‘To be an artist you need talent and you haven’t got it”: the brutal attack from his Hackney head teacher that made Abram Games one of the most influential and significant graphic designers of the 20th century. He was, also, completely driven by his Jewish roots.
Now an exhibition of the artist’s work, 100 years after his birth, is at London’s Jewish Museum, curated with the support of Games’ children Naomi and Daniel. Critics have gone wild about it.
Abram Games was born Abraham Gamse in Whitechapel in 1914, the day after WW1 broke out, the son of a Latvian photographer and a Polish seamstress.
He left Hackney Downs school for St. Martins School of Art, at 16, but that, too, proved to be a frustrating experience – dropping out after 2 terms for lunchtime drawing classes at the National Gallery and anatomy classes at the Royal College Of Surgeons.
The earliest unpublished poster that Games did was for the Jewish National Fund in the 1930s – the start of a lifetime of art and design to illustrate the Jewish cause. ‘It shows how closely he identified with Zionism at that time’ curator Elizabeth Selby explains, ‘but he was definitely a Socialist Zionist. He then went on to serve in the infantry in World War 2. After serving for a year, he was recruited to be the Official War Artist – this is where he designed about 100 posters.
Fighting for that war was a real Jewish cause, for Abrams. And when he later viewed footage from Bergen Belsen, it seriously affected what he went on to do’.
Selby is referring to 3 of Games’ most sensational and controversial, posters, on the theme of displaced persons: ‘ Out Of Depths of Palestine’, ‘Displaced Persons’ and ‘Give Clothing To Liberated Jewry’.
‘He was deeply concerned with what the solution for these people should be’, Selby explains. ‘He felt it should be that they can build a new life for themselves in Palestine, and this led to him building a relationship with the new Israeli state, designing stamps for the Israeli Post Office, posters and graphics for Israeli schools and synagogues. Most of this work was done for free.’
In addition to this, is a vast portfolio that included posters for many British public institutions, including London Transport, London Zoo, British Airways, Festival Of Britain, Shell and Guiness. He also produced book jackets for Penguin, designed objects like coffee makers, and lectured. One of Games’ biggest coups was the commission to create the BBC Television’s very first moving logo.
In an interview before his death Games explains how he felt guilty during the war, that he couldn’t help his colleagues on the front. What he did, instead, was produce a body of work that, in its persuasiveness and vision, changed the course of the 20th, and now, 21st, centuries.
Designing The 20th Century: Life And Work Of Abram Games is at Jewish Museum London until 4 January 2015.