Posters from the Individual Eye to the Public Sphere

Book Review

  • Posters: A Global History

  • By Elizabeth E. Guffey
  • 320 pages, 121 color plates, 64 halftones
  • Published by Reaktion Books, London, 2014
  • $40
  • How Posters Work

  • By Ellen Lupton, Caitlin Condell and Gail Davison
  • 208 pages
  • Published by Cooper Hewitt Publishing, New York, 2015
  • $29.95

On 16 July 1966, the 73-year-old Chinese leader Mao Zedong swam the Yangtze River for the second time to demonstrate his vitality. The act became iconic in the cult of Mao, its image recycled into visual culture and heroic myth. It is not surprising that Mao’s swim was the subject of contemporary posters or that those posters should take to the streets, but a 1968 photograph by Li Zhensheng shows an unexpected sight: in the Yangtze, enthusiastic swimmers commemorating Mao’s swim tread water and raise their fists in Communist solidarity while pushing pontoons bedecked with large-scale graphics of the chairman, halted by neither topography nor convention. In turn, these new vistas reshaped China’s public sphere.

It is anecdotes and documentary photographs like these, peppered throughout Elizabeth Guffey’s Posters: A Global History, that stop a reader in her tracks. Guffey’s goal is to tell the story of “posters as things”—physical, commodifiable and transportable objects that “materialize the increasingly immaterial nature of visual communication.”1

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  1. Guffey, Posters, a Global History, 7. []