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The Dartmouth
April 20, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Hood Museum war poster exhibit is timely, reflective

Although the new Hood exhibition "On All Fronts: Posters From the World Wars" in the Dartmouth Collection was planned well before the Kosovo situation unfolded, the exhibition of posters from the First and Second World Wars not only offers an opportunity to reflect on two of the twentieth century's most historic conflicts but also upon the explosive world situation that confronts us today.

Throughout the first half of the century, especially during the WWI era, the poster constituted a major means of mass communication. The government agencies, private companies and relief societies responsible for the production of war posters such as the those in the Hood exhibition used the medium to relay the issues they deemed most critical to the war effort.

To feel the impact of these posters as you view them on the gallery wall is to glimpse the pervasive power of these images to influence the public during both World Wars.

The works are contained in two galleries, each devoted to a single war. A connective organization according to several common themes suggests some of the continuities between the two war eras.

Themes that carry through the entire exhibit include the ideal soldier, picturing the enemy and various home front issues. Comparing posters from each war within one particular theme also reveals significant changes in the posters' content and pictorial presentation. Each war section has its own unique themes, such as WWII security issues, which correspond to historical concerns particular to each war.

The collection contains particular depth in French, American and British posters from WWI and American posters from WWII. Yet it also contains important examples from Germany, Occupied France, Canada, Finland, the Soviet Union and Mexico.

Especially rare are the WWII posters from Germany and Occupied France, probably torn off the walls by the entering Allies, which allow us to glimpse the war through the "enemy's" eyes.

As one of its underlying goals, the exhibition explores the relationship between certain artistic practices and the propagandistic agenda behind the posters' production.

Throughout WWI and at the start of WWII fine art practices such as lithography were employed in the design of war posters. French posters in particular employed high art in service of the war effort. This can be seen in Jules-Abel Faivre's "On Les Aura," a key work of the exhibit. The muted colors and relatively subtle message of this poster directly contrast the later war posters.

Later producers felt that the avant guard strategies of the 1930s and 1940s were too symbolic and too difficult for the general public to understand. In order to make them more legible, posters throughout WWII became less like art and more like blatant advertisements. Attention-catching graphics, visually pure images and bold saturation of color characterize the posters of the WWII period.

WWII posters employed direct textual messages as well. In one poster the image of a swastika-sleeved arm stabbing a knife through a Bible is accompanied by the unequivocal statement, "This Is The Enemy." These works were intended to hit the viewer emotionally without the complexity of earlier posters.

With the advent of technologies such as the radio, television, and computers, it looked as if the medium of war posters had become obsolete. Yet "Sarajevo: Recent War Posters," shown in conjunction with "On All Fronts," reveals the continued importance of printed material in war. The exhibit features more than 30 posters and postcards produced by the citizens of Sarajevo during the nearly four-year siege of the city by the Serbian Army.

These works not only highlight connective characteristics with the posters of the other exhibit , but also raise some interesting but disturbing issues about the all too recent war in Bosnia.

The posters from the siege of Sarajevo remind us of the vulnerability of the technologies we rely upon so heavily. During the siege the people were left without electricity or basic resources. With the Serbian Army surrounding the city and electronic media rendered almost useless, Sarajevo was essentially cut off from the rest of the world. So the citizens turned back to print media and war posters to communicate.

One of the unique aspects of the Sarajevo posters is that they are directed to both an internal and an external audience. As in WWI, many of the siege posters were used to relay critical information and initiatives, such as safety instructions and recruitment campaigns, to the citizens of the city.

But the majority of the posters share the distinctive and even more important objective of urging international aid and intervention. Whereas the posters from the first and second World Wars were directed almost exclusively at the home front, the Sarajevo war posters directly address the international community.

Some posters plead for help, others criticize the United Nations and the Western powers for their failure to intervene in the conflict. Popular icons from the Coke label to the Sex Pistols construct the commentary found in these posters.

Several works in the exhibit use the widely recognized reference to the 1984 Olympic games held in Sarajevo to remind the international community that Sarajevo was once honored as a city of peace and hospitality. Such images pose the question that grows ever more important: Does the world remember Sarajevo?

Gone from these posters is the animation against the enemy that so pervades the propaganda of the first and second World Wars. Notably, the posters from the siege of Sarajevo do not make a devil out of the enemy. Instead, the desire to maintain the feeling of "togetherness" of this ethnically diverse community prevails.

The posters display an acute absence of religious rancor among rival Orthodox Serbs, Catholic Croats, and Muslims considering the nature of the conflict. One series of three posters successively shows a mosque, a Catholic church and an Orthodox church in a statement that the war is an attack against all traditions, not just the Muslim one.

This general tone of pacifism and mourning the loss of a common understanding is a truly exceptional aspect of Sarajevo's war posters.

The citizens of Sarajevo also used their posters to proclaim their active cultural resistance to the war. In large part, the siege of Serajevo and other acts of Serbian aggression constituted an attempt to eradicate the cultural history of the Bosnian Muslims and thus desecrate their claim to independence.

Important cultural monuments such as the National Library, which contained thousands of ancient manuscripts and other cultural relics, were destroyed during the attacks.

One poster in the collection, perhaps the most famous from the war, presents a tuxedoed cellist, eyes covered by his hand, who sits ready to play in the ruins of the National Library. Such posters strove to draw attention to the destruction of the rich cultural heritage that was occurring unchecked before the world's eyes.

"On All Fronts" was organized by Katherine Hart, Curator of Academic Programming, Diane Miliotes, Research Curator, Nermina Zildzo, former Curator at the Bosnia and Herzegovina Gallery of Art, and Gretchen Saegh '99. The works included in the exhibit are drawn mainly from the Hood Museum's own collection, which includes more than 2,300 twentieth-century war posters.

This extensive collection is largely the result of generous from alumnus, many of who participated in one or both of the world wars. The exhibit features works by several celebrated artists and designers. These include Norman Rockwell, James Montgomery Flagg, Howard Chandler Christy, Joeseph Pennell, Jules-Abel Faivre, Dominique Charles Fouqueray, Jean Carlu, and Ben Shahn.

"Sarajevo: Recent War Posters," was organized by Zildzo and is dedicted to the people of Kosovo. Zildzo, who lived in Sarajevo for the first three years of the siege, brought many of the exhibit's posters with her when she came to the United States. Both exhibits will be at the Hood until July 4th.