The 1930s and 1940s have been referred to as “a golden age of graphic art in the service of society.” Nowhere is this more evident than in the expansive collection of posters commissioned by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) under the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. (5)
These posters were in many ways unlikely candidates for noteworthy design. Created primarily to provide work for unemployed artists, many feared government sponsorship of art would stifle creativity. Furthermore, American design lacked a unified style at the time, instead borrowing aesthetics from European movements.
However, what emerged from the WPA poster division was both creative and innovative, producing a body of poster art described at the time as “more vital than any this country has ever known.” (2,9)
The Federal Art Project + the Poster Division
The WPA was the largest agency in Roosevelt’s New Deal, and it put unemployed artists to work through the Federal Art Project (FAP). As described by WPA official Bruce McClure in a 1935 New York Times article, the primary goal of the FAP was to “provide useful work at their usual occupations for the thousands of writers, artists, musicians and actors throughout the country who have been forced to accept public relief and whose creative gifts have suffered from unemployment.” (8)
But the creation of the FAP also arose from a democratic philosophy that the spiritual and aesthetic pleasures of art should be made available not only to the privileged elite, but to the masses. McClure expounded upon this goal in his article, writing that the FAP would serve also to “provide encouragement to the free growth of artistic expression and… make the finest products of our native artistic genius available to every one.” (2, 8 )
Furthermore, McClure wrote that the FAP projects were “planned in the belief that the artist’s contribution to a ‘full and abundant life’ for the American people is both vital and significant and that a discriminating and sympathetic public is necessary to the development of a national art.” Clearly, the motivation behind the FAP extended beyond mere employment to a deeply held philosophy about the role of art in American society. (8)
In 1935, the poster division of the FAP was born in New York City, which was widely regarded as the artistic center of the United States. The division was at first a small operation comprised of painters who painstakingly recreated posters by hand, and its scope was limited by the small output possible through such means. However, the application of commercial silkscreening processes to poster production, called serigraphy (see sidebar), allowed the division to grow rapidly. By 1938, poster division branches had been established in eighteen states. (2, 6)
The services of FAP poster artists were made available to any government agency requiring public display art. Posters were recognized not only as a powerful means of communication between government and citizenry, but also as a means of visually enriching the public sphere. Between 1935 and 1942, the agency’s poster division produced approximately two million printed posters based on over thirty-five thousand designs. The poster division was charged with producing posters to promote a wide range of programs, activities, and behaviors that the Roosevelt administration believed were important, including but not limited to: community involvement, education, health and hygiene, a strong work ethic, cultural experiences, art exhibits, sports, domestic travel, and conservation of natural resources. (2, 4, 6)
Many of the designs were both aesthetically powerful and formally innovative. Concerns that government oversight would stifle creativity quickly dissolved as artists explored new territory and produced groundbreaking designs. Freed from the constraints of a sales-driven commercial structure, artists experienced an unprecedented creative freedom within the poster divisions to experiment with typography, colors, visual styles and techniques. This freedom was due in part to the experimental and progressive nature of the New Deal government itself, and in part also to the leadership of encouraging FAP administrators. (2, 6, 9)
Richard Floethe, an administrator for the New York poster division beginning in 1936, was especially instrumental in fostering an atmosphere of adventurous creative experimentation and collaboration among poster artists. A graduate of the Bauhaus, Floethe brought many of its visual innovations to the FAP poster division, and as a result, the poster artists were in many ways at the forefront of incorporating various progressive international design strategies. (2, 6)
The poster division artists utilized concepts from European modernism and combined them with the two major trends in American art at the time; social consciousness and “American Scene” regionalism and agrarianism. Their artwork exhibited elements of surrealism, naturalism, cubism, collage, and elements from other modern art movements. (9)
Steven Heller wrote of the posters’ impact on American design styles, “America never had a truly national design style… but the W.P.A. posters came close to imposing an aesthetic — an amalgam of modernistic, classical and even frontier typefaces and flat, sometimes abstract but mostly representational artwork.” (5)
Author and professor Stephen Duncombe claimed the posters obtained their own aesthetic when he wrote, “…also evident is the development of a unique American poster aesthetic, the bold strokes of modernist design softened with an almost nostalgic depiction of the people and places of the United States.” (4)
The See America Campaign
One of the distinctive campaigns produced by the FAP poster division was the “See America” campaign. During a time when most Americans could not afford to travel abroad and much of Europe and Asia were embroiled in war, The U.S. Travel Bureau enlisted the help of FAP poster division artists to encourage domestic tourism.
