This winter, we’ve acquired a collection of 18 historic works of propaganda poster art from the late 1800s through the 1950s from America, Europe, and Russia, including campaign posters, humanitarian appeals, and war propaganda. Together, they offer a vital glimpse into the pathos and concerns that afflicted civilians and governments alike. At the time, these posters were not meant as fodder for intellectual discourse—rather, they were emotional spurs to rouse fury, indignance, terror, pity, hope, ambition, pride, and compassion in viewers to compel them to action. Today, more than ever, these artifacts are crucial, missing jigsaw pieces in our cultural memory. The below sampling offers a preview of the very important story told by the full collection: insights into what people on the streets of the early 20th century saw, and felt, as the world turned upside down around them. It will be of exceptional interest to cultural historians, art enthusiasts, partisans, antique collectors, and anyone who wishes to better understand the history of our current political and media environment—and how we got here.
20 x 29 7/8 in./51 x 76 cm
“When asked what part food would play in the war, [Belgian Relief director Herbert] Hoover told the president that ‘second only to military action it was the dominant factor.’ Because of desperate food shortages in Europe, it was understood that America must find a way to feed the Allies–she already supplied wheat for ninety-percent of Britain’s daily bread. The generosity and compassion of the American people and the great agricultural resources of the North American continent… would be called upon… Twenty million Americans signed pledges of membership in the Food Administration, which obligated them to conserve scarce food so that our Allies in Europe would not have to go hungry. In addition to meat and eggs, Americans were urged to cut back on wheat, the single most vital food item… Meatless and wheatless days each week were patriotically subscribed to by America’s families” (Rawls, p. 112-115). This was one of the many posters published by the U.S. Food Administration aimed at pleasing recent immigrants with an inspiring New York harbor scene that shows the Statue of Liberty and lower Manhattan shimmering under a patriotic rainbow. The poster was produced in a total of five languages: English, Italian, Spanish, Hungarian, and Yiddish.
37 1/4 x 27 3/8 in./94.5 x 69.7 cm
The 1920s propaganda campaign, “Reich Committee for the German referendum,” or “Reichsausschuss,” aimed to hold a referendum on the acceptance or rejection of the Young Plan—the last of the post-World War I reparations plans that regulated the payment obligations of the German Reich on the basis of the Treaty of Versailles. Here, the tumultuous affair is rendered as a bloodied scene, in which a wagon carrying a mother and child are being tugged from either side, supposedly by figures of good and evil. The text below reads, “Vote ‘yes’ at the people’s referendum to get out of filth, misery, and suffering.”
37 x 54 7/8 in./94 x 139.5 cm
Leidreiter designed two posters for this Austrian Expressionist film (see No. 81). Director H. K. Breslauer based the movie off of the 1922 novel of the same name by Hugo Bettauer. Despite the suggestive title, the story was not advocating for “Die Stadt Ohne Juden,” or “The City Without Jews,” but was meant as satirical entertainment in response to anti-Semitism—unfortunately, it did become a surprisingly accurate allegorical vision of the future. The book and film were incredibly popular, but Bettauer was sadly murdered shortly after the film premiere by a former member of the Nazi party. This color advertisement presents a terrifying figure looming over the city like a ghost, who seems to be ushering a mass exodus of Jews from the city.
21 3/8 x 28 in./54.4 x 71 cm
Though it may at first appear to be an advertisement for a camera, this Russian constructivist photomontage is actually encouraging citizens to have their photographic documentation registered—”acquire photographic obligations in the State Worker’s Savings Banks,” it declares. It’s quite the stylish propaganda for a government regulation that is “at the service of socialist construction”—and exemplifies the impact of avant garde Russian artists of the time.
28 7/8 x 41 3/8 in./73.4 x 105 cm
“A Latvian subject of the Russian empire, Gustav Klutsis came to Russia proper during the 1917 Revolution as part of a volunteer machine-gunner unit that helped to topple the czar and safeguard the new Soviet leaders, including Vladimir Lenin. Klutsis had studied painting at home and continued in art schools during and after his military service, ending up at the radically progressive Higher State Artistic and Technical Workshops (VKhUTEMAS)—the cradle of Constructivism. By the early 1920s, Klutsis had worked his way through the rigorous exploration of elemental shapes and basic materials called for by that movement and began to put the Constructivist ethos of honesty and utility to use in agitational propaganda… Klutsis brought photomontage to its peak of expression in posters from 1930 and after that blended workers’ bodies (in some cases his own) and their machines with the heads of leaders of the Soviet state to forge a collective juggernaut for modernization. These posters, printed in the tens of thousands, helped transform the Soviet visual landscape in the early Stalinist era. Nevertheless, Klutsis was killed along with scores of other Latvians on Stalin’s orders during purges later in the decade” (Art Institute of Chicago). The text here reads, “With the efforts of millions of workers involved in the socialist competition, we will convert the five-year plan into a four-year plan.” Rare!
25 5/8 x 36 5/8 in./65 x 93 cm
Directed by Genika, “City Under Attack” was a 1933 Russian film that loosely centered around aerial combat between Soviet and enemy sources. Though little more is known of the actual plot, this poster is certainly alluring, and makes great use of Constructivist photomontage aesthetics.
24 1/4 x 36 3/4 in./61.6 x 93.4 cm
If the giant red ‘X’ is any indication, this advertisement is for a 1931 Russian socialist-realist drama—”Strakh” (“Fear”), a four-act play by Aleksandr Nikolayevich Afinogenov. His protagonist was a pre-Revolutionary intellectual who refuses to accept the dictatorship of the proletariat, and has developed a scientific theory that fear determines man’s conduct even more than the basic needs of hunger, love, and hate. After receiving backlash for his suggestions to the government, he is imprisoned—but upon release, becomes submissive to the party. Afinogenov was also a rebel of sorts: after 15 years as a member of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, he was expelled for his radical thinking. He was also a member and director of the Proletkult theatre, an experimental creative organization that aspired to radically modify existing art forms by creating a new and revolutionary working-class aesthetic. Though he died in 1941 at the age of 37, he wrote 26 plays, and was quite popular with empathetic audiences.
28 x 40 1/2 in./71.2 x 10.3 cm
Displaying both power and beauty, this woman represents the Women Ordnance Workers—an integral part of the war effort wherein working class women left domestic service to assemble munitions in rural factories. This job was incredibly dangerous, as a minor mistake could lead to an explosion on the job or a misfire abroad. This is one of a series of posters published by the Ordnance Department of the United States Army.
28 1/2 x 40 3/8 in./72.4 x 102.5 cm
As a solemn reminder of the Pearl Harbor attack—and as an effort to promote patriotism—Bernard Perlin has depicted a sailor with his fists clenched, looming above a sinking naval ship. Perlin attended the New York School of Design, National Academy of Design, and the New York Arts Student League before joining the Office of War Information in 1942. He created a wide array of WWII-related posters during this time, and continued to create paintings and advertisements for the Government after the war ended.
In-gallery viewing February 8 to 23 (daily 11am-6pm)