The Art of Influence during the era of World Wars

The Art of Influence during the era of World Wars

Written by Asia London Palomba

Located outside of the popular Winnie the Pooh exhibit and spread out over two galleries is the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) new exhibit, “The Art of Influence: Propaganda Postcards from the Era of World Wars.” The historically and politically charged exhibit examines the way that artists have long transformed their political opinions into art, in particular during the two deadliest wars of the 20th century. Presenting approximately 150 propaganda postcards from World War I through the end of World War II, the exhibit serves as a guide to the number of propaganda techniques that emerged at a time of prolonged global conflict, highlighting the way they were shaped by the ascendancy of authoritarian figures to power.

Propaganda underwent an evolution during World War I and the years leading up to World War II. Never before had there been such an intersection between politics and art. The emergence of modern marketing techniques and mass communication technologies not only allowed governments to use political art as a vehicle for their ideologies, but also permitted them to reach a larger audience. Propaganda postcards were popular during these decades as they were cheap to produce and purchase, and could be easily mailed and sold on the streets.

Bold, striking colors, dynamic images, and succinct slogans can be found splashed across postcards from Fascist Italy, Spain, Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, and Japan, all of which construct false narratives, emphasize togetherness, vilify political opposition, and paint leaders in a heroic light. Simple stories and themes were employed in these postcards: good vs bad, us vs them, forward vs backward. Artists broke down vocabulary and streamlined them to get these messages across easily to construct support for these governments’ ideologically inclined policies.

Many of the postcards also draw from history, as leaders wanted to show that they were inheriting strength and greatness from the past. In one postcard, Adolf Hitler is pictured shaking hands with the great Otto von Bismarck, who united Germany in 1871, while King Frederick II watches. In another, Spanish dictator Francisco Franco stands amongst flags of the Spanish monarchy, whose supremacy endured centuries, and in another, Joseph Stalin stands beside Vladimir Lenin, the engineer of the Bolshevik revolution. Many leaders deified themselves through these postcards, as they are pictured standing resolutely and staring bravely off into the distance. One postcard depicting Italian dictator Benito Mussolini as a captain at the helm of a ship sailing through a tempestuous ocean, paints him as the savior of Italy and the only person capable of guiding the country though tumultuous times with stoic calm and bravery.

While many postcards chose to illuminate their country’s great history, others chose to dwell on certain events of the past and circulate fake news. After Germany and Austria’s defeat in World War I, which resulted in the Treaty of Versailles and cost Austria its empire and Germany its land, German conservatives began circulating a notion that Germany had not lost the war and was instead a victim of a harsh treaty. This idea was quickly seized upon by the Nazi party,  who used postcards to encourage the country to break free of the “chains” of the Versaille Treaty, leading some to actually believe that Germany had in fact not lost the Great War.

Photo by Asia London Palomba

In addition to the many postcards, the exhibit also features a number of posters and film clips, which further illustrate propaganda’s multifacetedness in this era. While postcards were certainly the most widely adopted vehicle of propaganda, governments also employed other multi media techniques to manipulate their audiences.

“The Art of Influence: Propaganda Postcards from the Era of World Wars” exhibit is a glimpse into how propaganda shaped the direction of World War I and World War II, inviting us to consider how the propaganda that we see around us today is a byproduct of that era. Although simple in form, these propaganda postcards were compelling and did affect some of the narratives circulating during those decades. This look into the past questions whether we today would be able to resist the art of persuasion. The exhibit is on display at the MFA until Jan. 21, 2019.

 

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