviving long after the fierce political passions that created it have faded away

Today's government has exchanged visual propaganda for verbal spin. No Lord Kitchener posters have been commissioned to ask what you can do to support the war in Iraq, and government propaganda is limited to the signs in doctors' surgeries urging you not to smoke. The extra-parliamentary opposition does not fare much better, for the ubiquitous posters on every demonstration produced by the Socialist Workers' Party look more like "tagging" than political art. Maybe the anti-war movement should sponsor a competition to persuade graphic designers to reclaim their political role from the spin-doctors.

"Rare 20th Century Propaganda Posters", from the Schreyer Collection, is at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London SW7 (020 7942 2000) until 23 March