japonisme: war, part 1

24 May 2008

war, part 1

this has been a fascinating and disturbing direction my brain has led me into. we've talked about the strong influence of the japanese prints (particularly those of kabuki actors) on the new generation of german poster artists. simplification of image and space, outlines, and a hand-lettered style to the words. (and i only now just have realized that the handlettering blossomed so widely in germany because they already had a whole calligraphy in use in the early part of the century!)

then came world war one. countries around the world utilized the talents of the best illustrators, designers, and poster artists to send whatever message that government wanted to send to its people.

The absence of public unity was a primary concern when America entered the war on April 6, 1917. In Washington, unwavering public support was considered to be crucial to the entire wartime effort. On April 13, 1917, Wilson created the Committee on Public Information (CPI) to promote the war domestically while publicizing American war aims abroad. Under the leadership of a muckraking journalist named George Creel, the CPI recruited heavily from business, media, academia, and the art world. The CPI blended advertising techniques with a sophisticated understanding of human psychology, and its efforts represent the first time that a modern government disseminated propaganda on such a large scale. It is fascinating that this phenomenon, often linked with totalitarian regimes, emerged in a democratic state.

The CPI did not limit its promotional efforts to the written word. The Division of Pictorial Publicity "had at its disposal many of the most talented advertising illustrators and cartoonists of the time," and these artists worked closely with publicity experts in the Advertising Division. Newspapers and magazines eagerly donated advertising space, and it was almost impossible to pick up a periodical without encountering CPI material. Powerful posters, painted in patriotic colors, were plastered on billboards across the country. Even from the cynical vantage point of the mid 1990s, there is something compelling about these images that leaps across the decades and stirs a deep yearning to buy liberty bonds or enlist in the navy. 1

it didn't take very long for something to smack me in the face. these "very american" posters, designed by the likes of edward penfield, cole phillips, and cb falls, looked more like those posters of "our enemy" in this war: germany!

and of course some of the artists enlisted there for this are just those we've discussed so often. we've got lucian bernhard, julius klinger, and julius engelhard, along with others. we'll see more, from all sides, in further posts.

it's all there -- the flat planes of color, the outlines, the lettering, the elongated shapes, and the black. war posters were designed to catch the eye and to deliver an important message quickly, just like a poster advertising anything else. if the powers that be want you to use certain products and not others, if they wanted to employ you to fight, or if they wanted you to make you feel personally liable for your family's very lives, here was their tool.

the things i can never get used to are the tragic ironies. it's ironic if not tragic, that we in the US borrowed for our advantage the very tool of the other side, and often pictured them in a rather unflattering light.

and then there are the tragic. "Julius Klinger was a German artist of Jewish descent who worked for Jugend for several years, from 1896 to 1903, at the beginning of his artistic career. He later went on to be a formative force in advertising art, and ultimately died during World War II, probably at the hands of the Nazis."2

and of lucian bernhard -- his influential style brought him invitations from the united states. "Urban areas became hotbeds of advertising: bold, reductive graphic imagery was necessary to capture the viewer's attention on crowded poster hoardings. Bernhard's Sachplakat epitomized his new form, which also included other kinds of imagery in which unusually bright, yet aesthetically pleasing colors replace more subtle hues. Text was pared to a minimum."

in the early 1920s hitler was substantially increasing his power, so when bernhard, also of jewish descent) received an invitation to teach and work in new york, he made the move. "Bernhard was shuttled around the country to promote his own work and perhaps convince American art directors to consider modern design as an alternative to the overly rendered, often saccharine, painted illustration that represented American practice." 3

apparently, though, the word had already gotten through. artists in america were using the tools of the germans to fight the germans who went on to banish the ones that made the tools in the first place. now just how ironic is that.

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Blogger Roxana said...

this is so fascinating! I wonder how and where you find all this. and all the connections you make... I was pasticualry moved by this phrase: the things i can never get used to are the tragic ironies.

25 May, 2008 07:32  
Blogger lotusgreen said...

oh i'm so glad, roxy--i'm always a little afraid i'm the only one who finds it interesting.

notes on process: well, the library of congress has a huge world war I poster collection online, and there are lots of sites with even more.

the info is gathered by reading sites on the subject, by reading my books (in this case "the poster in history," and just by looking.

the influences were obvious, and the facts are available, and i'd come across them by bits and pieces over the months. then suddenly it all comes together.


25 May, 2008 07:53  
Blogger Diane Dehler said...

Art is such a brave flower. It even flourishes in war, it drinks blood at times rather than water, and relentlessly and without remorse demands to belong to everyone.

Your prolific knowledge makes original artistic connections and for singular essays.

28 May, 2008 22:47  
Blogger lotusgreen said...

that is put so beautifully, princess--thanks. good thoughts.

29 May, 2008 10:58  

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