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Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The Art of WAR!

Revolutionary War posters. The fact that the colonists fired first in Boston
seems to have been but a minor detail insofar as Revere was concerned.
When it comes to art, "one man's trash is another man's treasure." That's how broad tastes in art can be. In confronting the topic of war art, posters in particular, "one man's patriotism is another man's propaganda." I don't know who first said that (maybe me). In any case, if the art history of posters is any indication, it would appear you can't go to war without a really good poster (usually many of them). We're fortunate in dealing with war posters in that, by definition, you can't have an effective poster without a suitable, inexpensive means of producing them. Simply put, hand-drawn posters just aren't worth the bother in times of war. Usually this mean a letterpress or lithography, the talented artists to design such works, and craftsmen needed to transfer them to paper. We'll skip over the guys with the wheat paste as we trace this art from artists to the walls of the citizenry to be aroused. This somewhat limits the period to be reviewed to the last two or three centuries.

Chinese Recruitment poster
from the Korean War era.
In that the Chinese are said to have invented movable type around 1040 there are probably some Chinese war posters gathering dust in some Chinese museum in a land far, far away, but let's not get ridiculous. However, during the 1950s and the Korean War (left), they seem to have not lost the knack. France, being something of the birthplace of poster art, one might expect several examples of such wartime patriotism/propaganda in connection with the 1870-71 Franco Prussian War. While there are a wagonload of battle prints produced after the war, apparently the conflict was too short and too devastating for the French to get involved in selecting type faces. I mean, when your country is being invaded by a hoard of Prussians, morale may suffer, but recruitment is seldom a problem. From the American Revolution (top), two very familiar names stand out with regard to wartime posters--Benjamin Franklin and Paul Revere. Franklin's "Join or Die" graphic appeared as early as 1754 (in his own newspaper, of course) with regard to the Albany Plan of Union, the first effort to pull together the colonies into a single governmental unit (in this case for the defense against the French during the French and Indian War). Revere's etched print of the Boston Massacre dates from about 1771 and is very much in tune with virtually every example of wartime posters yet to come.

Civil War recruitment in the north--bring your own beachwear.
Recruitment was no problem.  Money was.
The American Civil War (1861-65) produced a riverboat load of wartime poster art, virtually all of it in the form of recruitment posters. Especially in the North, these bugle blasts were heavy on large font type, light on graphics, each emphasizing allegiance to various state militias while citing incredible, unrealistically short enlistments. The massive broadside headlines such as the one above seem hilarious to us today, but during the cold, northern winter months of 1862, no doubt sounded inviting. In the South, the emphasis was on individual gentleman commanders forming fighting units with cavalry being the starring attraction (bring your own horse). Both sides used the draft as in incentive to enlist volunteers. The Confederate bounties were in the form of rapidly inflating southern bank drafts so expediency was an economic incentive as well (spend it before it becomes obsolete).

Alfred Leete's 1914 Kitchener
poster was the inspiration for Uncle
Sam's "I Want You" version.
Joining England in a war was
a "hard sell" in the U.S. in 1918.
No shortage of symbolism here.
American artist, Herbert Andrew
Paus, urges civilian involvement
in a war that seemed far, far
away in 1918.
Skipping over the Spanish-American War (another conflict too short for posters), we find with the advent of war in Europe between 1914 and 1918 the truly "artistic" war poster coming into its own and this time, playing a major role, not limited to just recruitment but national morale as well. England was fighting for its empire and to preserve its pride while in the U.S. the conflict seemed over some vague, international laws involving rules of war and freedom of the seas. For poster artists on both sides of the Atlantic, promoting such concepts was a challenging assignment. In both countries there were patriotic appeals for civilian sacrifice, extraordinary homeland efforts, conservation, and vigilance, foreshadowing a much more intense emphasis on such themes to be seen in the next big war. As with the military, "the war to end all wars" was likewise just a warm-up exercise for the next poster war. Whoever said that the most important cause of WW II was WW I knew their history.

British wartime posters put artists into the conflict along with everyone else (love the pig).
Though much lampooned today,
the war against fear and panic
was critical to British survival.
Unlike 1918 in England, twenty-two years later the British civilian population were literally fighting for their lives. Although there were plenty of wartime posters to be found, those living in London and other major cities in England didn't need catchy phrases or eye-catching art to remind them there was a war on, which required as much an effort from them as from their sons fighting on the mainland. Hitler was knocking on their doors, often literally knocking them down, in fact. In the U.S., unlike the First World War, we didn't tiptoe into the second. We were bombed into it. When James Montgomery Flagg's Uncle Sam pointed his sturdy finger and said, 'I Want YOU" he was pointing at everyone, even the sleepy isolationists waking up to harsh reality on the lazy Sunday morning of December 7th, 1941. He wanted Adolph Triedler's Soldiers Without Guns (below, left) and Morley's Victory Gardeners (below right). Along with the usual recruitment posters there were the morale boosters and the action organizing broadsides urging unity of purpose.

Soldiers never before looked so
beautiful, Adolph Treidler.
Morley's Victory Gardens produced
an abundance, even during war.
Question: And Babies? Answer: And Babies. 1970
World War Two was the last great "poster war." There were pale shadows of earlier graphic design war efforts during the Korean War but nothing notably collectible. Then in the 1970s, during the Vietnam era, the poster war effort unexpectedly shifted to anti-war. The flower children cried for love, not war. Vietnam brought us the My Lai massacre which brought to living room television horrific scenes of human destruction on a massive, vivid scale never before scene by the American public. War was no longer sanitized. Neither were the anti-war posters. Perhaps the most gruesome was one titled And Babies (above) from 1970 based upon a government photo and a Mike Wallace interview with My Lai participant, Paul Meadlo, describing his mowing down of men, women, children, and babies.

-----------------------And on a lighter note---------------------

Vietnam War


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