The poster appears once wheat-pasted, stapled or taped onto lampposts, telephone poles, bus shelters and brick walls. Many announced upcoming demonstrations or general assemblies, while others offered political criticism in reaction to the strike’s developments. Susan Sontag (1970) makes a distinction between a public notice and a poster, stating that the former is designed to “inform or command” an audience, whereas the poster “presupposes the modern concept of the public—in which the members of society are defined primarily as spectators and consumers” that need to be seduced from a distance with visual claims for attention. She claims that the poster “could not exist before the specific historic conditions of modern capitalism” reflected in “the development of an industrialized economy whose goal is ever-increasing mass consumption” (Ibid p2). In the late 19th century, the poster became recognized by the public “not simply as an offshoot for commerce” but also as an art form, when artists like Toulouse-Lautrec or Alphonse Mucha with “already established reputations in the serious ‘free’ art of painting” were commissioned to produce posters for cultural shows and commercial products (Ibid p2). Posters became propaganda for the service of patriotism in 1914 when “almost overnight, the newly belligerent governments of Europe recognized the efficacy of the medium of commercial advertising for political purposes” (Ibid p5).
Oppositional poster art that critiqued the political establishment flourished before, during and after WWI. Mexican printmaker José Guadelupe Posada created innumerable political and critical posters with his signature calaveras — or “dancing skeleton of Death” — prior to his death in 1913 (Davidson 2006). New advances in industrialization “brought a rejection of the old traditions and social order, and an explosion of intellectually-based avant-garde art movements that embraced a new vision of an industrialized world” with a flurry of manifestos beginning with the Futurist manifesto in 1909 that gave birth to the Modern Movement. Russian Suprematism, invented by Kasimir Malevich in 1915 became foundational for Constructivism. Dadaism followed in 1916 Switzerland as “a protest against the First World War and all established values” that spread to Paris, New York and Berlin. Constructivism, “perhaps the best example of politics and revolution expressed directly through art and design”, used applied arts and design in the service of the Bolshevik revolution until Stalin outlawed abstract art toward the end of the 1920s (McQuiston 1993 p17). Posters were also used by the suffragette/suffragist movements to secure voting rights for women during this period.
As fascism rose in 1930’s Europe, the oppositional poster followed including those critical of Hitler and others to recruit volunteers to fight or to raise funds in support of Spanish Republican forces. Their “use of graphic symbolism, as opposed to realistic representation, heralded a new form of modern political poster” (Ibid p25). Posters became prolific during the civil rights movement in the United States and the anti-nuclear movement in Britain during the 1950s and became even more prolific in the 1960s and 70s.
If in 1970, the poster artist was considered a plagiarist (with its negative connotations) that feeds on the decadent visual fashion of previous poster art (Sontag 1970 p3), today’s political poster artist benefits from the established use of sampling whereby selected elements from previous political graphics are borrowed, usually altered, then reproduced as new contemporary political posters. Prolific poster makers during the Printemps québécois (École de la montagne rouge and Moïse Marcoux-Chabot) regularly sampled imagery, and were heavily influenced by posters created by the École des Beaux Arts during the Mai 68 protest movement in France. Marcoux-Chabot’s Sois jeune et tais toi (“Be young and keep quiet”) modified the iconic image of a silhouetted President Charles de Gaulle figure covering the mouth of a student protester into the profile of Québec Premier Jean Charest and added a red square to the torso of the youth figure to successfully appropriate the slogan from 1968 France to Québec in 2012.
Most poster art created during the Maple Spring was signed collectively or remained anonymous for similar reasons why many protesters choose to cover their faces in demonstrations: protection through anonymity to prevent the political profiling and police repression that, according to the Ligue des droits et libertés (2013), was widespread during the strike. One important distinction between protest poster art and commercial poster art is the idea of collective ownership of a work of oppositional art whose reuse, redistribution and alteration is encouraged to advance the cause. In the past, I have informally used “copyleft” designations in overtly oppositional publications to promote a work’s classification within the public domain (Widgington 2001, Paladino & Widgington 2002, Frédéric Dubois et al 2007). Creative Commons was introduced on December 16, 2002 to “develop, support, and steward legal and technical infrastructure that maximizes digital creativity, sharing, and innovation”. Creative Commons licenses are now being used for all sorts of creative productions to freely share digital versions of a work or have the works reused and built upon. This is a popular notion in alter-globalization and anti-capitalist movements that want to build upon their movement’s progress by releasing their creations to the public for common benefit. It is often a deliberate act to prevent commodification of dissent by the capitalist compulsion for profit.
One poster project by the Artung! collective appropriated privatized public space by removing consumer advertisements inside official municipal promotional columns belonging to Pattison, CBS Outdoor and Astral Media and replacing them with hand drawn posters that supported the student strike (see image at right).
346 affiches / posters from the Artéfacts d’un Printemps québécois Archive.