Published: March 7, 2006
Posters have played an interesting role in the shaping of modern history, particularly in the political sphere. A distinctive medium of mass communication and persuasion, posters have been utilized to influence public opinion, stir the masses and promote a variety of causes and personalities. In an age of technological progress and growth of mass communications, posters continue to serve as conduits to the multitudes, many of whom do not watch television or listen to radio, much less read newspapers.
“Revolutionary Tides: The Art of the Political Poster, 1914-1989,” was organized by the Cantor Arts Center with the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, the Stanford Humanities Laboratory and the Wolfsonian-Florida International University. Guest curated by Jeffrey T. Schnapp, founder and director of The Stanford Humanities Laboratory, it brings together 120 striking posters drawn from the extensive collections of the Hoover Institution and The Wolfsonian. They span the era from World War I to the fall of the Berlin Wall. After opening at Stanford, “Revolutionary Tides” is currently on view at The Wolfsonian-Florida International University through June 25.
Featured are posters from such varied settings as New Deal America, the Soviet Union of Stalin’s Five-Year Plans, China’s Cultural Revolution, the protest movements of the 1960s and Ayatollah Khomeini’s Iran. Graphic artists represented range from such well-known Americans as Howard Chandler Christy, Norman Rockwell and Andy Warhol to a diverse group of talented overseas poster-makers.
The exhibition is organized into three broad areas, each ofwhich examines a particular graphic convention, iconographicelement or theme. “Figures” surveys the graphic language ofTwentieth Century poster designers. “Numbers” focuses on the closelinks between modern ideas about political power and concepts ofquantity. The third area, “Symbols,” explores the interactionbetween crowd images and icons representing groups.
Under the heading of “Figures,” a prominent subgroup deals with “The March” – the manner in which Twentieth Century crowds tended to march in loose, armylike formations in order to present a united front. In “To Triumph, Subscribe to the National Loan,” 1917, by Georges Goursat [Sem], members of Napoleon’s triumphant army march side-by-side with World War I troops, suggesting that supporting the war effort will restore the glories of France’s military past. Sweeping down on a cloud and spurred on by a stalwart angel, they pour through the Arc de Triomphe, a symbol of French military prowess.
At about the same time, American artist Ernest Hamlin Bakerexhorted women to work in industry to support the war effort byshowing masses of working women, as far as the eye can see,marching purposefully together. Commissioned by the Young Women’sChristian Association, “For Every Fighter, a Woman Worker,” 1918,backed the United War Work Campaign.
Hungarian artist Janos Tabor’s poster, “Red Soldiers Forward,” 1919, promoted the theme of the inevitable victory of the Red armies by highlighting two muscular figures, framed by an enormous red banner, leading a mass, represented by banners and bayonets.
In his powerful poster, “1905 – The Road to October,” 1929, Russian artist Valentina Kulagina paid homage to the heroes of the first popular uprising in 1905 that laid the groundwork for the successful October Revolution of 1917. Vignettes detail events in the 1905 conflict, including the massacre of demonstrating workers outside the Winter Palace. Striding over these depictions are five enormous, red-hued revolutionaries backed by a “1905” banner leading the charge into the future.
Equally stirring is the inimitable N.C. Wyeth’s “Buy War Bonds” poster, 1942, in which a resolute Uncle Sam, the American flag draped over his shoulder, points ahead. The message is that bombers flying overhead and bayonet-wielding troops on the ground are supported by the purchase of bonds.
Echoing the words of People’s Republic of China leader Mao Zedong, “Strengthen Yourself by Confronting High Waves and Mighty Winds!”, 1966-69, is a government poster in which smiling youths plow through waves in a show of power and camaraderie. This was an outgrowth of Mao’s much-publicized swim across the Yangtze River in 1966 that underscored his determination to pursue the Cultural Revolution.
The manner in which crowds were depicted in action or, more often, formed the backdrop for political posters promoting a variety of causes, is examined in the section on “The Mass Ornament.” Thus, commissioned by the Maine Committee on Public Safety, an unknown artist sought to assuage doubts about American entry into World War I by depicting 2,000 naval reservists lined up to spell out Victory in the 1917 “Victory. Fighting in France for Freedom! Are You Helping at Home?”
Posters were a favored tool of the Communist regime in theSoviet Union, as exemplified by Sergei Sen’kin’s “Long Live theFirst of May,” 1929, a serpentine composition showing workingpeople who were honored on May Day.
East German Communists responded to tensions among religion, the individual and the demands of a communal society by means of a poster in which the face of a young woman in a cross-shaped design was superimposed over a mass of people. Wolfgang Janisch’s “What is Man?”, 1988, appeared just before mass protests toppled the Communist regime in 1989.
Poster artists often utilize forms of hands, arms, ears and mouths to symbolize participants in their causes, as explored in the exhibition section devoted to “Anatomies of the Multitude.”
The clenched fist has been a particularly useful symbol of power and determination, whether demolishing a table around which peace negotiators are at work at Versailles at the end of World War I in a Hungarian poster of 1919, or celebrating the departure of the shah and the victory of Ayatollah Khomeini in an Iranian Embassy poster of 1980.
