300 Rare Artists' Postcards Go On Show at the British Museum

February 15, 2019

Going beyond the saucy seaside scenes, postcard art has a rich history and enduring relevance. It wasn't always a medium to pass on messages with a photograph of a local scene on the front, but throughout the 20th century, postcards have been used as a tool of expression by a number of serious art movements. With restrictions posed by its shape and size, it took artists out of their comfort zones and forced them to think about things differently.

The British Museum is currently hosting the first survey of artists postcards to be held in a major museum in the UK. Titled The World Exists to Be Put On A Postcard: artists’ postcards from 1960 to now, the exhibition will bring together around 300 works of art from some of the most famous artists of the past five decades including Gilbert & George, Susan Hiller, Guerrilla Girls, Tacita Dean, Yoko Ono, Bruce Nauman, Dieter Roth, Gavin Turk, Jasper Johns, Richard Hamilton, Dieter Roth, Ben Vautier, On Kawara, Tracey Emin, Sarah Lucas, and Rachel Whiteread. The audience will have an opportunity to enjoy a wide variety of art postcards in one place, many of these pieces being on display for the first time.

The works in the show are drawn from a major donation of over 1,000 artists’ postcards given by the writer and curator Jeremy Cooper, who has been collecting these works for the past 10 years. Now in possession of one of the world's leading collections of this art form, the British Museum can preserve the history and creativity of this overlooked medium for posterity.

Talking about this unprecedented and eclectic selection of best artists' postcards, Hartwig Fischer, Director of the British Museum explained:

For many people, this exhibition will be a revelation as this art form is not widely known, despite being embraced by many of the most well-known artists in contemporary art. Thanks to the generosity of Jeremy Cooper, who assembled and donated the collection to the British Museum, these pieces can be enjoyed and studied for years to come.

Rachel Whiteread - Untitled, 2005
Rachel Whiteread - Untitled, 2005. Photograph © 2018 Rachel Whiteread

Postcard Art

Although the medium of the postcard has been attracting artists since the 1960s, these bodies of work remain underexplored and lesser known. Raising awareness of this neglected and often subversive medium that was embraced by the artistic avant-garde, the exhibition at the British Museum will bring together works which exhibit a unique originality of expression.

Postcards were always cheap and flexible, allowing artists to produce their work in large numbers or even transform them into one single work. Easily circulating through a postal system, they evaded traditional gallery and museum networks. This allowed artists to create works which were politically subversive or carried a social message. The showcase comes at the time when the postcard is fading from our memory, overrun by digital formats of communication. However, even though we are sending fewer postcards today, artists still enjoy the size and novelty of the medium.

Buying from various dealers and eBay, Jeremy Cooper has steadily built his collection of more than 8000 works, creating a valuable and rich document of this avant-garde works of art. The collection provides a valuable insight into the last fifty years of a soon-to-be-vanished medium.

Cath Tate, Prevent Street Crime, 1982, Tim Head - Untitled, c. 1985
Left: Cath Tate, Prevent Street Crime, 1982. Reproduced by permission of Cath Tate. Courtesy Leeds Postcards / Right: Tim Head - Untitled, c. 1985. Photograph © Reproduced by permission of the artist

The Highlights of the Show

The exhibition will bring together a variety of political postcards, which include the one by Yoko Ono and John Lennon titled War is Over! and the anti-Vietnam card by Jasper Johns titled Art for the Moratorium. Other highlights include collaborations between Richard Hamilton and Dieter Roth; Ben Vautier’s The Postman’s Choice, which can be viewed from both sides; On Kawara’s I GOT UP, part of the series in which the artist notified his New York friend at precisely what time and where he got out of bed; Jill Posener’s early 1980s cards documenting caustic feminist graffiti sprayed on to billboard ads; and the 1993 portrait of Tracey Emin and Sarah Lucas holding watermelons titled Big Balls.

On view, there are also postcard invitation prints, extremely rare pieces which were often discarded once the exhibition or event had been announced. Among highlights are the original silver and black design invitation from Andy Warhol’s 1966 show Holy Cow! Silver Clouds!! Holy Cow! at the Contemporary Art Centre, Cincinnati, and the original invitation card for the now legendary Freeze exhibition organized by Damien Hirst which introduced the world to the Young British Artists.

Andy Warhol - Holy Cow! Silver Clouds!! Holy Cow! 1966
Andy Warhol - Holy Cow! Silver Clouds!! Holy Cow! 1966. © 2018 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. Licensed by DACS, London

Artists' Postcards at the British Museum

Hugo Chapman, The Simon Sainsbury Keeper of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum explained that this humble art form has been embraced by many artists since the 1960s.

What the show reveals is how the limited rectangular format has challenged artists to come up with new and radical ways of exploring its expressive possibilities.

Crediting Jeremy's Cooper's pioneering interest in this graphic art for the existence of a collection of the highest quality, Chapman described the cards presented as "surprising, challenging, playful and at times very funny." "I feel sure that visitors will enjoy the insights these works provide long after postcards, and the postal system, have been consigned to history,” he added.

The exhibition The World Exists to Be Put On A Postcard: artists’ postcards from 1960 to now will run until August 4th, 2019 in Room 90 of the British Museum in London.

  Editors’ Tip: The World Exists to Be Put on a Postcard: Artists' postcards from 1960 to now

The postcard as you’ve never seen it before. This appealing book collects the best of these mail-able, miniature works of art by the likes of Yoko Ono and Carl Andre. Organized thematically into chapters, such as “Graphic Postcards,” “Political Postcards,” “Portrait Postcards,” and “Composite Postcards,” this book demonstrates the significance of artists’ card designs in contemporary art.

Featured images: Bill Gaglione and Tim Mancusi - Dada Land, 1975/1977. Reproduced by permission of the artist; Gilbert & George, Keith Arnatt, Richard Long, Hamish Fulton, Art & Language, Barry Flanagan and others, The New Art, 1972. Reproduced by permission of the artist; Jeremy Deller - Mimesis, 1994. Reproduced by permission of the artist; Paul Morton - Thatcher Therapy. Dot-to-Dot Puzzle. No. 1, 1984. Reproduced by permission of the artist. Courtesy Leeds Postcards. All images courtesy of the British Museum.