Maximum Meaning, Minimum Means

Abram Games' iconic posters and designs arrive at the Naughton Gallery at Queen's. Watch the online exhibition below

You might not know the name Abram Games but you almost certainly know his work. From logos for the BBC and the Festival of Britain to advertisements for Guinness and Truman’s Beer, the late English artist designed the visual culture of the post-war and beyond.

Games created some of the most memorable images of the 20th century, many of which are part of a fascinating exhibition of his work at Queen’s Naughton Gallery. Among the 50-plus images on display are posters from his time as Official War Artist during World War II, sketches for later work and even a prototype photocopier.

The show’s title, Maximum Meaning, Minimum Means, seems to sum up Games’ approach to his craft: ‘It was dad’s motto,’ explains his son, Daniel. ‘What he meant was that a poster should contain as much information as possible in the most economical way.’

Poster by Abram GamesHis economy of expression was not always appreciated, however. Arguably his most famous poster, the soi-disant blonde bombshell – an alluringly pretty ATS girl intended to urge her compatriots to join in the war effort – was incredibly successful but proved rather too racy for the powers that were.

‘The poster was up for five weeks before she was banned by parliament for being too glamorous and wearing too much make-up,’ says Naomi Games, the artist’s daughter. ‘So she was ripped off the walls. Though while she was up, the ATS had more new recruits than at any other time.’

Bold, vigorous and visually striking, the blonde bombshell is Abram Games’ graphic art at its very best. Born into an orthodox Jewish family in London’s east end, the son of a Latvian photographer, Games’ was a gifted draftsman with a flair for devising inventive combinations of text and image.

Time has not blunted the force of his iconic war posters. A sound wave lacerating three men below the imploration ‘your talk may kill your comrades’ is particularly chilling. It’s not hard to see why he got the job of war poster designer, but, as Naomi and Daniel explain, their father’s big break was somewhat fortuitous.

Games was vying for the position with Tom Eckersley, another great poster artist. ‘But Tom was in the airforce,’ Naomi explains, ‘and Abram was in army. So Abram was chosen ahead of Tom Eckersley.’

Soon Games’ posters were transforming the way the army operated. ‘When he started, the poster wasn’t used as a medium for publicising things,’ says Daniel. ‘He made that happen. It was the first time in the history of the British Army that posters were used like that.’

poster by Abram GamesA committed socialist, once the conflict was over Games used his work to hold a mirror up to the post-war world. He produced a series of three posters showing the social divisions behind examples of good British architecture. In one memorable image a boy with rickets stumbles behind the shiny façade of Finsbury Health Centre.

Again, his forthright depictions of contemporary life caused anxiety in government. Daniel comments: ‘One of Churchill’s men saw the poster in an exhibition and he ripped it down, saying "Churchill wouldn’t like that much." My dad asked why not. It seems that according to Churchill, rickets – a disease of poverty – did not exist in Britain. But it did.’ Once more, Games was forced to watch as his powerful, truthful posters were torn up and eventually pulped.

In peacetime, Games reignited his freelance career. Maximum Meaning, Minimum Means includes several pieces from this stage of his life including the commemorative stamps for the 1948 Olympic Games (for which he earned the nickname ‘Olympic Games’) and the image of Britannia festooned with red, white and blue bunting which he designed for the Festival of Britain.

He was given other prestigious projects such as designing the symbol of the Queen’s Award for Industry, and an on-screen identity for the BBC which was among the first to be animated. Yet his passion was still for posters and many examples of Games’ arresting advertisements for clients including the Financial Times, British European Airways and Guinness Company are on show.

Games also won a string of awards for his work for the island of Jersey, which had commissioned him requesting a poster of a ‘girl in a bikini’. They never got one. He addressed humanitarian issues, notably in his work for the United Nations’ Freedom From Hunger campaign and his post-war posters concerning Jewish issues.

The development of each poster began with a tiny sketch, a number of which are included in the exhibition. These unique insights into the artistic process offer the viewer a priceless glimpse of how Games' ideas progressed and changed over time.

Abram Games’ career coincided with the demise of his original trade as a graphic artist, but his Daniel believes there is much to be said for his father’s more traditional approach to his art.

‘Nowadays everything is done on computer and you don’t see any progression of ideas. All you see is the bright, shiny finished product. Here, you see things right from the beginning, from the first gleam in the creator’s eye.’

Peter Geoghegan

Maximum Meaning, Minimum Means runs at the Naughton Gallery at Queen's until October 11. Click here for more information.