Psychedelic Posters: How they Exploded our Minds

Sixties Psychedelic Posters: How they exploded our minds

Now that we can acknowledge the contribution of the sixties at a safe distance from its turmoil, it is remarkable to see how its influence continues to spread. Posters played a key role  in this dissemination of libertarian ideas. Recently, there was an exhibition of the impact of Pop Art at the Fashion and Textile Museum. Tucked away upstairs was a row of psychedelic posters of the Beatles and Donovan and I realised how much the visual language of mind-bending substances has seeped into the general culture since the heyday of pill popping on fields of festival mud.

Here are some random thoughts embedded in a short video to underscore how the sixties really did alter the way we see things. If these posters seems normal now it is because we have absorbed the visual tricks. The photos in the video are my own and contain reflective glass, which I retained as interesting and self mirroring in and of themselves, as the ‘trompe l’oeil’ effect puts the mind in not one but two minds.

Bob Dylan Poster on Copper Plate

The root of “psychedelic” is two fold: ‘psyche’ meaning ‘mind or soul’, and ‘delos’ meaning ‘manifesting.  So this is a ‘mind manifesting’ kind of experience, as triggered frequently by acid or mushroom trips, but which can also be accessed less directly through yoga and meditation techniques. It is both visceral and visual, stimulating the optic nerve and even triggering the activation of the pineal gland, the third eye. Anyone who closes their eyes, and sees visions will know this. But, it is more than just a lava-lamp style projection of gloopy shapes. Colours are rarely muddy or dull, but eye-poppingly iridescent, starkly contrastive, and sparking with the laser-light Shiva dance of energy molecules: Once this is experienced first hand, it is rarely forgotten. Even if you have not ‘seen’ it, you may receive a whiff of visual otherness from looking at the explosion of posters from the sixties.

The psychedelic poster distinguished itself from other posters by its dazzling visual effects. One aspect of these posters that stands out is that apparently solid boundaries became blurred suggesting the world we are accustomed to is not stable, but a portal to other dimensions that remain hidden to our everyday perception.

Some of the best posters even used a copper plate for their effect like the one of ‘Bob Dylan’. Its swirls have a metallic tint, echoing the use of iridescent colours elsewhere

George Harrison and the Third Eye

An experimental development in the sixties was in the light show to accompany rock concerts. Joshua Light Show performed alongside Jefferson Airplane, Tim Buckley, and Spirit at the Fillmore East between 1968-71. These light shows were projected over the performers using colour wheels, aluminium foils, overlayed with original film footage forming a constantly changing montage of the real and unreal. It is difficult to encapsulate the 3D into the 2D print format, yet that is what the simple screen print sixties poster attempted. Screen printing offered the potential suggesting a bleed effect apparently melting the solid world, proving Einstein’s E= MC squared theory that matter is vibrating energy. The other aspect is the fractal style, where each part, geometrically precise is repeated endlessly to form a larger whole.

Blake’s famous lines are very evocative at this point:

“To see a world 
in a grain of sand 
and heaven in a wild flower. 
To hold infinity 
in the palm of your hand 
and eternity in an hour.”

Wes Wilson  Poster

The person who had a great impact was Wes Wilson who was willing to experiment with distortions of the usually geometrically strict style of typographic design so you got a lot of squidgy-looking letter shapes, reminiscent of Art Nouveau, but taking it further to a full on optical illusion where the letters have an elasticity all of their own.

As I looked longer, the images can become hypnotic, as they typify Optical illusions, which for a hypnotherapist is always intriguing as it automatically propels clients into an interior space. But this impact works on the viewer as an aesthetic experience too. Just how long does it take when gazing at an image to become lost in a trance? A few seconds? Each face locates you at the doorway to another world, yet it also reflects the self through the windows of the eyes.

Stare at the eyes long enough and you’re gone into that space.

The focus on faces is also typical of Pop Art, which was exerting massive influence with the screen print work of Andy Warhol. Such images of pop stars such as John Lennon, George Harrison and Jimi Hendrix are drawn from photographic images. These lend themselves easily to becoming iconic, as areas of the face do not have the subtlety and shading of realism, but need to reduce shapes to bold, simple forms, suggesting the subjects are god-like, and transcend the real.

Ken Wilson: Are You Experienced?

Psychedelic posters have added a real zest to design, pushing the boundaries outwards. According to Johnson, author of Are You Experienced? “The psychedelic movement helped people move beyond the act of viewing art into a deeper experience of it……Art is no longer something just to be admired. It’s something to consume and to feel.” (Wild Things).

Today there is fractal generating software which mimics the direct experience of psychotropic vision, allowing for multiplication of forms in computerised video art. This pushes way beyond the simple standalone poster. Images do not stand still but continually morph. Hence, video now appears to predominate with Rihanna  and Azealea Banks making use of such digital video art and psychotropic effects for their music videos under the guise of ‘seapunk’ – a style immersed in psychedelic visual – they are just one flourishing branch of the sixties explosion alive and proliferating happily.

It would be nice to see a fuller more substantial exhibition of these posters at some stage, recognising the significance of the Sixties-style poster. The link to acid trips may have been exaggerated but something exploded a window open in the minds of poster designers, which they may or may not have needed to create these images. Let’s hope they do not sink into oblivion but are celebrated for also opening avenues in the minds of the public that continue to keep opening.


© Kieron Devlin, 2014
all rights reserved.


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