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Words as pictures – new Tate Britain posters continue a long copy tradition in the visual arts

The three posters are part of Grey London‘s 500 Years of Stories campaign which runs on the London Underground, in press and on the Tate website, while free postcards of the ads will be available at the gallery. Each painting described in the texts features in BP Displays, Tate Britain’s permanent collection.

In the last few years there have been a few text-only approaches to visual subjects, with Tate previously employing the technique in 2006 in an award-winning campaign from Fallon which organised the work in the gallery into themed ‘collections’.

Posters described how each collection would appeal to the requirements of a particular visitor – be they hungover, or recently dumped, in search of baby names, or seeking to impress the person they were with (see below).

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The posters were snappily written, funny and engaging and made people think about how we engage with art within the context of a large cultural institution.

In the new campaign for Tate, written by Pete Gatley, Jonas Roth and Rasmus Smith-Bech, the texts refer specifically to three works held by the gallery: Steven van der Meulen’s Portrait of Elizabeth I (c.1563), Francis Bacon’s Triptych from 1972 and John Everett Millais’ 1852 painting of Ophelia. The texts also put each of the painting’s themes of love, grief and self-reflection into context.

In each case, corrupting the Tate font seems to reflect something of the emotional state of the work described – the Bacon text is more fractured, the Millais text more flowing – though the overall intention of something not-quite-right is probably to catch the eye and draw the reader in. Which they do.

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In 2011, a similar technique (without distorted type) was used to great effect by The Chase who worked with writers Nick Asbury (text shown below – click to read) and Jim Davies on a communications project called 1,000 Words for photographer Paul Thompson.

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A series of posters displayed finely-honed 1,000 word descriptions of an image from Thompson’s portfolio – the idea being that the text would entice designers and art directors to check out his website, paulthompsonstudio.com. (Click on the below image to read the texts.)

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Go back a bit further and copywriters like Neil French used a different spin again on the idea – as shown here (below) in an example of his work for stock photography house, ibid.com, via Ogilvy & Mather Chicago.

“I hate the way so many art directors tend to find a picture they like, and then build a campaign round it, so that’s what I wrote about,” French explains on his website.

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Good writing keeps the reader reading and while Grey’s latest campaign uses shorter bursts of text, the words are compelling enough to get you to the end – and make you think about both the painting and its conception in the process.

On a wall of images competing for attention, not least from other museums and galleries, committing a few minutes to a good story can prove more memorable than a few seconds in front of a picture. In a good gallery you should have more than enough time with both.

Tate Britain: 500 Years of Stories – Agency: Grey London. Art director: Nils Leonard. Creative directors: Nils Leonard & Dom Goldman. Copywriters: Pete Gatley, Jonas Roth & Rasmus Smith Bech. Creative: Yassa Khan. Creative producers: Gemma Hose & Martin McGinn. Client: Rob Baker, Chief Marketing Officer, Tate; Abi Laughton, Marketing Manager, Tate Britain

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