The poster holds an unassuming yet highly impactful place in the history of art and design. Created as public display ephemera for a variety of purposes – from product advertising to political campaigning – posters have long provided an economical and visually powerful mode of public communication.
Although poster design was already somewhat recognized within the art world of the early 1900s, its importance as a political tool was established by the ubiquitous government-sponsored poster art of the two World Wars. These posters, both in America and abroad, served a unique and challenging purpose, to “make coherent and acceptable a basically incoherent and irrational ordeal of killing, suffering and destruction that violates every accepted principle of morality and decent living” (1). To do this successfully required refined artistic skill and ingenuity from a broad range of artists.
War posters of all countries and eras are remarkably similar in their foundations, both ideological and iconographical. These posters invariably seek to: improve national morale; urge citizens to enlist or provide financial support for the war; encourage frugality and productivity among the populace at home; promote conservation of resources to provide material support to the war; and discourage the enemy whenever possible (1).
Specific visual devices used to accomplish these goals during and immediately following WWI included: images and/or quotations from beloved national leaders; utilization of culture-specific emotive symbols; memorable slogans; reference to cultural myths and metaphors; semiotic illustration; and dehumanization of the enemy (1). Although the underlying principles were essentially the same, specific styles and aesthetics varied greatly from country to country.
The War to End All Wars
When WWI broke out in Europe in August 1914, the involved powers all expected a brief conflict, a decisive victory, and that the war would “be over by Christmas” (2). Instead, a stalemate ensued, followed by four years of horrific carnage in the nearly immobile trenches at the front lines. To sustain and supply such a prolonged war effort, governments enlisted the efforts of illustrators and artists to create posters that could communicate efficiently to a worried and sometimes skeptical public. At this point, the word “propaganda” actually had a positive implication of public information, as opposed to the negative association with falsehood and deception that arose with the Nazis in WWII (2). The posters produced in the propaganda effort during WWI set a benchmark for the evolving advertising industry; first, it provided a memorable example of the organizing power of advertising, and secondly it set the standard of psychological advertising, using powerful subconscious emotive imagery to compel people to action (3). The propaganda posters of WWI, as well as some of the posters created in fragile new countries immediately following the war, are both beautiful and impactful, forever leaving their mark on the world of art and design.
Propaganda in Europe and the British Empire
European WWI posters generally reflected the international art movements of the time. Art Nouveau lingered in many designs, but had been abandoned by most artists in favor of post-impressionism and, less commonly, the more experimental styles of cubism and futurism (3).
In France, however, commercial design had little impact on war poster design. French poster artists were mid-career, classically trained painters, using high art conventions and illustration styles derived from eighteenth-century classicism and nineteenth-century realism (4). As a result, the aesthetic of French posters did not generally reflect the progressive avant-garde, and instead relied on the visual conventions of classical painting. French typography of the time, though not exceptional, was skillful and professional, and most poster designs displayed mastery of lithographic technique (3).
German poster design probably displayed the most progressive artistic elements of all European WWI posters, both in terms of imagery and typography. The provisional socialist government of Germany decided that its people would be most persuaded by avant-garde design, and many German posters utilized expressionist and futurist visuals (4), as illustrated right. Furthermore, German and Austrio-Hungarian design displayed the most distinguished typography among WWI posters, presumably because several of their prominent poster designers were also accomplished typographers (3).
It is also worth noting that while America, France, and Great Britain commonly used dehumanizing, violent imagery to incite anger and hatred against the enemy, Austria-Hungary and Germany generally refrained from such tactics during WWI (3).
In the British Empire, the WWI propaganda campaign started under the auspices of the Parliamentary Recruiting Committee and initially struck an advertorial tone, drawing upon fine art style and utilizing optimistic nationalist imagery to appeal to the moral virtues of potential recruits; one of the most powerful calls for men to enlist involved a sense of fighting a “just war” against an immoral opponent (4).
Unlike WWII, involvement in which presented a clear moral imperative for the Allied powers, the complex national motivations for military action in WWI were more ambiguous. Thus a need arose for a rousing, albeit largely unsuccessful, recruiting effort in Britain.
Although lacking any discernible overarching strategy, the British recruitment posters did employ similar persuasive elements throughout the campaign, including: an absence of graphic violence (with a couple notable exceptions of posters in British colonies overseas); portrayal of military life as exciting, fulfilling and secure; utilizing open visual space for the viewer to insert himself into the scene, as pictured left; and the use of shame or flattery (4).
Other WWI posters in Britain, like in most of the warring countries, urged citizens to support the war effort at home through frugality, productivity, and investment in war savings certificates. To generalize, British WWI posters used direct, immediate, and impactful designs. Although a handful of artists distinguished themselves with the use of modern art technique, as pictured left, most British posters struck an advertorial tone, utilizing a naturalistic style coupled with the visual rhetoric of exaggeration and simplification (4).Typography was generally poor, as type choices were often left to the printers, and designers’ choices were regularly overruled (3).
