Allison Hays Lane was skeptical at first. Standing in the art gallery at the Main Library, surveying as library staff adjust the track lighting, the curator of The Winds and Words of War: World War I Prints and Posters from the San Antonio Public Library Collection muses, “When `the libraries` got in touch with me, I thought, hmm, World War One? … I was much more familiar with World War II iconography, and World War I didn’t come readily to mind.”
She gazes across the luminous collection of propaganda posters — from the proto-Pop kapow of the bright-red exploding firecracker in “BOOM: The 4th Liberty Loan” to the lyrical, idealized beauty of Harrison Fisher’s flag-wearing maiden in “I Summon You to Comradeship in the Red Cross” — and adds, “But when I saw these images, they just blew me away”!
Forty U.S. Government-commissioned lithographic prints line the walls, promoting everything from Navy enlistment to government-made “war picture” short films to sending books and cigarette “makins” to “our boys over there.” These posters hung in hospitals, auditoriums,
churches, and synagogues across the nation, inspiring Americans across class and religious boundaries throughout The War to End All Wars.
America’s involvement in World War I didn’t result from any direct invasion of U.S. territories, but rather centered on President Woodrow Wilson’s stated mission to “make the world safe for democracy.” As a result, these posters at first lack the visceral urgency of post-Pearl Harbor World War II American propaganda, which sought to launch a war machine out of the wreckage of the Depression in time to save — well, everything. The narrative behind the propaganda of the Great War instead plays upon an emerging visual Americana, the solidarity of shared European roots, and the ultimate good of Western civilization —and illustrates shared U.S.-European outrage in the abstract, in terms of myth. France under siege is personified in Haskell Coffin’s stirring “Joan of Arc Saved France,” in which a beautiful Joan in bosom-embracing armor calls us to her aid. And in James Montgomery Flagg’s “The Navy Needs You! Don’t READ American History — MAKE IT!” an Old Glory-festooned nymph and a strapping sailor entreat a rather effeminate-looking swain to man up for his country.
“We had been, in so many ways, isolationist,” comments Lane, who grew up in New York City and serves as director of the OLANA arts group. “Now it’s this global economy, this global world.” The masterful visual agitprop in these posters, and the military action they call for, helped pave the way for America’s international outlook and the nascent 20th Century American Empire, for good or ill. Ironically, many were printed in “German-heritage graphics companies, who wanted to prove their patriotism,” Lane tells me. The characters in action here — sleeping Columbia, seldom-seen-nowadays female embodiment of country and flag, or steely Uncle Sam, looking for all the world like Abraham Lincoln if he’d grown into a vigorous, older, more hard-assed version of himself — represent a shift in American international identity as well as the evolving state of American commercial arts of the period. “This was pre-television, pre-radio,” Lane says. “This was mass media, and this was also the start of really major modern marketing.”
Together with Frank Faulkner, head of the SAPL Texana/Genealogy Department, Lane has been assembling The Winds and Words of War for more than two years. The collection is the legacy of Harry Hertzberg, who left his storied Circus Collection to the Witte Museum, and “everything else” to the libraries. These fascinating, emblematic, sometimes troublesome posters comprised part of the “everything else,” waiting like buried treasure amid the bric-a-brac and “thousands of Valentines,” Lane chuckles, to see sunlight again. The exhibition travels on to Chicago at the end of October, and will be memorialized in a book from Seattle’s Marquand Press.
The Winds and Words of War exhibits a mere fraction of Hertzberg’s hundreds of posters, and the vetting process was a difficult one. “We decided against some of the more frightening images, like those depicting ‘the Hun’ as a monster,” Lane tells me, as in the (in-)famous “Remember Belgium” poster of a burly, mustachioed brute forcibly leading a young girl away from a city in flames. Instead, the images in the exhibit tend toward the heraldic, the cheerful, and the
Many are beautifully rendered, and most are baldly sentimental, yet the posters are both fascinatingly nostalgic and startlingly contemporary. One of the functions of nostalgia in art is to reassure the viewer that we know how the story ends. But given the deathless themes of World War I — Balkan conflict, disputed and arbitrary borders in the Middle East, the role and aims of American military might abroad, not to mention the World War which erupted a scant generation later — viewing the show also induces reflection on current military events, the outcome of which remain perilously uncertain.
The poster exhibition is part of a series of SAPL events commemorating the 90th Anniversary of WWI; see the list of events below and get your (Great) War on. •
Allison Hays Lane, curator and program coordinator is available upon request for special presentations: (210) 805-9945, email@example.com
The Winds and Words of War: World War I Prints and Posters from the San Antonio Public Library Collection
9am-9pm Mon-Thu; 9am-5pm Fri & Sat; 11am-5pm Sun
Through Oct 27
Opening reception: 6-8pm Thu, Oct 2
San Antonio Public Library Main Branch
Downtown Walking Tour: 10-11am Sat, Oct 4; meet at Central Library Lobby
Lecture: 7-9pm Mon, Oct 6; Central Library auditorium
Musical Cabaret: “Irving Berlin: Land that I Love” 7-9pm Thu, Oct 23, Central Library auditorium