japonisme: 5/18/08 - 5/25/08

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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20 May 2008

play as haiku

liza's wonderful post about jello inspired my thinking, once again, about how artists, in the early part of the 20th century, brought illumination to the mundane -- the blurring of the line between fine and commercial art, as we have seen before as influenced by the japanese.

somehow i suddenly thought of the end of a play by thornton wilder:

From Our Town: Emily, a young mother who has died, has come back to earth for one day to spend time with her friends and family, who don't know she's there.

Emily: I can't. I can't go on. It goes so fast. We don't have time to look at one another. I didn't realize. So all that was going on and we never noticed. Take me back -- up the hill -- to my grave. But first, wait! One more look. Good-by; good-by, world; good-by, Grovers Corners. . . Mama and papa.

Good-by to clocks ticking. . . and Mama's sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new-ironed dresses and hot baths. . . and sleeping and waking up. Oh, earth, you're too wonderful for anybody to realize you. (She looks toward the stage manager and asks abruptly through her tears) Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it? -- every, every minute?

Stage Manager: No. (Pause) The saints and poets, maybe -- they do some.

Emily: I'm ready to go back.

it suddenly occurred to me that this was about consciousness, living in the moment -- in short, the teachings of buddhism.

"Opening in the first years of a new century, Our Town still speaks to us about the beauty and transience of life," says one critic. hmmm -- isn't that the essence of buddhist thought? the description of a haiku?

"Thornton Wilder, in his play, The Skin of Our Teeth, written in 1942, had one of his characters say this: 'My advice to you is not to inquire why or whither, but just enjoy your ice cream while it's on your plate -- that's my philosophy.'" and thich nhat hanh says, "Do not lose yourself in dispersion and in your surroundings. Practice mindful breathing to come back to what is happening in the present moment. Be in touch with what is wondrous, refreshing, and healing both inside and around you." he might as well just have come out and said ice cream.

wilder spent much of his childhood in china, and felt that japanese drama was a strong influence on his own, both in thought and in the minimalism of staging. he, along with the new poster artists, did one thing clearly: ennoble the everyday.

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18 May 2008

and one more for the road


It’s quarter to three,
There’s no one in the place ’cept you and me
So set ’em’ up joe
I got a little story I think you oughtta know

We’re drinking my friend
To the end of a brief episode
So make it one for my baby
And one more for the road

I know the routine
Put another nickel in that there machine
I’m feeling so bad
Won’t you make the music easy and sad

I could tell you a lot
But you gotta to be true to your code
So make it one for my baby
And one more for the road

You’d never know it
But buddy I’m a kind of poet
And I’ve got a lot of things I wanna say
And if I’m gloomy, please listen to me
Till it’s all, all talked away

Well, that’s how it goes
And joe I know you’re gettin’ anxious to close
So thanks for the cheer
I hope you didn’t mind
My bending your ear

But this torch that I found
It’s gotta be drowned
Or it soon might explode
So make it one for my baby
And one more for the road

Johnny Mercer & Harold Arlen (1943)

(this post is for amy!)

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