Daddy, What did You do in the Great War? Savile Lumley (d1950) UK, 1915, lithograph. © Imperial War Museum
Richard Moss takes a tour of twentieth century propaganda at the Imperial War Museum in London.
In the 21st century we have become accustomed to mass communication developing to unbelievably sophisticated levels, yet a new exhibition at the Imperial War Museum shows how for a large part of the 20th century, the humble poster was the key means of influencing public opinion.
The exhibition explores this phenomenon by presenting hundreds of the most eye-catching and iconic posters used to sell war and attendant ideologies from WWI to the present day.
Running until March 31 2008 Weapons of Mass Communication mines the museums’ vast poster archive to present a snapshot of the ideas that have been used to both promote and oppose conflicts and political ideas.
Keep on Sending Me OXO, Frank Dadd, UK 1914 lithograoh. Courtesy Premier Grocery Products Limited
It makes for a fascinating tour of the last century - what some historians have termed the dark century.
Original posters of all shapes and sizes cover the walls of the IWM’s upper gallery - iconic wartime designs such as Alfred Leete’s World War One Kitchener recruitment poster are displayed next to works by pioneering graphic artists such as Lucien Bernard, Hans Schlegler and Abram Games.
As well as a trawl ideologies, they show how governments and political parties throughout Europe have tapped into artistic movements and trends – although not always with success.
The age of the propaganda poster really began with the First World War as posters began to appear in the workplace, in the post office, the grocers and on billboards and the exhibition begins by introducing some of the most famous examples.
The US equivalent of the Kitchener poster – the Uncle Sam ‘I Want You’ recruitment poster brings home how governments quickly cottoned on to how advertising could be used as a raw but easy means to justify and win support for their policies.
War imagery quickly dominated the illustrated press, cartoons, theatre, music halls and advertising. War was sold to the nation everywhere and recruiting posters utilised every trick in the book to boost the war effort.
Treat ‘em Rough! Join the Tanks, August William (Angiet) Hutaf (1879-1942) USA, 1918, lithograph. © Imperial War Museum
It was all about grabbing the attention in the quickest way with the simplest messages and imagery.
What better way of geeing up the workforce than a poster with a bomb emblazoned with the words ‘more production’ slamming into a swastika in the middle of Japanese flag? Or for the beleaguered Spanish republic of 1936 conjuring up the hopeful image of defeated fascism with a woman’s espadrille stamping on a broken swastika?
Other posters used Christian imagery or the ill treatment of women to relay a simple messages encompassing cruelty, sacrifice, hope and rebirth whilst the first and second world wars saw a virulent use of racial stereotyping. It seems that in desperate times, anything was permissible.
Stirring examples fuse these stereotypes with images of world destruction - ranging from a vicious guerrilla in a German spiked helmet grabbing a blood stained globe, to a Japanese octopus stretching its greedy tendrils across the world. The words behind the latter: This is the Enemy.
The British meanwhile were shown as greedy empire grabbers, the Germans as barbarians and the Japanese as the sinister ‘yellow peril’. 'Colonial' troops also came in for a bashing – depicted as sexual predators with exaggerated features, whilst individuals were caricatured as virulently as they are today. A psychotic Hitler chews on bones whilst a Russian woman and her child face a swastika emblazoned bayonet.
Eat Greens for Health, Hans Schleger (1898-1976), UK, 1942, lithograph. © Imperial War Museum
Such simple visual shorthand may seem crude but looking at them today these posters retain the power to conjure up feelings of hope, fear and revulsion. In the First World War, such use of standard advertising techniques offended Lord Kitchener who believed that crass methods like these should not be used in affairs of war. The Americans of course had no qualms.
A US navy recruitment poster shows a sailor sitting astride a torpedo like a rodeo cowboy, whilst a woman in a navy outfit says: “Gee I wish were a man. I’d join the navy.”
Before long the war was also being used to sell everything from bicycle tyres to gravy browning.
‘Arf a Mo Kaiser’ shows a smiling Tommy enjoying his pipe and tobacco as part of a campaign for the Weekly Despatch Tobacco Fund: “Every 6d will gladden the heart of a hero,” says the poster. Another shows a French soldier (‘Hey lads’) leaping from his trench gleefully brandishing a bottle of champagne. British cocky defiance and French joie de vivre was typical of First World War advertising campaigns.
In Imperial Germany, poster advertising tended to be a more sober affair offering abstract expressionistic posters of men forging steel or noble labourers symbolically clearing the way of thorns.
However, the gradual transformation from an approach informed by commercial advertising to sophisticated and controlled government propaganda really came with the interwar periods, through revolutionary Russia and the ideological battle between fascism and communism.
Reichs Sports Day for the Association of German Girls, Ludwig Hohlwein (1874-1949), Germany, 1934, lithograph © DACS 2007
The exhibition shows how this reached a peak during the Spanish Civil War with a display of eye-catching work by artists such as Pedrero and Josep Renau and innovative designs form factions of the Republican Left and the Nationalist Right.
The selection of posters from Nazi Germany reveals a government using the poster to define values, ideologies and the Nazi’s own warped vision of society. Here there is only one voice of dissent – The Worker in the Nazi State – chained to a swastika. But it’s a momentary blip that soon gives way to images of healthy aryans and steel helmets.
Unsurprisingly American images of the time have a touch of Hollywood about them whilst British designs of the period are unexpectedly avant-garde. Despite portraying a vision of the past, present and future to maintain morale and the war effort, British poster designers during World War Two were evidently some of the most sophisticated in the world.
Posters by Abram Games, Eric Fraser and Pat Keely are particularly striking – the latter’s Wireless War, designed for the Post Office, uses an airbrush technique to produce a modern futuristic look reminiscent of a classic Ealing movie poster.
The Cold War reinvigorated poster design and saw the counterculture movement take the medium to its heart – often re-interpreting the iconic war posters of the past to create new messages and to invert symbols.
I Want You for US Army, Personality Posters (after James Montgomery Flagg) UK, c1972, offset lithograph. © Imperial War Museum
The exhibition closes by exploring how posters became the face and voice of anti-Vietnam, peace and anti-nuclear protests, whilst recent works include designs by David Gentleman, Ralph Steadman and Leon Kuhn for the Stop the War Coalition’s Iraq War demonstrations.
Although the 230-odd posters on display in this excellent exhibition represent only a smidgen of the thousands held by the IWM: there’s a lot to take in and it makes for a dizzying and fascinating exhibition.
Full of dramatic imagery and symbolism encompassing death, hope, defeat, broken ideologies and war, these posters work both as evocations of a certain time and potent symbols of ideas.