Artists’ cards and famous protest symbols among works on show at British Museum.
“Beethoven was a lesbian”, a work of art at the British Museum will boldly tell visitors. Also, “Brahms was a two-penny harlot”, “Mozart was a black Irish washerwoman”, and “Chopin had dishpan hands”.
The provocative slogans are from postcards self-published in the 1970s that were designed to be both funny and a comment on the outsider status of women in the music industry.
They are among 300 works going on display from Thursday in the first exhibition of postcard art to be held in a major UK museum.
The postcards are a gift to the British Museum from the writer Jeremy Cooper, who started collecting them properly in 2008 after an illness because he wanted to reconnect with art without spending huge sums of money.
“I loathed what the art world stood for, all the money and things,” he said. “I’ve always liked postcards … and I had always bought postcards to send. So I started buying postcard art, and the more you look the more you find these wonderful things.”
Through dealers and eBay, Cooper has steadily built a vast collection of more than 8,000 works examples, a reflection of the surprising number of artists who have engaged with the medium since the 1960s.
They include renowned artists such as Gilbert & George, Susan Hiller, Yoko Ono and Rachel Whiteread. One postcard in the show, from 1993, is a photograph of the YBAs (Young British Artists) Tracey Emin and Sarah Lucas cheerfully carrying melons under their arms, a nod to the British saucy seaside postcard tradition.
Some of the cards were made as exhibition invitations, such as an anti-Vietnam war green, blag and orange flag card inviting a guest to a Jasper Johns show in 1969. A shiny grid of Andy Warhol self-portraits is an invite for museum members of the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1966.
There are also examples of works by artists used as Christmas cards, such as an eye-catching one sent by Anthony McCall and Carolee Schneemann, dated 1971. Under a message of season’s greetings, the artists are pictured naked jumping from chairs, McCall dropping a cat and Schneemann holding one in the air.
Almost all of the cards cost Cooper less than £100. He has managed to gather so many because no one else was collecting them. About 1,000 examples have been given to the museum.
Some of the cards are unique, others are editions and a few were mass produced, such as Peter Kennard’s postcard montage of Constable’s Haywain With Cruise Missiles, which he made in about 1980. It was an image used by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and Neil Kinnock’s Labour party, with hundreds of thousands sold in bookshops and on stalls.
“When we first did it I did actually go in to the National Gallery and put them in their postcard racks,” Kennard said. “American tourists used to buy them thinking it was the Hay Wain.”