War Posters: Weapons of Mass Communication

July 8, 2011
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War Posters: Weapons of Mass Communication
By James Aulich,
Thames & Hudson/Imperial War Museum
Paperback, 256 pp. $49.95

Everybody knows the classic war posters. Uncle Sam points at the viewer, announcing “I Want YOU for U.S. Army”. It’s not subtle, it’s not even original. In a poster by the British artist, Alfred Leete, issued in 1914, Lord Kitchener pointed in the same manner at the citizens of Great Britain. It would be three years before Uncle Sam got the idea.

This was a rare instance of Britain being more direct than the United States. For the most part the Poms were somewhat reticent with their appeals to patriotic sentiment. The Americans, by contrast, had a highly developed advertising industry willing to do whatever it took to sell a product. Whether that commodity was soap powder or war bonds, the methods were pretty much the same.

One of the discoveries in this fascinating anthology of war posters is the degree to which national characteristics influenced the design of propaganda, even if the formula was not successful. In the First World War, the Germans relied on a heavy, old-fashioned graphic style that they saw as a reflection of traditional Kultur. The French built on the graphic traditions of the Parisian poster artists of the nineteenth century such as Toulouse Lautrec and Cheret, but with equally nostalgic appeals to the ideals of liberty, equality, fraternity.

In the midst of these heavy-handed asserrtions of national pride, it’s startling to find that the one of the most popular British posters of WW1 featured a smiling Tommy lighting a pipe, with the caption “Arf a ‘mo’ Kaiser!” The original purpose of the picture was to raise funds to buy tobacco for the troops, but it quickly became a popular rallying point, an assertion of British pluck and defiance. It was also humorous – a rare quality among war posters, which were usually intent on villifying the enemy or trying to make life at the Front seem like a summer holiday.

We know that in war the first casualty is truth, but “Arf a ‘mo’ Kaiser!” projected a bluff honesty. Amid all the monstrosities, including Norman Lindsay’s image of a blood-stained ape in a German helmet reaching out to grab the planet, the irreverent Tommy struck a sympathetic chord.

This brisk survey of a very crowded field has been put together by James Aulich on behalf of the Imperial War Museum, London, as a kind of greatest hits package. The text is little more than a summary of the nature of war posters from WW1 to the present day, when protest images are spread virally and downloaded in any part of the world.

Aulich samples those posters that present only positive, uplifting images, and those that dwell on tragedy and defeat as a way of mobilising public sentiment. He looks at the politics of hatred and xenophobia, and the heroisation of national types. He looks at the strenuous efforts made to draw women into the workforce, to shame dissenters into joining the army, and to encourage a newfound harmony between workers and bosses. The ruling idea was national unity: “We’re all in this together.

Selling this message required a form of imagery that transcended age-old divisions of class and wealth.

The advances made by women in the workforce and  ideals of social equality would linger on in the post-war world. So too would the lessons advertising agencies learnt from the laboratory of the war years.

Modernism, which was so often considered a degenerate branch of the fine arts, was wholeheartedly embraced for its clean, dynamic sense of design. Even the Nazis favoured art deco-style images over the traditional graphics beloved of Kaiser Wilhelm.

In the years following the Second World War, appeals to patriotic sentiment were replaced by the critical, often savagely satirical posters of the protest movements. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament was a particularly fertile prodicer of posters, as were the opponents of the Vietnam War. Aulich reproduces probably trhe single most powerful poster of the Vietnam years – the famous photo of dead civilians taken after the My Lai massacre. Written in red, across the image, are the words: “Q. And babies? A. And babies.”

Perhaps we are not so easily shocked nowadays, but we are still susceptible to a single, powerful image such as the hooded Iraqi prisoner in Abu Ghraib. A couple of years ago I saw a show of revolutionary art in Tehran, where this image was used over and over as a way of denouncing American barbarism. Iranian barbarism was apparently off the agenda. In the crucial battle for hearts and minds, posters may be brightly coloured, but the messages are always black-and-white.

Book review published for The Sydney Morning Herald, May, 2011

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