A recent BBC TV programme, “Art On Your Wall”, examined seven pieces of mass-market art: Vladimir Tretchikoff’s Green Lady, the classic poster photographs Tennis Girl and Man and Baby, Jack Vettriano’s Singing Butler, Ullswater, (a photograph of a jetty extending into a lake, available from Ikea), Sam Toft’s Doris Earwigging (two fat-bottomed ladies and a fat-bottomed dog) and Steven Pearson’s Wings of Love.
I possess none of these, but if you want to see what they look like, a Google image search should do the trick.
The programme explored how household “art” has gone from showing off your good taste to choosing something which has colours to match the decor.
Miranda Sawyer wrote a good piece in The Guardian (read it here) that prompts me to remember my generation’s love affair with the great poster company Athena during the 1970s and 1980s.
When I was a teenager at the beginning of the 1970s, the glossy Athena catalogue was essential viewing. It was an art education in itself and sometimes we could even afford to buy the posters and stick them to our bedroom walls with Blu-Tack.
Many was the happy hour I spent in my best friend’s bedroom, listening to the folk music of Peter Bellamy and Steelye Span while King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid (by Edward Burne-Jones) looked on. That has probably been a bit of a theme in my choice of posters – most of them have a story in there somewhere.
Hoever, the first Athena posters I possessed weren’t in my bedroom and didn’t tell a story. My mother had died when I was 10 so I ruled the roost and did some ridiculous things with the living-room decor. On the yellow-painted walls I stuck Che Guevara and Stonehenge, to reflect the person I thought I was – a rebel and soon off to university to study prehistoric archaeology.
I always remember my interview for university. I spent the night before in a student’s room, vacated for the holidays, and knew this was the world I wanted to inhabit. I have no idea who she was, but she had left all her posters on the walls.
This was where I first encountered the art nouveau work of Alphonse Mucha and a decade later, married and living in a flat, we had a set of “Precious stones and flowers” posters framed in brushed aluminium frames on our lounge wall. I think it was the tall, thin shape of the pictures as much as the content – I never did go along with the golden rectangle “theory” (rebel, rebel).
When I finally did go to university myself, there were those lovely magnolia hall-of-residence walls to be imprinted with my personality.
One year my favourite was Dali’s surrealist Metamorphosis of Narcissus and I also had one of those M C Escher black-and-white jobs with people walking around the stairs on top of a tower in a sort of Moebius strip. Surrealism was where my love of art and scifi met.
Another year the theme seemed to be horses – not in a “My Little Pony” way. Those were the days when we were all reading Lord of the Rings (long before the movie) and other fantasy and myths and I was thinking more of Shadowfax and unicorns. I also loved arms and armour.
Roger Dean’s Paladin Charge was the main poster but I also had a pair of Kay Nielsen’s illustrations from East of the Sun and West of the Moon.
The years have passed. For a decade the house was filled with pictures chosen because their colours matched the decor. We had moved upmarket to those Athena wood-block posters. There was a stylised red tree.
There was also an oriental scene with an orange-coloured tree above some small boats on a river. When I moved it to my study I overpainted the tree with bright green acrylic paint to match my green room. I think that one is still out in the garage, growing damp with the years.
Nowadays we have “proper” framed prints – mostly continuing that old “tree” theme. But I do still have a couple of small framed Athena-style cards in my study – harking back to that original Burne-Jones with his The Beguiling of Merlin. I have also framed a couple of cards showing Sulamith Wulfing’s fantasy art – there’s that armour theme again.
Funny I always thought Kay Nielsen was a woman (he wasn’t) and Sulamith Wulfing was a man (she wasn’t).
Today the Athena legacy is still with me at work. On my office notice board I have Lunch Atop a Skyscraper – which is always an ice-breaker with visitors. I work in newspapers and the image has many meanings. Is it real or the equivalent of a PhotoShop job today? Is black and white better than colour for newspapers? What would happen if they dropped their sandwiches or shoes or their hats blew off?
As I say, every poster tells a story…
I guess the current equivalent of Athena would be AllPosters.co.uk, which you can access here