history and influence: the art of war in the 1910s

Back the Bayonets

1918 • CWR Nevinson - One of the more progressive designs of the British WWI propaganda campaigns, this poster displays strong Vorticist elements in it typography and diagonal bayonets against the sky (3). The original design was a self-promotional poster made by the artist and later commandeered by war poster artists for propaganda purposes.

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.

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