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Source: Oxford University Press

In the early 20th century an expressionist form of realism became the popular style among German artists seeking to portray their country’s social ills; Käthe Kollwitz, Max Beckmann, George Grosz and Otto Dix were the main proponents of this style of propagandistic art advocating social reform. Kollwitz’s etchings focus almost exclusively on the lives of the working-class poor and the tragic difficulties of their lives, including unemployment, death, starvation and violent acts of frustration. War also became a common motif for Kollwitz: one of her best-known propagandist pieces is a series of seven plates on the Peasant War (1902–8; Washington, DC, N.G.A.), in which the peasant’s struggle for equality and dignity is portrayed with passionate conviction and strength. The arrival of lithography meanwhile had paved the way for the production of posters, which proved the ideal medium for propaganda, being inexpensive to produce, easy to distribute and widely accepted as the populist means of communication. Artists such as Kollwitz were quick to utilize the medium, as with her War—Never Again! (1924; New York, Gal. St Etienne), but posters were also the natural medium for governments to use in wartime to encourage the general public to enlist, keep secrets and generally support the war effort. Many of the memorable American posters during World War I used advertising imagery and shrewd captions, such as the pictures of girls dressed in uniform coupled with the lament ‘Gee, I wish I were a man’, designed by Howard Chandler Christy (1873–1952), or the sleeping woman dressed in the Stars and Stripes with the command ‘Wake up, America! Civilization calls every man, woman and child!’ by James Montgomery Flagg (1877–1960). The figures of the Secretary for War, Herbert Kitchener, in Britain and the character Uncle Sam in the USA (who had been transformed from a cartoon figure into the symbol of the USA by Thomas Nast) were memorably portrayed pointing forcefully and urging the viewer to enlist . Later, during World War II, many posters were produced by copywriters and designers who had been trained in commercial advertising. As radio and the cinema were beginning to play a major role in disseminating the most immediate propaganda, the posters made by the Allies concentrated on a broader depiction of the nature of the enemy, for example, the portrayal of Hermann Goering in The Executioner by the German dissident john Heartfield; or they urged greater production at home or cautioned security, as with ‘Your talk may kill your comrades’ (1942) by Abram Games (1914–96). In addition to lithography, the more subversive medium of Photomontage became popular for political propaganda, largely through Heartfield’s work.

Within Nazi Germany, propaganda art appeared in a number of forms. Artists were commissioned to produce history paintings illustrating, for example, the ceremonies of the grand regime. Hitler favoured the German classical tradition in architecture, sculpture and painting, since it implied reverence for Germany’s past while emphasizing his aspirations for a future empire. Artists were encouraged to return to genres established in the 19th century, while the architect Albert Speer put a number of monumental projects into practice. Through the planning of the Minister for Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, paintings, posters and monumental sculptures were erected in public sites to provide messages of loyalty, physical and mental soundness and a belief in the fatherland, with collective meaning taking precedence over personal . Symbols were often taken from Christian iconography, for example the mother with child as a role model for women, and the depiction of Hitler as the messianic saviour. During World War II itself, occupied countries were subjected to posters promoting the glory of Nazism. At more or less the same time Fascism evolved in Italy. The main art movement associated with this was the Novecento italiano. The propagandist aims of this movement were, however, less coherent than those of Nazism in Germany, and later critics have suggested that the only artist to work intentionally within Fascist ideals was mario Sironi. Nevertheless, reflecting the nationalism of Mussolini’s regime, classical sources for artistic subject-matter were emphasized, and with the influence of Sironi’s Manifesto della pittura murale (1933) as well as Mussolini’s formal policy of placing art at the service of the people, the mural was utilized as a popular vehicle of propaganda. Murals celebrating Fascism were painted, many incorporating allegorical personifications of Justice, Liberty, Courage and both Old and New Testament themes. While the style of these was somewhat academic, the messages were direct and didactic, as exemplified by the titles of such pieces as Listening to One of the Duce’s Speeches on the Radio, submitted to the Premio Cremona competition in 1940. Fascist ideals were also embraced in Spain, by the Movimiento Nacional.

Propaganda also played an important part in post-revolutionary Russia (see Russia, §IV, 3; see also Stalinist architecture). In the early years of Soviet Communism ‘agitational propaganda’ was a term for various public art forms, while Lenin’s Plan for Monumental Propaganda resulted in numerous monumental figures erected in public sites. In 1922 the Association of artists of revolutionary russia (AKhRR) was founded, with the slogan ‘Art to the masses’; it was inspired by the Wanderers, a group involved with travelling exhibitions who had flourished in the late 19th century, and its style was didactic and propagandist. Typical of AKhRR are Yefim Cheptsov’s Meeting of the Rural Cell (1924; Moscow, Tret’yakov Gal.) and Boris Kustodiyev’s Festival in Uritsky Square in Honour of the Second Comintern Congress (1920; St Petersburg, Rus. Mus.). Other early post-revolutionary movements included the Society of easel painters (founded 1924), but all individual art movements were disbanded by 1934, when Socialist realism was pronounced the art of the Communist Party. This was a method steeped in ideology rather than a style. As Vladislav Zimenko, editor of the journal Iskusstvo, said, ‘great art … imbibes the thoughts, feelings, views, concepts and dreams of the people; it is the crossroads—the focus of the ideological, moral and aesthetic currents that compound social life’. Narrative paintings proliferated, with themes glorifying the Russian Revolution, emphasizing technological progress, mythologizing Russian history and eulogizing the greatness of Lenin through his portrayal as an omnipotent visionary. Such works recall David’s portraits of Napoleon as the dedicated leader working for the people.

