A free exhibition at the Tate Britain art museum showcases 12 posters for the London Olympic and Paralympic Games that were created by a dozen contemporary British artists.

While London plays host to the Olympics and the Paralympics this summer, the city’s Tate Britain art museum is giving a glimpse into how contemporary British artists have interpreted the pageantry through commemorative posters.

London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games posters”, on display in the hall beside the museum’s main gift shop through 23 September, showcases the officially commissioned designs of a dozen leading British artists, including Tracey Emin, Chris Ofili and Rachel Whiteread. The exhibition is a small part of the London 2012 cultural festival.

The screen prints and lithographs pay homage to the quadrennial, larger-than-life, superhero-like athletic competitions, but they also aim to transcend mere event promotion to achieve artistic status. The illustrations tend to be abstract, such as Whiteread’s set of Olympic rings interlocking in surprising combinations and Ofilli’s invocation of an ancient Greek runner portrayed on an antique vase.

Host cities have long traditions of commissioning commemorative posters -- since 1912 for the Olympics and 1948 for the Paralympics.  Admirers of graphic design will be impressed by the technical skill of this latest batch of artworks, which not only promote the Games but could also become relics themselves.

In the main Tate Britain gallery gift shop, limited edition prints of the posters are for sale (£7 each). So far, the most purchased poster is a sketch by Tracey Emin that features two birds kissing and is aimed to promote the spirit of goodwill behind the Paralympics.

Not on display at the Tate but selling well at the gift shops in the Victoria and Albert Museum and the National Transport Museum, as well as at John Lewis department stores (the official retailer for the Games) is a vintage one-sheet from 1948, when London last hosted the Olympics. It spotlights a statue of an ancient Greek discus thrower, superimposed upon the Houses of Parliament.