They are just posters. However, they reflected a Europe in anguish. Posters preserved from the First World War’s aftermath recall great propaganda art as well as the desperate years that produced it. This kind of art is harsh but compelling work thrown upon the walls and billboards of European countries during the turbulent, explosive years of 1918-1922.They were almost all propaganda reflecting competing ideologies that quickly polarized after this time. However, they are also a vivid form of pictorial shorthand for recording the history of a tragic era.The rabid incitement to violence in many of these posters served only to foment further incitements on the opposite side, until the battle of the posters led to physical battles in the streets.
While the United States was developing new models of propaganda, based on a mass consumer model, the Europeans were engaged in a more visceral form of art designed to stop a person in his tracks, their meaning unmistakeable in almost any language differing from the more subtile American tack.
”The control of the perceptions, thoughts and beliefs of entire populations is now not only possible, but remarkably easy. Bernays calls it the “engineering of consent”.
Those who manipulate the unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. We are governed, our minds molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society. In almost every act of our lives whether in the sphere of politics or business in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires that control the public mind. (Edward Bernays)
As Bernays recognized, the most powerful tool with which to control a population is fear and an easily indentifiable, dehumanized enemy is needed to provoke that fear.
Above: On a devastated land, at war’s end, a songbird heralds a new day of peace. The poster was drawn by Steinlen, a name in French poster art second only to Toulouse-Lautrec, to raise money for the Liberated Provinces. ”Let your aid to our unhappy brothers be generous”
This poster art is about war, aftermath of war, hunger, unemployment, age old resentments, brand new remedies, ephemeral hopes, and lingering despair. In short, they reflect all the ambiguous promises and defeated illusions of the time that liquidated the First World War and laid the foundation for the second. We, in North America, are familiar with many of the details, but not really with the method of telling it, for posters like these are peculiarly European. Such mordant images have seldom accosted the passer-by in an American street. This may be good for political stability, but it creates a feeling of insularity and naivety that makes comprehension of the Old War and its form of tribal and sectarian violence a challenge. While American women, below, were being urged to light ”torches of freedom”, Europeans were throwing lit bombs in the streets.
It is otherwise in Europe, where every shifting allegiance and emerging emotion has been recorded with searing precision on vacant walls and kiosks from Moscow, to Vienna and Paris. Recorded, but not well preserved. For the poster is a fragile and transient art, committed to perishable materials. It is the prey of rain, wind, sun, and eventual indifference. Only a few scattered efforts have been made to preserve its works, though many of them have artistic as well as cultural and historical value.
The Red Tide sweeping across Europe was the threat of a new conflagration overtaking an old. The Bolsheviks often assailed the triumvirate of Czar , Priest and Rich man who rode on the shoulders of the workers and peasants over a destroyed earth. Inflammatory rhetoric.
The era covered by these posters opened in the immediate post war period with carefully marshaled patriotism that had sustained the Allied nations through the end of the exhausting war. The war’s progress had been glacial in its slowness; patience was running out and people had high expectations for the ”peace dividend” . But, one more appeal was made for unity, for dedication, and above all, for funds. ”Liberation” still meant emancipation from the Kaiser’s hosts, though Woodrow Wilson had altered the definition. To him it meant not only liberation from, but liberty ”to be” on your own, even if this meant proclaiming new national identities irrespective of the past.