It being a year divisible by 4, curators at the Victoria and Albert Museum have been busy assembling an appropriately Olympic exhibition. They've gathered together a comprehensive collection of Olympicposters, from Paris 1900 right up to London 2012, and all are now on show at the Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green. Not a very thrilling concept you might think - there's only so much you can do with five rings and a few sportsmen - but it's actually a fascinating way to view the evolution of global 20th century design. See how the artists of the day tackled the Olympic brand brief, from proud torchbearing patriotism to abstract symbolic ingenuity. And yes, all leading up to that design at the end.
This is a rather larger exhibition than I was expecting, filling at least half of an upper gallery. I'm not quite sure why it's being hosted at the Museum of Childhood - the theme certainly falls well outside their usual pre-adolescent focus. But very young children seemed to be enjoying the exhibition all the same, providing them with a fantastic space in which to run around and chase one another. Most of the genuine visitors appeared to be twenty- or thirty-something male meeja types, here to update their creative portfolio, and absolutely none of them with children.
The first Olympics are represented here by their programmecovers, as it wasn't until Stockholm 1912 that an official poster was published. Early Olympic posters often had a very strong nationalistic theme, with artists depicting proud rippling athletes in front of recognisable landmarks. Berlin 1936 for example, with laurel-crowned victor towering above the Brandenburg Gate, or London 1948 (Big Ben plus discus-hurler plus rings - sorted). In the 1960s, however, things started to change. Tokyo 1964 ditched sport in favour of a big bold rising sun, and Mexico 1968 went all op-art with eye-popping concentric black lines. It's this dazzling Mexican design that still stands out as the most modern anywhere in the collection, and the one that'll probably sell the most postcards in the shop downstairs afterwards.
Munich 1972 was the first Olympics to take poster design seriously, approaching the pick of contemporary artists to create an extensive colourful collection that wouldn't have looked out of place in an Athena shop. This photograph shows a selection, plus in the foreground a genuine London 1948 torch (as used on the run across Belgium, apparently). From the 70s onwards I was impressed by how many of the Olympic logos I remembered. These variations on the simple five-ring design may have had an official lifespan of only a fortnight, but their iconic audacity has nevertheless imprinted upon the global consciousness. (Sorry if that last sentence reads like critical artistic tosh, but most of the labels in the exhibition were like that and I fear I've been infected by pretentious verbosity)
On into the modern day. Soft abstract designs dominate, with cunning logos (like Barcelona 1992 or Sydney 2000) where a handful of brushstrokes represent leaping athletes. Photography has been used only infrequently - Nagano 1998, with a thrush sitting on two ski poles, is a rare exception. And then, yes, all the way up to date with London 2012. The Back The Bid posters, with athletes vaulting over major landmarks, still retain a forceful impact. And then there's Lisa Simpson. We haven't had an official London 2012 poster yet, so the organisers have merely spraypainted a large angular blue logo straight onto the wall. According to the art critique label alongside "The London 2012 brand was launched on 4 Jun 2007, when the emblem was first revealed, exciting an extraordinary public reaction". I'll say. Seen here in context it's very much the odd one out, but it certainly upholds the Olympic tradition of cutting-edge design. What's needed in this space is an electronic poster, not yet published, representing the irreversible shift to dynamic multimedia. But that's for the next exhibition - Two Centuries of Olympic Posters. The children running around the gallery today may well enjoy that.