A giant pointing finger highlights Henry Koerner’s “Someone Talked,” 1943, as it points to a small, walking man in one of many posters addressing the dangers of loose talk in wartime. The newspaper headline within the finger form, “U.S. SHIP SUNK BY…” suggests that indiscreet talk caused the loss at sea.
A giant ear hanging on a brick wall in “Warning! Walls Have Ears! Careful of What You Say!”, dating to the early 1940s, was used by an unknown artist in the government’s campaign to promote awareness among Americans of the dangers of conveying sensitive information that might be picked up by Axis spies.
In a similar vein, an unknown artist depicted a dim-witted, cartoonish GI spreading possibly harmful rumors through a speaking trumpet in “Are You a Megaphone Mouth?”, 1942. Schnapp notes that this poster was hung in California military bases, “where fears regarding security breaches and public conversation regarding military operations were running high.”
In an effort to counter fascist inroads into Latin Americaduring World War II, Mexican artist Antonio Arias Bernal created”Unity is Strength,” early 1940s, in which caricatures of Hitler,Mussolini and Hirohito cower beneath figures of a giant, muscularworker and soldier shaking hands. It conveys the notion, saysSchnapp, “that victory in the war will depend upon the partnershipbetween industry and the military.”
Perhaps the most famous World War II poster, “Freedom of Speech,” 1943, by Norman Rockwell, was originally created for the cover of The Saturday Evening Post. Inspired by President Franklin Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” speech of 1941, the artist’s image of an ordinary American speaking his mind at a town meeting came to symbolize what the United States was fighting for, and proved useful in promoting sales of war bonds to support the war effort.
The tricky business of using quantitative data in poster art is explored in the “Statistical Persons” grouping. One example, promulgated by the Women’s Bureau of the Department of Labor, silhouettes a woman at her typewriter behind horizontal bar graphs containing data about her activities, such as average salaries for categories of office workers. “Women Office Workers,” 1934, is by an unknown artist.
A section titled “Mass Production/Mass Reproduction” examines connections among modern politics, industrialization and mass communications. The single gloved hand tightening a bolt in Jean Carlu’s “America’s Answer! Production,” 1941, reflects the push to accelerate the nation’s industrial growth to meet the demands of a World War II economy.
“Kill Counts” refers to the inevitable presence of mass death due to natural disasters, human savagery and modern warfare. Sherman Raveson’s poster, “Disarm or Be Destroyed! Write the President – The Disarmament Conference Must Succeed!”, 1931-32, was commissioned by World Peace Posters, an organization formed by prominent women to promote the cause of global disarmament. The graphic composition, with a skull and two skeletal hands hovering over a landscape littered with the devastation of war, dramatically presses the case for President Herbert Hoover to accept reductions in military expenditures at a forthcoming World Disarmament Conference.
In response to the mounting death toll in a far-off conflict,Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Vietnam commissioned an unnamedphotographer to produce “This is Our Only Vietnam Deadline” in theearly 1970s. The image of countless white gravestones in a militarycemetery receding into the distance vividly suggested thepotentially devastating increase in the number of American war deadand increased pressure for the withdrawal of US forces.
Three categories are grouped under the exhibition’s general theme of “Symbols.” The subgroup labeled “Totems” investigates symbols that serve as icons of collectivity – such as national flags and figures like Uncle Sam – that provide a sense of community in a world increasingly characterized by mobility and change. Popular artist Howard Chandler Christy injected some sex appeal in “Fight or Buy Bonds,” 1918, a poster promoting the Third Liberty Loan. A damsel in a diaphanous gown holds an American flag above her head in one hand, while the other gestures toward US troops on the march. In effect, she urges viewers to either purchase bonds or join the army.
Another illustrator, Samuel Cherry, placed a large Red Cross emblem front and center in his inspirational appeal for support of the organization, “Join! Heed Their Appeal,” 1939-45. The crowd of citizens, young and old, reaching out to the emblem reminds viewers of its mission to help all in need.
Striking photographic representations of Italian fascist leader Benito Mussolini and President Woodrow Wilson are standouts in the section on “Mass Leaders and Mass Deceivers,” which features superimposed figures over crowds. In the former image, a mass rally with a sea of faces make up “Il Duce’s” torso, whereas in the latter, Wilson’s head is composed of 21,000 soldiers arrayed in a formation to replicate his profile.
“The Man of the Crowd” group focuses on the manner in which ordinary citizens, often idealized figures, have been used to symbolize causes or countries in poster art. Standouts are stalwart figures representing German Nazis and Soviet Union Communists.
The scholarly catalog concludes with a discussion about the relevance of crowd-based political art in today’s information-based world. Will the future continue to be an era of crowds, with mass gatherings in city streets and public squares, even though virtual forms of assembly and political participation are on the rise? Exhibition organizer Schnapp leaves that question hanging, but in his show he provides powerful documentation of the power and appeal of the political poster in the turbulent years 1914 to 1989.
The 158-page exhibition catalog makes for pretty dense reading, but is beautifully illustrated. Published by Skira in association with the Cantor Arts Center, it is priced at $32.95 (softcover).
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