Art | Past Masters

Olympic posters

As the London Games approach, posters from past Olympics are more collectable than ever, coveted for their powerful designs and historic symbolism, says Simon de Burton.

February 03 2012
Simon de Burton

The next time you contemplate the images created by top artists such as Rachel Whiteread, Martin Creed and Bridget Riley that are serving as some of this year’s official Olympic posters, spare a thought for Olle Hjortsberg.

Exactly a century ago, the Swedish designer was charged with creating the very first official Olympic poster to promote the 1912 Stockholm Games to people around the world. In an age when radio was just getting off the ground and television had yet to be invented, and as this was also the first Games in which athletes from all five continents would compete, it had to be good.

Hjortsberg’s eventual design, which featured a suitably Adonis-like figure twirling a large Swedish flag around his head (and some appropriately placed tassels to preserve his modesty), was magnificent, vibrant and succinct. It is, perhaps, an essential component of any serious collection of Olympic posters.

Now, with the London Olympics just around the corner, there has been a spike of interest in collecting the posters. Some of the most sought-after designs in the best condition are currently fetching up to £15,000 apiece.

But even the most determined collector will struggle to match the hoard amassed by retired architect Michel Couasnon. Over a 30-year period, he has accrued 3,300 different examples covering every Olympic Games since 1896. The collection – which is six times bigger than that housed at the Lausanne HQ of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) – is valued at €1.2m.

“I began collecting unintentionally,” explains Geneva-based Couasnon. “I simply wanted something to put on the walls of my new office in 1981, and it seemed a bit pretentious to use my own drawings – so I put up three posters from the Chamonix Winter Olympics of 1924. A visitor to the office admired them and subsequently returned with a book on the subject of Olympic posters. The real collecting started from there.”

Couasnon has since spent a huge amount of time trawling flea markets, auctions, antiques shops and, more recently, the internet and eBay in his quest for the posters, which have been exhibited throughout the world.

“I have two favourites from the Paris Olympics of 1900. One of them is for a cricket match. At the time, cricket was still an Olympic sport, but there were only two nations competing in Paris – Britain and France. Britain won the gold, France took silver. It’s not an especially beautiful poster [it features no illustration, only type], but it is unique. And I love the story that goes with it.”

But the logistics of storing 3,300 framed Olympic posters (which take up an area of 120 cubic metres) have defeated Couasnon, and he is now trying to find a museum that’s able to keep the entire collection intact.

Couasnon’s obsession comes as no surprise to Jim Lapides, owner of the International Poster Gallery in Boston, Massachussetts, who says Olympic posters have immense appeal because of their unique combination of artwork, imagery and historical relevance – they are true snapshots of time.

“Posters have been used as a principal communication medium for every Olympiad since 1912,” says Lapides. “If you want people from 100 countries to come to the host city and find their way around, then you must be able to communicate in a universal way – so, to some extent, Olympic posters have driven the international language of design. They are also additionally fascinating because they often reflect the politics of the era.”

Franz Würbel’s 1936 poster for the Berlin Olympics illustrates Lapides’ point. Dominated by the head and shoulders of a laurel-adorned athlete who might just be raising his right arm in a Hitler salute, it also depicts a chariot driver holding aloft the eagle symbol, which became synonymous with the Third Reich. It is something of a rarity now as most copies were discarded or destroyed after the second world war, and good examples fetch $2,500-$3,500.

Hjortsberg’s 1912 design was the first to be created under the auspices of the International Olympic Committee. Four years earlier, the 1908 Olympics in Shepherd’s Bush, London, had featured a poster competition organised by the British Olympic Council, though the official poster was much less inspiring than the creation of Noel Pocock, a commercial artist, whose design advertised rail travel to the event rather than the Games itself. His iconic image depicts a runner lunging for the line, and the posters are now worth around £12,000.

Despite large print runs in multiple languages after 1912, Olympic posters prior to 1972 are difficult to find. The Rome Games of 1960 had 290,000 copies printed in 11 languages, but most of these were destroyed by the elements. Yet early posters do sometimes turn up, says Lapides. “I recently came across three rare London 1948 Olympic posters in a roll that had been put away in the late 1940s and forgotten about for more than 50 years.”

From 1972, says Lapides, availability of posters changes significantly, since from this point Olympics posters were sold commercially as souvenirs and fine art by the International Olympic Committee.

The best way to start a new collection is to buy posters from more recent Games that have yet to increase substantially in value. Some collectors concentrate on Summer or Winter Games posters, while others collect those depicting specific sports or perhaps examples in which the famous “Olympic rings” logo (which was first used on a poster for the 1928 Winter Olympics at St Moritz) appears prominently.

My personal favourite, however, is a poster promoting the 1956 Summer Olympics in Stockholm, despite the fact that the Games were actually held in Melbourne. The reason for the discrepancy is that the Australian government refused to allow animals into the country, so the equestrian competition was held during the Swedish summer – some five-and-a-half months before the Melbourne event. These surviving Stockholm posters are worth between £970 and £1,620 each.

See also

Collecting, Olympics