Through their choices of imagery, color, composition, and type, the poster artists revealed a deep appreciation for the diverse American landscape. Furthermore, the posters encapsulated a strong theme underlying many of the FAP posters: the display of landscapes of grandiose proportions and immense physical challenge reaffirms America as a land of personal opportunity. More than that, the posters urged Americans to rediscover the landscape as a catalyst for much-needed spiritual rebirth in a time of economic crisis. (2)
These posters also held social and racial significance, reflecting a democratic optimism and nostalgia for a perceived authenticity in history that was rooted in Native American and African American tradition. Cory Pillen wrote that the See America posters “equated tourism with a knowledge of the nation that extends beyond the topography of the land.” (10)
Illustrating historical sites, popular cultural attractions, and natural landmarks, the series links national identity with a shared history as well as geography. In promoting destinations that represented the nation’s past and present, the collection exemplifies the depression era search for a usable past that could ameliorate social tensions and unite Americans by recovering and affirming national values.” Pillen explained further that many Americans “sought an alternative to the fragmentation and seemingly inauthentic experience of modern industrial life,” and strove to fulfill this longing by embracing what they viewed as a more authentic and primitive past. The “See America” posters tapped into this desire with imagery of teepees in Montana and other culturally suggestive icons. (10)
The Fate of the WPA Posters
By the end of the 1930s, many WPA projects had lost their funding, and their scope was greatly diminished. The FAP poster division remained alive only because it had been granted city sponsorship in New York under Mayor LaGuardia. In 1942, as the U.S. entered WWII, the FAP was transferred to the Department of Defense and became the Graphics Section of the War Services Division. The federal artists who remained produced some posters for the department, but their responsibilities expanded to include the creation of mess hall menus, window displays, camp insignia and other war-related materials. The aesthetic became rougher, and the products less well-designed. (2)
The WPA/FAP posters were, by nature, ephemeral. They were created to be displayed, consumed by the public, and subsequently torn down. And so they were. Out of the thirty-five thousand original designs, only about 2,000 have been preserved. You can view them at the Library of Congress website.
Perhaps these designs were discarded because of the lowly status of WPA art in general, or because of the belief that posters and other ephemera could not be classified among the ranks of art worth preserving. Whatever the reason for their relative obscurity, it is clear that these posters represent an important part of our national art heritage and are worthy of independent examination and appreciation. The posters demonstrated excellent design and craftsmanship, and facilitated important technical innovations. They were the product of talented and skilled artists working in a uniquely progressive and collaborative environment, providing occupation for influential artists who struggled in the Depression era. These posters not only provided a public service in raising awareness about social issues, but broadened public understanding of modern art principles and aesthetic. (2, 6)
1. Carter, Ennis. Posters for the People: Art of the WPA. Philadelphia: Quirk, 2008. Print.
2. DeNoon, Christopher. Posters of the WPA. Los Angeles: The Wheatley Press, 1987. Print.
3. Drucker, Johanna and Emily McVarish. Graphic Design History: A Critical Guide. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc., 2008. Print.
4. Duncombe, Stephen. “Posters for the People: Art of the WPA.” Afterimage Jan.-Feb. 2009: 42. General Reference Center GOLD. Web. 22 Oct. 2011.
5. Heller, Steven. “Visuals: Other Worlds.” The New York Times Book Review 7 Dec. 2008: 34(L). General OneFile. Web. 22 Oct. 2011.
6. Heyman, Therese Thau. Posters American Style. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1998. Print.
7. Library of Congress. “By the People, For the People: Posters of WPA.” Prints and Photographs Division website. Web. 18 Oct 2011.
8. McClure, Bruce. “FEDERAL RELIEF AIDS IN SERVICE OF ARTS.” New York Times (1923-Current file) Sep. 15, 1935. ProQuest Historical Newspapers. Web. 20 Oct. 2011.
9. McElvaine, Robert S. “Posters of the WPA.” Washington Monthly May 1988: 55+. InfoTrac Tourism, Hospitality & Leisure. Web. 19 Oct. 2011.
10. Pillen, Cory. “See America: WPA Posters and the Mapping of a New Deal Democracy.” Journal of American Culture 31.1 (2008): 49-65. Literary Reference Center. EBSCO. Web. 22 Oct. 2011.