Symbols & Stereotypes: National Identity in European Poster Design 1914-1945 (2001)

“The illustrative poster as we know it today has its origins in the technological innovations of the nineteenth century. The poster has continued to evolve as a means of communication, propaganda and persuasion; in recent times, it has been appropriated as a medium by artists such as Barbara Kruger and Michael Peel, who have used it to parody and subvert the messages of the advertising industry and the state.

The rise of the nation state coincided with the growth of mass society. Rivalry between states, combined with the need to preserve the international balance of power, intensified the economic, political and military competition between the European powers. The poster was increasingly used to define a national position which aimed at ‘creating patriotic feelings and explaining the real meaning of current events.’ Poster imagery appealed to a nation’s history, culture and religion, its past heroes and military prowess, and to God and His saints. Successive campaigns to promote recruitment, defence loans and charity organisations stimulated the nation’s commitment to conflict while at the same time attempting to raise national morale. However, the creation of patriotic feelings could not be achieved without the vilification of the foe. Perceived national and racial stereotypes were caricatured in ruthless attacks on the enemy’s moral shortcomings.

With the outbreak of war in Europe in 1914, the political poster became witness to the crises in society that continued until 1945. The poster tells us of our origins, underlines our sense of self-worth, promotes our aims and aspirations, refines our prejudices. Not always flatteringly, it holds up a mirror to ourselves.”

This was a small exhibition held at the Imperial War Museum in 2001, utilising images from many different countries, and both wars. It was interesting to see that there were four images from the ‘Your Britain’ series, demonstrating how “an inter-war travel poster style was used unchanged during the war to around patriotic feelings for an idealised pastoral Britain, defined by the landscape of Southern Britain”, were all Newbould’s images. I find the ‘Your Britain’ series the most interesting because Frank Newbould’s style is in such contrast to Abram Games’s style!

Held at: Imperial War Museum

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