Posters of the Great War - An Exhibition

Introduction | Acknowledgments | Artists and the Posters
Island 1 | Island 2 | Island 3 | Island 4

Artists and the Posters

The artists of the Great War, like the writers, faced an unprecedented challenge to match aesthetic technique with world events.  The war years were a transitional period in the history of Western art, as Modernism displaced academic traditions dominant since the Renaissance.  This exhibition shows the variety of artistic modes—advertising, art lithography, the heroic tradition, and emergent modernism—that artists used to confront the world crisis of the war.  

The earliest posters on display, from 1914 and 1915, emphasize text over image, and some of the earliest war posters were wholly typographic.  Where these early posters have illustrations, these often echo the political caricatures of such 19th-century artists as John Tenniel in Britain or Honore Daumier in France.

As the scope of the war, and the significance of war propaganda, became apparent, French artists looked to the academic tradition for its presentation of war as heroic and mythic. The old European academies of fine art had provided a clear hierarchy of subject matter.  Nicolas Poussin, one of the founders of the French Academy under Louis XIV, wrote, “The first thing . . . required is that the subject-matter shall be grand, as are battles, heroic actions, and divine things.”    While the war itself reached stalemate, the artists posed small groups of Allied soldiers striving successfully ever upward in "un dernier effort" for "la croisade du droit."  Historical battle painting is echoed in D. Chavannaz's poster of cavalry awaiting battle with raised lances.  Human figures were juxtaposed with the allegories of national symbolism—eagles, lions, and cockerels.  As losses mounted, the academic tradition also provided artists such as Maurice Romberg and Lucien Jonas with a traditional imagery of suffering in the Madonna-like pose of a bereaved mother cradling orphaned children.

The Great War technologized warfare with machine guns, barbed wire, gas, tanks, and airplanes.  Poster art also utilized technical innovation through lithography.  The artistic possibilities of the medium had been explored by such 19th-century masters as Edward Delacroix and Daumier.  By the 1890's, the French artists Jules Cheret and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, the Czech Alphonse Mucha, and the American Edward Penfield had married lettering and images to advertise both entertainment (caberet and circus) and commercial products.  Before radio, lithography was a primary vehicle for advertisers, with designs influenced by the colorful shapes and flattened perspectives from Japanese prints.  War posters in the current exhibit show lithographs drawn directly on the stone (as in the four French posters by Jonas) and posters employing offset lithography, first introduced commercially by the American Ira W. Rubel in 1904.

In the United States, the dividing line between the fine and commercial arts was less rigid than in Europe.  Poster design, like book illustration, attracted talented artists such as Howard Chandler Christy and James Montgomery Flagg, trained in thebeaux arts tradition.  As one of their contemporaries observed, their posters were not to be dismissed as "potboilers": "the dignity of the intention ennobles the result."  The most effective of the American posters, like Joseph Pennell's haunting image of the Statue of Liberty under German air attack, combine the visual power of the modern poster with a moral or ethical message.

War posters were art with a purpose.  They helped counter the shortages of enlistees, war materials, and cash in the central banks.   Images of saintly nurses, suffering mothers, and inspiring goddesses motivated masculine patriotism.  As the conflict ground on, more realistic images of war-weary infantry-men and even maimed heroes sought to strengthen civilian resolve.

If we approach the posters of the Great War only through nostalgia, they may now appear to be artifacts from a simpler age.  Neither the artists nor the war were simple.  These posters show the power of lithographic art, making visual the attitudes, ideals and contemporary understanding of World War I and foreshadowing art's role in war propaganda through the war-torn century that followed.

 —Jay Williams
McKissick Museum



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