While the world recently focussed attention on the Olympic and Paralympic Games in London, an opportunity was provided in Australia for a look into the historical relationship between the Olympics and graphic design via A Call to the Games, an exhibition on Olympic Games posters hosted by the National Sport Museum within the MCG. Given the Melbourne location, a highlight of the exhibition was the poster for the Olympics held in that city in 1956, the first Olympic Games in the southern hemisphere. The official poster for the XVIth Olympiad was designed by Englishman, Richard Beck.
Trained at the Slade and Blocherer Schools, Beck had gained a wealth of experience working on innovative poster projects such as those for Shell-Mex, the Orient Line and London Transport, before arriving in Australia at the start of the 1940s. Beck’s 1956 poster design, featuring a floating invitation card on a blue background (possibly symbolizing the Pacific Ocean) broke with tradition in its rejection of human figuration in the form of a male athletic body.
Its cleaned-lined, asymmetrical central image effected a modernist turn within graphic design for summer Olympic Games. This break-through design was also used for a Commonwealth of Australia Olympic Games stamp, which won an award for Beck from the Italian Government. Beck’s poster design is not only significant within the historical scheme of Olympic posters, it also connects most interestingly with the mood of its time and other design occurrences in Melbourne, including further work by Beck.
Although public records do not indicate the setting of a particular design brief, Beck’s poster corresponded to the aspirations of the so-called ‘modernisers’ who prevailed in a political tussle for control of planning the Games over the ‘traditionalists’ (terms used by the historian Graeme Davison). This resulted in the reimaging of Melbourne ahead of the Olympic Games as an exciting modern destination in an attempt to overcome the city’s reputation as a sleepy colonial backwater, Victorian not only geographically but also as a historical remnant. The symbolism was matched by material developments, especially in architecture. The Olympic Swimming Pool building designed by McIntyre, Borland, Murphy and Murphy was widely praised – Robin Boyd heralded it as a structure of ‘high originality and imagination’ and the ‘first fairy story of Australian building’. The magnificence of the Olympic Pool building has been captured in the photography of Wolfgang Sievers, in film of the diving competition featured in Peter Whitchurch’s documentary account of the 1956 Olympic Games events, and in illustration in the official Guide to Visitors, another of Richard Beck’s commissions.
The modernising agenda also led to a relaxing of building height restrictions and subsequent years witnessed the Melbourne skyline’s embrace of an international high-rise style. Prominent in this regard was ICI House, for a number of years the tallest building in Australia, following its completion in 1958. Prior to the Olympic occasion, smaller scale, steel-framed and glass curtained buildings gave glimpse to this future. One such building was Hosies Hotel on the corner of Flinders and Elizabeth Streets. The lower front section of the hotel’s Elizabeth Streetside features a three storey high mural by Richard Beck, described by Heritage Victoria’s ‘an early example of an artist successfully re-interpreting the Art/Architecture relationship in the age of mechanical building techniques’.
The mural remains to this day, although its appreciation is helped neither by the corporate boarding now positioned underneath it, nor the air conditioning unit protruding into its bottom left corner. Of more concern is the appearance of a layer of film across much of the mural’s small-tiled surface. It is to be hoped that the mural’s heritage ‘significance’ may prompt a restorative intervention sometime soon.
Although the modernisers wanted the 1956 Olympic Games to shake loose Melbourne’s ‘bland and British’ image, it was inspiration derived from the 1951 Festival of Britain that added a special element of fun by way of a number of temporary decorative installations at different key points around the city. The most memorable of the street decorations seems to have been the imposing mock Olympic torch, designed by Peter and Dione McIntyre, which was suspended by cables above the Swanston and Flinders streets intersection. Richard Beck’s contribution to the this project was Spinmobiles, two forty-seven foot high columns of tubular steel, supporting rectangular metal frameworks which, in turn, supported circular rotating objects decorated in the colours of the Olympic rings.
To the contemporary eye of the digital age the street decorations look rather archaic, but in 1956 they were technologically and conceptually innovative. The common theme was to be welcoming and, in this spirit, the Spinmobiles, as mentioned by Harriet Edquist of RMIT, offered a modern rendering of the ‘traditional triumphal arch’ as a gateway to the city coming in along St Kilda Road.
Like the Spinmobiles Richard Beck’s Olympic poster offered a rather simple welcoming to Melbourne in 1956, yet recognition of the poster’s innocence does not deny its significance. The spirit of hope carried within its design makes it an important symbolic statement in and of its day and within the history of Australian visual cultural.
A fuller discussion of Richard Beck and his Olympic design can be found in Professor John Hughson’s article in The Journal of Design History, vol. 25, no.3 (2012)