New book collects posters that helped shape 1989’s Velvet Revolution

Exactly 20 years ago, during the Velvet Revolution, the country was flooded with posters, both home-produced and professionally printed, calling for change. They bore slogans like Free Elections, Teacher You Don’t Have to Lie to Us Anymore, and Havel to the Castle. Now many of those posters have been gathered in a fascinating new book.

Jan Bubeník, a student leader during the revolution, recalls the great number of posters that appeared around Czechoslovakia at that time.

“It was just a wave of creation, of people’s art. It was just amazing, a flood…from very simple things to very sophisticated poetry.”

Filip Blažek was 15 years old in 1989. Today a graphic designer, he is the man behind a freshly released, and very nicely produced, book entitled Posters of the Velvet Revolution.

“Prague was absolutely ‘over-postered’ at that time. You could see posters outside buildings, inside buildings, on windows, on public transport. But the same posters were repeated – you could see the same poster one hundred times during a day.”

At the launch last week of Posters of the Velvet Revolution, folk singer Jaroslav Hutka led a sing-along to his song Náměšť, which became something of an understated anthem of that momentous period. Afterwards, I asked Hutka about his memories of the era’s often improvised street art.

“My memories are mostly of surprise, that such things could appear so quickly. It actually reminded me of 1968, and the things that people can produce overnight, like these posters, the humour in shop windows. It was kind of spontaneous, pleasant.”

Many of the first, self-produced posters were made by students. Jan Bubeník again.

“Some of my colleagues were making very original posters. We even created… after we took over the medical school and had an occupational strike we had a full department which was only focused on making posters.”

Filip Blažek began collecting the posters featured in his new book during the actual Velvet Revolution itself. That was possible because, remarkably, he was involved in the making of them. Thanks to computer skills that were unusual in 1989, the then secondary school student spent his events helping out at the Mánes gallery, a centre of revolutionary activity in those days. We spoke at the graphic design office Blažek now runs in Prague.

“In the beginning the absolute vast majority were hand-made. At the exhibition hall there was a centre where students designed or drew the posters on ordinary packaging paper. But a few days after the revolution began, I think the first poster was printed on November 21…and then slowly more and more real printed posters were printed and distributed from this place.”

What conditions were the posters produced under? For example, were they illegal?

“I call it semi-legal…some of the posters were printed by friends at school, some of them were printed by official printers, but during the night. The usual procedure was to take a few bottles of alcohol, give them to the guards and then freely enter the print shop and print – from a few hundred copies to…the largest number of copies was two million, I guess; it was the Havel to the Castle poster.”

Who were the designers of these posters?

“The Mánes exhibition hall was headquarters of the artists or designers organisation. So they somehow automatically went there and started to work with the organisers of the protests. Because most of them were designers, painters, sculptors etc, it was natural for them to join. Also my father joined a group of people who were behind the slogans, behind the themes of the posters. So they created some important topics and asked their designer and artist friends to pick the topic they liked and create a poster.”

From your point of view, what posters were particularly powerful?

“I think the most powerful posters were the ones with a strong message. The End of Single Party Rule is one of the strongest posters in the collection. You can see this poster in many photographs from the time. Also Havel to the Castle is one of the most popular, most reproduced and also most photographed posters, because of the strong message.”

You mention the Havel to the Castle poster. How much did that and the Havel for President one actually help him become president?

“I think a lot. I had an interesting discussion about this with the designers of the poster and they explained to me that Havel was an unknown person to a lot of people, especially outside Prague and the big cities. They knew his name but they didn’t know his face. It was crucial for the Civic Forum organisation to introduce his face to the general public. Because he looked good on the poster…people started to like him or even to adore him. It was a very important part of his election campaign.”

Generally speaking, how would you view the posters today in terms of their design quality?

“Some of the posters are absolutely excellent, some of them are average, as usual. But I think what is most important for me is that the designers did a great job. They expressed ideas that they were not prepared for. They expressed ideas of freedom, ideas of humanity, ideas of free elections – and this is not what their schools had prepared them for. They showed a wonderful sense for expressing important ideas. Regardless of the visual quality of the posters, they did a great job. Because for the first week after the revolution the posters were one of the most important means of communication. Radio was censored, television was censored, newspapers were censored, and posters were the only authentic communication of Civic Forum.”

When did they start disappearing?

“I think in January 1990. Because Havel was elected president and everyone knew the revolution was over. We had to continue our lives, we had to go back to work and…live ordinary lives.”