I have always been fascinated by the visual art of propaganda.
It is one of the oldest forms of visual communication —
…… older, even, than language itself.
From the earliest times, propagandists understood that the idiom of symbolism is a very effective way to provoke strong emotions.
The Pharoahs of ancient Egypt certainly used this principle–
What was the Sphinx, or the Great Pyramid,
…but a symbolic statement of their great wealth and strength?
” Fear me” , they say–
” Invade my lands at your own peril “.
And, a Maya skull rack —
…… a visitor from another village, friend or foe alike, would have no trouble interpreting it for what it is, and what it means.
All strong emotions like fear, pity, anger, hate, and love can all be manipulated through the use of some simple symbolic language.
And in no other medium, I believe, does the richness of symbolism come so vibrantly and clearly alive as in the great propaganda posters of the 20th century.
For a student of symbolism like myself, these posters are irresistable.
Of course, those who created them never intended for them to be analyzed –
–they are meant to cause a gut reaction —
an emotion —
that will lead you to an action — or to take up a cause.
You still see this kind of thing– all the time in fact—
TV is rife with moving image propaganda…
–that are really just expanded prop posters–
ever see that ASPCA commercial with the abused animals in small cages ——
or the Christian Childrens Fund spot with starving kids searching a dump for food?
Now, you may say something like “well, those are good causes…”
But, for those of us interested in how symbolism works,
– we’re not really interested in what it says –
we care what it MEANS.
The cause isn’t germane-
because these kinds of images are used for all kinds of causes- good or bad.
It’s not enough to understand the image as it’s presented.
To understand how the message is communicated-
–and what is being communicated under the surface,
you can’t just take these kinds of images at face value…
………………. the harder you look, the more you’ll see.
This is an image from the Polish-Bolshevik War (1919-1921)
It’s a pretty simple image — a Polish cavalryman smiting a Russian soldier.
The legend says “Fight Bolshevism”
But look closer.
The communist is drawn as a wild-eyed fanatic –
– a barely human-simian barbarian cowering in fear ….
Set upon by the righteous and inevitable victorious onslaught of the noble –
— and clean cut– defenders of civilized society…….
……… the well equipped and fearless Polish Army.
Of course, this war was a result of very complicated and long standing issues, impossible to be properly understood based on either a short hub page or a propaganda poster.
But an explanation of that conflict’s causation is not the intended function of either.
The poster’s creator does not seek to explain the rationale of the regime’s decision to wage war.
The artist is simply trying to provoke anger, fear, and hostility through the use of symbolic imagery.
American (Texaco) 1942
Here’s an example of reducing the enemy to the ridiculous.
Buckteeth, overlarge glasses, exaggerated features on a small face and frame,
and an ill fitting uniform — plus hands folded ……
Obviously, this Japanese Officer would like you to take the day off from the weapons plant and get some well earned rest.
But we see right through his nefarious scheme, and work extra overtime instead.
Psychologists suggest that portraying an enemy as cartoonish helps to create a feeling of:
1: confidence in victory- which improves morale —
2: a sense of superiority of the defending culture — which in turn, reiterates the importance of victory.
Makes ya run right out and sign up for some of that overtime…………….
China – 1955
Here you have the essence of what makes poster propanganda so persuasive…
all the emblems are here: beauty, youth, vigor, courage, homeland.
As usual, the legend only tells a small part of the overall message – translated it states:
“The motherland reconstructs, flowers are in full bloom, our vigilance is increased, we guard against tigers and wolves.”
Much of Chinese propaganda was directed at both internal and external targets-
you would see this kind of art on their international postage stamps for instance.
Its meaning to the outside world is meant as something like:
” Imperialists beware: we are reconstructing our society in the Maoist model.
The youth of both sexes from all regions of our land are well armed and united in the struggle against the aggressive and greedy enemies of our beautiful China.
We can do this without undue suffering or sacrifice – you are few and we are many.
We have no fear of you. ”
For the Chinese eye, it meant more like:
“Young people – your land is in danger –
– while your revolution is in full bloom- come defend her. ”
Interestingly, Chinese propaganda has both advantages and disadvantages when directed toward the West.
Ethical virtues in relation to their importance to the State are often assumed to be universally understood in their context, but, for good or bad, often fall flat when interpreted by modern Westerners.
But this same quality tends to express a feeling of nobility, simplicity, and purity which many Westerners find appealing.
The North Vietnamese used much of the Chinese propaganda iconography with high effectiveness against the French and U.S in the fifties and sixties.
United States – 1917.
The United States was neutral during the opening years of the
First World War…
However, there was a strong desire in certain economic and political domestic circles to turn around the isolationist tide, in favor of going to war against the Germans and Ottomans.
This poster is a later version produced for the U.S. market from a British poster of similar design, framing the war as a battle against the naked brute of mindless militarism, wearing a Prussian helmet.
Here, Europe has been ravaged, beaten down with the club of ignorant German ‘kultur’-
Lady Liberty is in danger of being carried away,
and our coastline is now at risk of being invaded.
Very effective, but believe it or not, a little highbrow for propaganda.
Italy – 1943
Despite the fact that Italy was an ally of Germany for most of World War II, most of the Italian people ( who had fought against the Germans in WW I ) were, shall we say, ambivalent about having German troops occupying a good deal of Italian territory.
This poster’s legend says it all: “Germany is truly your friend”
Now, you tell me.
If somebody’s really your friend, does he need to plaster posters reiterating his generosity and amiability all over your territory that he happens to be occupying ???
Look at the German soldier in the poster.
He is heavily armed, although his rifle is slung, his hand is out, but the other hand is in the ready position.
He is powerfully built, to indicate the strength of the German war machine.
(“It is useless to resist”)
He is smiling…. in that condescending “You can trust me, ya poor ignorant Itai bastards” kinda way.
As he approaches the foreground, the dark background is dispelled, as if the soldier is bringing light.
The Germans are, in essence, shown to be making the world “safe for fascism” .
It is interesting how differing political philosophies share much the same iconography and techniques of propaganda, isn’t it?
This, for instance, is the type of campaign you might call “winning hearts and minds”.
The U.S. used a similar campaign in South Vietnam…. and with similar results.
The problem with such a program is — by the time it becomes necessary to use one–
……………… it’s usually too late to be very effective.
Germany – 1944
Here’s an interesting way of stirring up resistance to the successful landings at Normandy.
This poster was produced in several languages… this one is in German and English.
You take all the nasty things you can say about an enemy, lump them all up in symbolic language, and print you as many posters as you can print.
Unlike the previous examples, there’s really nothing subtle about this poster….
It’s message is actually much simpler than the sum of it’s parts —
“The Americans will bring violence and ruin to your culture and your country.
Look what they’ve done to their own people.
Look who is controlling them.”
The people who were exposed to this poster had also already been exposed to four years of Nazi brutality on an unprecedented scale, so, it wasn’t the most effective of campaigns, either.
Even propaganda has it’s limits.
you can’t make a silk purse out of a sows ear all the time, right?