A friend living in Islington told me about a contemporary art gallery in her neighbourhood about a year ago, the Estorick Collection. As I’m a bit rubbish, it has taken me over a year to pay it a visit. My motivation for finally going last weekend was the current exhibition on ‘poster king’ Edward McKnight Kauffer, an American-born artist known principally for his posters commissioned by London Underground and the global oil and gas company Shell in the inter-war period.
The gallery is a Grade II-listed Georgian building, and retains the feeling of a home as opposed to a public cultural space; at times I felt as though I was wandering around a modern art lover’s sparsely-furnished living room. As for the art on display, I wasn’t greatly taken with works in the permanent collection. Kauffer’s poster art was, by some distance, superior to the sketches, sculptures and paintings by contemporary Italian artists that comprise the Estorick Collection.
The Edward Kauffer exhibition focused primarily on his transport posters. With his London Transport-commissioned posters, Kauffer idealised mundane, identikit suburban towns. Reminiscent of Van Gogh’s depiction of natural landscapes, the artist disregarded correct proportions and perspective in favour of creating vivid scenes that captured the imagination of rail travellers
Of all Kauffer’s works on display, the Winter Sales London Underground posters were my firm favourites. For these he took inspiration from the fleeting Vorticist movement of his time, cleverly layering geometric shapes to form pictures with real impact.
London Underground is somewhat famed for its artistic sensitivities; the design of the Underground map itself prioritises style (although ultimately, usability) over geographical accuracy, and the roundel logo has become iconic worldwide. Tube trains now exhibit poetry as well as ads; tiled images decorating stations are not uncommon. I hope this tradition of Underground art continues, with future Kauffers gracing our tunnels and adding some colour to what is otherwise a rather grey commuter underworld.