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Graphic images hit the target
By John McDonald
Spectrum
18 Jun 2011

Everybody knows the classic war posters. Uncle Sam points at the viewer, announcing “I Want YOU for US Army”. It’s not subtle; it’s not even original. In a poster by the British artist Alfred Leete, issued in 1914, Lord Kitchener pointed in the same…read more…

 

 

 

 

Depictions of the ‘evil enemy’ carry a powerful message in times of conflict – though humour can work, too.

Everybody knows the classic war posters. Uncle Sam points at the viewer, announcing “I Want YOU for US Army”. It’s not subtle; it’s not even original. In a poster by the British artist Alfred Leete, issued in 1914, Lord Kitchener pointed in the same manner at the citizens of Great Britain. It would be three years before Uncle Sam got the idea.
Images from War Posters
Keeping it simple . . . posters were an important weapon in the battle for hearts and minds.
This was a rare instance of Britain being more direct than the US. For the most part, the Poms were somewhat reticent with their appeals to patriotic sentiment.
The Americans, by contrast, had a highly developed advertising industry willing to do whatever it took to sell a product. Whether that commodity was soap powder or war bonds, the methods were pretty much the same.
One of the discoveries in this fascinating anthology of war posters is the degree to which national characteristics influenced the design of propaganda, even if the formula was not successful. In World War I, the Germans relied on a heavy, oldfashioned graphic style that they saw as a reflection of traditional Kultur. The French built on the graphic traditions of the Parisian poster artists of the 19th century such as Toulouse Lautrec and Cheret, but with equally nostalgic appeals to the ideals of liberty, equality, fraternity.
Amid these heavy-handed assertions of national pride, it’s startling to find that one of the most popular British posters of World War I featured a smiling Tommy lighting a pipe, with the caption “Arf a ‘mo’ Kaiser!” The original purpose of the picture was to raise funds to buy tobacco for the troops, but it quickly became a popular rallying point, an assertion of British pluck and defiance. It was also humorous – a rare quality among war posters, which were usually intent on vilifying the enemy or trying to make life at the front seem like a summer holiday.
We know that in war the first casualty is truth, but “Arf a ‘mo’ Kaiser!” projected a bluff honesty. Amid all the monstrosities, including Norman Lindsay’s image of a bloodstained ape in a German helmet reaching out to grab the planet, the irreverent Tommy struck a sympathetic chord.
This brisk survey of a crowded field has been put together by James Aulich on behalf of the Imperial War Museum, London, as a kind of greatest hits package. The text is little more than a summary of the nature of war posters from World War I to the present day, when protest images are spread virally and downloaded in any part of the world.
Aulich samples those posters that present only positive, uplifting images and those that dwell on tragedy and defeat as a way of mobilising public sentiment. He looks at the politics of hatred and xenophobia, and the heroisation of national types. He looks at the strenuous efforts made to draw women into the workforce, to shame dissenters into joining the army and to encourage a newfound harmony between workers and bosses. The ruling idea was national unity: “We’re all in this together.” Selling this message required a form of imagery that transcended age-old divisions of class and wealth.
The advances made by women in the workforce and ideals of social equality would linger in the postwar world. So, too, would the lessons advertising agencies learnt from the laboratory of the war years.