October 31, 2011
By Mary Jo Gibson
This week’s Museum Monday takes a virtual tour of World War archives and propaganda, supplied by the Chicago Institute of Art, the British National Archives and the National Archives of the United States.
Propaganda of the World Wars is recognized in the form of war posters, but at the core is a style of communication aimed at influencing the attitude of a community toward some cause or position. Although propaganda is often used to manipulate human emotions by displaying facts selectively, it can also be effective at conveying messages. People encounter posters in places other media could not reach – schools, factories, offices, store windows and locations outside the scope of paid advertising. During WWI, posters were a primary form of public communication, but by 1940 posters had been supplanted by radio, movies and billboards.
The Ministry of Information, the central government department responsible for publicity and propaganda, was formed in Britain the day after their declaration of World War II. Their initial function was news and press censorship, home publicity and overseas publicity in allied and neutral countries. The website of the British National Archives contains a plethora of archival information, identifying the artists that worked during this crucial time, and separating the art into a short selection of tabs, each containing hundreds of images.
During WWII, the Soviet Union’s new agency, TASS, enlisted artists and writers to bolster the nation’s war effort. Working from Moscow, this studio produced hundreds of storefront window posters, one for nearly every day of the war. These posters, between five and ten feet tall, using the vibrancy and texture of the stencil medium, were sent abroad to serve as cultural ambassadors and to rally allied and neutral nations to the endeavors of the Soviet Union. The Tumblr page of the Chicago Art Institute shares over 80 images from their now closed exhibition “Windows on the War” illustrating the unique Soviet view of the Axis nations.
Tapping the creative energies of American artists, the Museum of Modern Art organized a National Defense Poster competition in 1941. The museum and two of the government’s largest users of posters, the Army Air Corps and the Treasury Department sponsored the contest. War bond posters called upon all citizens to share in “ownership” of the war, the Treasury Department financed the war through the sale of bonds and stamps to the public. Artists of the government sponsored Works Progress Administration (WPA) pioneered silkscreen techniques that simplified the serial production of colorful poster images. The artist Norman Rockwell also contributed to this artistic effort with the image of “Rosie the Riveter” on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post, promoting the change in the workforce.
Propaganda has been a human activity as far back as reliable evidence exists. Spreading beliefs and the tools to disseminate the information have taken many forms over the centuries, Henry VIII even use propaganda art in his regime. During the course of WWII, the Italians created virtually no art documenting the conflict, and the French began to paint the war only after it ended in 1945. Take the virtual tour of these individual sites and see the art that transformed the thought of the day, the message of the government communicating the changing times and the dramatic differences in the art.
Join me on Friday for my Cabinet of Curiosities! If you have any comments or suggestions you would like to share, please use the Observations box at the bottom of the page.
Until next time,