Since the first officially comissioned poster by Olle Hjortzberg for the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm, posters have served an important purpose not only in attracting visitors, but acting as a showcase for home-grown artistic talent. While the posters for Beijing 2008 used a mixture of graphic design and photography to display Chinese landmarks, culture, athletes and the Olympic venues, this year a dozen British artists were commissioned to design posters for the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games (6 for each event), with the results ranging from abstract, colourful prints to paintings with a more obvious sporting connection. The posters, part of the Cultural Olympiad, are currently on display at the Tate Britain. Hung side-by-side on one length of wall, they make a powerful visual impact - although little more information is provided other than the titles of the posters and their respective creators. As more information, along with images of the posters, is available on the Tate's website and on the online shop, it may just be easier to stay at home and view them online.
It is not surprising that the Olympic colours and rings should have provided inspiration for several of the artists. Rachel Whiteread's design of overlapping rings, LOndOn 2012, resembling water marks left by drinks bottles, is a nod to the inevitable social gatherings that London 2012 will bring, whilst Sarah Morris's Big Ben 2012 uses various hues based around the Olympic colours in a heavily geometric design invoking race tracks and field markings. Martin Creed's modernist approach in Work No. 1273 uses five brush strokes, in shades clearly inspired by the red, yellow, green, black and blue of the Olympic rings, to paint what on first impression appears to be a Tower of Hanoi, but which in fact alludes to a podium "offering places beyond first, second and third" (so states the Tate's online shop). Meanwhile, Anthea Hamilton's Divers places the negative silhouette of a pair of legs (which might well belong to a diver, but could easily represent a gymnast or a synchronised swimmer) below a white representation of the Olympic rings, with a shimmering swiming pool as the poster's background.
Only a few of the posters depict sport in an obvious way. Chris Ofili's For the Unknown Runner is well thought-out: in the centre of the poster is a black-and-white figure running past the dots and lines that are the spectators in the stands. The athlete's sinuous appearance and the framing by a thick outline of a vase both make reference to the Ancient Greek origin of the Olympic Games, though the poster is entirely modern-looking. GO by Michael Craig-Martin is a simple graphic print of a stopwatch with the letters 'GO' stamped over it, and thus tackles the sporting theme more obliquely.
The most striking abstract representation of sport comes in the form of Howard Hodgkin's Swimming: a swathe of rich, mesmerising shades of blue initially appears abstract, but it soon becomes obvious that the darkest patch of blue represents a swimmer beneath the rolling waves. Bridget Riley's abstract Rose Rose print, whose horizontal stripe are described on the London 2012 website as "indicating the direction of athletic tracks or swimming lanes", whilst Gary Hume's Capital, seemingly an innocuous, incomplete painting of leaves and fruit, in fact captures a wheelchair tennis player about to hit a tennis ball, mid-air in motion.
The remaining three posters rely strongly on text for emphasis. Birds 2012, a suprisingly unshocking contribution from Tracey Emin, comprises a simple pen-drawing of birds kissing on a branch, with the Paralympic symbol (the three agitos) floating feather-light below the branch. Emin's text - "You inspire me with/Your determination/And I Love You" - draws on the incredible achievements of disabled athletes. Bob and Roberta Smith's Love is reminiscent of an old-fashioned fun-fair advertisement, but the use of the words "courage, inspiration, sweat, LOVE ~ The Paralympics 2012 ~" remind the viewer that the Paralympics are anything but a spectacle. Finally, the gritty, sweaty, Superhuman Nude by Fiona Banner uses a black, abstract watercolour mark as a background to text evoking the experience of a Paralympic cyclist as he prepares to race.
This collection of posters shows, perhaps more than any other set hitherto, the extraordinary diversity of creative thought used by today's artists. It will be interesting to see how they are received by the spectators and athletes of the 205 Olympic competing nations.