Graphic Combat at EMU
by Laura Bartlett
Ann Arbor isn't plastered with big, blaring government posters showing leering caricatures of Saddam Hussein, works analogous to the World War II propaganda and patriotic art on display at EMU's Ford Gallery.
Unlike the original viewers of the 130 posters, leaflets, and postcards on display, Ann Arborites aren't being urged to buy war bonds, either, although former treasury secretary Paul O'Neill unveiled the Patriot Bond the first war bond issued since World War II on December 11, 2001, to zero fanfare. To a twenty-first-century viewer, this exhibit raises thought-provoking questions about cultural changes regarding state ad campaigns for war.
Many of the twenty or so boldly designed posters, blazing in yellow, red, and black, have strong, simple designs in line with the elemental themes: loyalty, rightness of the (Axis or Allied) cause, evilness of adversaries.
One shows a simian hand inserting a jigsaw puzzle piece labeled "England" into a puzzle whose pieces bear the words "Convoy sails for . . . tonight." The poster warns, "Bits of careless talk are pieced together by the enemy."
The theme is echoed on an Italian postcard showing a soldier in uniform chatting with a friend at a cafe. A sinister man at an adjacent table peers over his newspaper, all ears. "Loose lips might sink ships," warns another poster. One imagines entire nations loyally keeping mum, a silence hard to imagine in these days of satellite uplinks, cell phones, and a more cynical citizenry.
Extremes of glorification and demonization characterize portraits of Axis and Allied leaders. Hitler appears icy eyed and resolute in Knirr's famous 1936 German portrait. In an American poster that links vile Axis stratagems with, of all things, domestic forest fires (a hint of how thoroughly the war permeated the culture), Hitler looms over a blazing forest as a pop-eyed psychotic. An Italian card shows Roosevelt and Churchill as gun-waving, bleary-eyed, lascivious gangsters hovering over bombed buildings surrounded by corpses, in contrast to these
leaders' reverential home-country portraits.
The exhibit's scariest image is its most benign a grandfatherly Hitler in a pastoral setting, beaming over an Aryan tot (left). The discord between this benevolent-grandpa image and the war's 50 million dead renders this bit of war-media whitewashing sickening.
Taken all together, these historical artifacts suggest a widespread trust in government and a unified, even moral, sense of national mission. My World War II veteran dad, to whom I described the exhibit, said, "Now it is hard to once more remember the feeling after Pearl Harbor in this country . . . the feeling that we were there to save the world."
Graphic Combat runs January 6-31.
[Originally published in January, 2003.]