Another populist art movement flourished in Mexico after the Revolution of 1910. General Alvaro Obregón’s government brought a measure of political stability to the country, and his Minister of Education, José Vasconcelos, in an effort to stimulate cultural life, turned the walls of public buildings over to mural artists. In 1910 several Mexican artists were commissioned to decorate the Bolivar Amphitheatre in Mexico City, and, a decade later, the art movement referred to as the Mexican Renaissance started emphasizing the roots of native Mexican culture, using the mural form in particular to bring the art to the widest possible audience. Since murals had been an important part of Mexican art during the Pre-Columbian period, the choice of this medium was also a direct repudiation of colonial influences. Notable Mexican muralists include Roberto Montenegro, David Alfaro Siqueiros, José Clemente Orozco and Diego Rivera. It was Rivera who believed mural painting to be the most powerful form for propaganda and who made this Mexico’s distinctively national style. Discarding his earlier Cubist forms for narrative clarity, the mural became for Rivera a search for his nation’s origins and roots, with subject-matter focusing on Aztec folklore, the great battles such as the Fall of Tenochtilán and various ritualistic ceremonies. A larger body of work emphasized contemporary motifs, paying homage to Emiliano Zapata and his Zapatistas, Puerto, Lenin and the Bolshevik Revolution and a variety of other revolutionary, socialist, heroic endeavours. Among the most important murals were those by Orozco in the orphanage of the Hospicio Cabañas in Guadalajara in 1938, in which are depicted the vast changes in Mexico since the Spanish conquest. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Mexican muralists also scathingly attacked the Church and capitalism and commented on the Mexican Revolution and what they viewed as the progressive forces of socialism .

The influence of the mural movement spread rapidly, especially to the USA. Rivera, Orozco and Siqueiros all travelled extensively throughout the USA and completed murals in various US cities. American artists also journeyed to Mexico City and Guadalajara to learn from their Mexican colleagues and sometimes to participate in mural projects. George Biddle (1885–1973), for instance, executed a mural for the Mexican Supreme Court Building in the 1940s. In the USA during the Depression of the 1930s, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) employed hundreds of artists nationwide to create murals. The majority are not political in nature, but there are some that form a critical social commentary, such as the mural by Victor Arnautoff (1896–1978) for San Francisco’s Coit Tower, labelled Communist Propaganda. Other artists, working with political and social issues, such as Ben Shahn, Philip Evergood and Anton Refregier, encountered institutional censorship when they tried to incorporate social criticism into their mural work. The work of Shahn and Rivera at the Rockefeller Center in New York was removed because it included a picture of Lenin. Another project of the WPA was the Farm Security Administration, for which such photographers as Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange photographed and highlighted the problems of those caught in the ‘Dust Bowl’ region. This influential body of work confirmed the role photography could play for those seeking to document human life—particularly the life of the poor and oppressed—in such a way that it might alter public opinion.

Artists such as Shahn, Evergood and Refregier, all working in the first half of the 20th century, have generally been referred to as social realists since they presented a critical view of racial discrimination, unemployment, labour-management struggles and the threat of war (e.g. Shahn’s painting Unemployed of 1938). Yet, while the term social realism is correct for the work of some of the artists of this period, it does not adequately define the majority. A more precise designation might be ‘ideologism’, implying a visionary, idealist approach. However, this was not a new concept in the 1930s. Indeed from artists such as Bosch, Bruegel, Holbein or Cranach, who criticized how life was rather than presenting it as it should be, to such 20th-century artists as Kollwitz, Grosz and Beckmann, who all illuminated and dissected corrupt forces in society, the blending of art and ideology appears to have long been an inspiring endeavour. It certainly appeared that way to the artists of the 1930s, who viewed themselves as the conscience of American society and who banded together in the common struggle to make a positive impact on society.

Before the Great Depression, propaganda art by American artists had largely been confined to illustrations and cartoons in such left-wing political journals as the New Review and the New Masses; but the work of the ‘ideologists’ in the 1930s served as a model for artists working in the 1960s and 1970s, who began to examine human nature within the context of contemporary society. The work of artists sometimes referred to as the ‘New Humanists’, such as Leon Golub, illuminates no future ideal but rather the tumult and decay of present-day life, its goal being to disturb and excite, to stimulate viewers to reflect on what modern life has become. The subject-matter of the ‘New Humanists’ is drawn from the events of the 20th century and includes diatribes against war, racism, bigotry, chauvinism, commercialism, organized religion, run-away technology and society’s excesses in following popular culture. Golub’s works portray violence and images of combat, for example the series Vietnam (1972–4) and Interrogations (begun 1981). Romare Bearden’s (1912/14–88) collages interpret the realities of an American life, and the emergence of Black Expressionism in the 1960s led to a body of highly politicized works of art aimed at building racial pride. In such works the observer is forced to confront the inherent ugliness of certain situations in order to arrive at a reaffirmation of life’s possibilities. In the late 20th century the same concerns were visible in a renaissance of public mural art in the USA and Europe, which often exhibits community pride in cultural history. Altough many of these murals call attention to the vast complex of urban social ills, the overall intention is to create a feeling of community solidarity. Like the wall paintings at Lascaux and Pech Merle, the images help to evoke feelings of power and authority in the effort to adapt to everyday life.


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