Propaganda in the Soviet Union
Russia entered the war in 1914 in response to Austria-Hungary’s declaration of war on Serbia after the assassination in Sarajevo of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria. Most of the propaganda developed by the Russian government in support of WWI was traditional and utilized fine art conventions.
However, Russia failed to remain involved in WWI until its conclusion, due primarily to internal unrest. As the Tsar remained at the front, Empress Alexandra’s incompetent governance led to growing protests in Russian cities.
In March 1917, demonstrations in Petrograd culminated a political coup by the Bolsheviks and the creation of a provisional government which shared power with the Soviet socialists. This created confusion and chaos in Russia and on the war front. The military’s effectiveness suffered as a result, and Russia’s involvement in WWI became increasingly unpopular among the citizenry. In 1918, Russia withdrew from WWI by signing the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk.
These political and social developments were significant to the art and design world because the most notable Russian design of the WWI era was created not in support of WWI itself, but in response to the Russian Revolution and internal unrest. The image shown above demonstrates the beginnings of Russian Constructivism, which combined the formal principles of Suprematism with a proactive orientation toward production (5). The resulting aesthetic, visually emphasizing strong diagonal composition, flat color planes, and geometric design elements, later influenced German De Stijl and Bauhaus designs. A result of the movement’s revolutionary beginnings, Constructivism embodied a strong belief in design as a force of social change, and designs often blurred the line between fine art and applied art (5).
Propaganda in the United States
The United States was a latecomer to the Great War in 1917. Public support for involvement in a complex foreign war was fragile at best, and America remained neutral for the first three years of war. Americans watched with a mixture of shock and bittersweet satisfaction as the autocratic imperial powers of Europe set upon each other with brutal force in the trenches and open seas (7). Germany’s decision to use unrestricted submarine warfare, as well as the sinking of the British ship the Lusitania which killed 128 Americans, played a major role in Woodrow Wilson’s decision to enter the war, and a propaganda campaign ensued to prepare the army – and the nation – for war.
American art up until that point had remained largely uninfluenced by the European avant-garde movements, and instead adhered largely to a painterly, naturalistic aesthetic as pictured left (7). In fact, the sentiment toward progressive European movements such as Dada, Cubism, and Futurism was decidedly negative; Theodore Roosevelt referred to modernist artists as “the lunatic fringe,” and an art critic for the New York Herald wrote, “The United States is invaded by aliens, thousands of whom constitute so many perils to the health of the body politic. Modernism is of precisely the same heterogeneous alien origin and is imperiling the republic of art in the same way” (7).
With the exception of a few posters that hinted at Art Nouveau, most American WWI posters were illustrative and relied on traditional painting as a visual model (7). Images of heroism and bravery were coupled with hand-drawn lettering in a humanist mode, and portrayed the war as a battle between democracy and the forces of destruction (5).
Like in Europe, American propaganda served several purposes in WWI: to urge men to enlist, to encourage frugality and the preservation of resources for the war, and to convince viewers to purchase war bonds.
Probably the most famous American poster design of all time, pictured above, was a recruitment poster based on a previous British design. Its creator, James Montgomery Flagg, later recounted his participation in the propaganda campaign with some melancholy, stating, “A number of us who were too old or too scared to fight prostituted our talents by making posters inciting a large mob of young men who had never done anything to us to hop over and get shot at… We sold the war to youth” (8).
- Crawford, Anthony R. ed. Posters of World War I and World War II in the George C. Marshall Research Foundation. Charlottesville: The University Press of Virginia, 1979. Print.
- Manion, Mary. “World War I poster art rooted in propaganda.” Antique Trader Weekly 16 June 2010: 11+. General OneFile. Web. 6 Nov. 2011.
- Darracott, Joseph. ed. The First World War in Posters. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1974. Print.
- Aulich, Jim and John Hewitt. Seduction or Instruction? First World War Posters in Britain and Europe. Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press, 2007. Print.
- Drucker, Johanna and Emily McVarish. Graphic Design History: A Critical Guide. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc., 2008. Print.
- Oxford University Press. “El Lissitzky.” MoMA Collection: Art Terms. Museum of Modern Art. Web. 11 November, 2011.
- Rawls, Walton. Wake Up, America! World War I and the American Poster. New York: Abbeville Press, 1988. Print.
- Tungate, Mark. Adland: a Global History of Advertising. London/Philadelphia: Kogan Page Limited, 2007. Print.
- Museum of Modern Art. “Heinz Fuchs.” MoMA Collection: German Expressionism. Web. 11 November, 2011.