Collecting and collectors

The IISH | Steef Davidson | Stefan R. Landsberger | José Martinez | Cornelis Rose

The International Institute of Social History has a poster collection of over 70.000 pieces. It is the largest poster collection in the Netherlands, and one of the largest collections of political posters in the world. With a few exceptions from the late 18th and early 19th century, the posters date from after 1850. Around 40 % of the collection is Dutch, the other 60 % come from the rest of the world.

Posters are not judged by artistic criteria at the IISH, but collected as historical documents. Some of the many highlights of the collection, besides the material shown in 'The Chairman Smiles', are posters from late 19th century anarchist and socialist organizations, the German and Austrian social democrat movement in the 1910s and 1920s, the Spanish Civil War (1936-1938), Paris May '68 and the countless action groups and committees of the last thirty years. The Dutch collection is unrivalled.

Most of the institute's acquisitions are donations by persons or organizations who like to see their material preserved for posterity, made available for research and exhibitions. Besides this, the IISH exchanges duplicate posters and occasionally buys at auctions or from antiquarians and private collectors. For more information on the collection, see The Poster Collection. An additional guide. You can also contact

'The Chairman Smiles' features many posters donated, given on loan or sold to the IISH by private collectors. Steef Davidson and Cornelis Rose have to be mentioned as important contributors to the Soviet collection. Many of the best Cuban posters come from the collection of José Martinez. Stefan Landsberger, finally, gave his collection of Chinese posters on loan. This page is intended as a small tribute to their enthusiasm and expertise, and as an illustration of the fact that even large public institutions are dependent upon the contributions of passionate individuals.

Steef Davidson
Steef Davidson (1943-2010) grew up in a family where political commitment and artistic talents were widespread. His uncle was the artist Meijer Bleekrode, who designed posters for many left-wing organizations in the 1920s and 1930s. In the 1960s, Davidson was absorbed in the budding alternative youth culture that led to Provo and other anti-authoritarian groups. Around 1970, his attention focused on the fight for the preservation of the Nieuwmarkt district, an area in the center of Amsterdam threatened with demolition for the construction of an underground railway. It was the starting point for Holland's squatters movement.

In his Provo days, Davidson started publishing leaflets and periodicals. In the Nieuwmarkt, he was co-founder of a collective workshop for printing and designing called De Vrije Zeefdrukker (The Free Silkscreen Printer). He published on anarchism, anti-parliamentarism and American Indians, and started to appear on stage as performing poet.

Besides publishing himself, Davidson also was eagerly collecting alternative and underground publications, especially comic strips and posters. His collection of underground comics led to the publication of Beeldenstorm. De ontwikkeling van de politieke strip 1965-1975 (Amsterdam 1978), published in English as The Penguin Book of political comics (Harmondsworth 1982). His poster collection was exhibited in the Amsterdam Stedelijk Museum (1981) and the Musée de l' affiche et de la publicité in Paris 1982. Catalogues were published under the title of De kunst van het protest/The art of protest 1965-1975 (Haarlem 1981) and Images de la révolte (Paris 1982). The largest part of this collection now rests with the IISH.

Without disregarding his political involvement, little by little Davidson's interest began to focus on avant-garde design. During the 1990s he devoted much of his time and energy to the Soviet poster, with its complete entanglement of political and artistic aspects. Davidson succeeded in bringing together a large collection of the highest quality, featuring the well-known highlights next to unknown masterworks by forgotten designers. The IISH was fortunate to exhibit a small selection of this outstanding collection in 1995.

The following Soviet posters in this exhibition were acquired from Steef Davidson or through his mediation: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 16, 30, 31, 32, 33.

Stefan R. Landsberger
The Sinologist Stefan R. Landsberger (born 1955) works as lecturer at the Sinological Institute of Leiden University. He started collecting Chinese posters as a student. Over the years, Landsberger gathered some 800 pieces. His collection is especially strong in posters from the later 1970s and onward. This more recent material offers a unique view on China in the post-Mao era, and is seldom seen in the West.

Besides being a private passion, the posters became the subject of Landsberger's professional interest as well. In 1994, he finished his doctoral thesis Visualizing the future. Chinese Propaganda Posters from the 'Four Modernizations' Era, 1978-1988. Commercial editions were published in 1995 in English (Chinese Propaganda Posters - From Revolution to Modernization) and German. In 1995, Landsberger decided to loan his collection to the IISH.

In 1994, Landsberger published the article Confessions of a poster collector, offering an insiders' view on the collecting of Chinese posters. Stefan Landsberger's Chinese Propaganda Poster Pages have been a very popular web resource for many years. In 2008, Landsberger and the IISH decided to join forces on chineseposters.net.

The following Chinese posters are from the Landsberger collection: 3, 9, 19, 26, 35, 40, 42, 43, 49, 51, 54, 55, 56, 57, 58, 59, 61, 62, 66, 67, 68, 69, 70, 72, 73, 74, 75, 76, 77, 78, 79.

José Martinez
The libertarian editor and writer José Martinez Guerricabeitia (1921-1986) was born in Villar del Arzobispo, near Valencia in Spain. During the Franco regime he was active in the Spanish underground. From 1946 he lived in exile in Paris. There he started the publishing house Ruedo Ibérico in 1960. Ruedo Ibérico published the review Cuadernos de Ruedo Ibérico and books forbidden in Spain. These publications circulated clandestinely in Spain during the 1960s and 1970s and were influential among students, intellectuals in oppositional circles. In 1978 Martinez and Ruedo Ibérico moved back to Spain.

Both in Paris and back in Spain, Martinez collected material on the Spanish exile and opposition movement, such as illegally distributed books, brochures and pamphlets, handwritten reports from prisoners and proceedings of political processes. Martinez was also keenly interested in visual material. After his return to Spain, he avidly collected posters from the countless left wing parties, organizations and groups emerging in the new democracy. Probably thanks to contacts with Cuban writers and publishers he built up a splendid collection of Cuban posters, in which the ICAIC silkscreens are especially well represented. The Martinez/Ruedo Ibérico collection was acquired by the IISH in 1987. The inventory of the papers is available on-line.

The following Cuban posters are from the Martinez collection: 1, 5, 11, 12, 13, 21, 26, 27, 28, 29, 31, 32, 33.

Cornelis Rose
Cornelis Rose (1886-1976) was a carpenter and contractor from Haarlem, a city near Amsterdam. In the late 1920s and 1930s he was active in local branches of several communist organizations such as the International Red Aid, the Association for Friendship with the Soviet Union and the League against Imperialism. When Rose started his own firm as contractor in 1939 he stopped his political activities. He always carefully kept the printed material (pamphlets, leaflets, brochures and posters) collected during his 'red years', and eventually donated it to the IISH.

The Rose collection holds only a hundred posters, but among them are many outstanding and important pieces. The ca. 40 Soviet posters were probably used to decorate rooms for meetings of the Association for Friendship with the Soviet Union. They show signs of use like small holes from thumbtacks, and often translations of the main text are written on the back, but otherwise they are in good condition. The thought of this communist carpenter walking home from a political meeting with a roll of posters under his arm nicely puts into perspective the overstrained art market of today, which has transformed these posters into 'objets d'art', affordable for very rich collectors only.

The following Soviet posters are from the Rose collection: 18, 19, 21, 25, 26, 27, 29.