The Art of War
Huntington Library exhibit displays dozens of colorful vintage posters used to sell World War I to the country
By Carl Kozlowski 07/31/2014
Civil War Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman uttered the famous phrase “War is hell,” making that comment about the bloody battles fought inside his own nation’s borders. But just over 50 years later, carnage would spill throughout Europe on a far more horrific scale in World War I, and the participating nations found they needed to employ propaganda posters to rally their citizens in support of involvement.
Now, in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of World War I, the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens will display the most innovative propaganda posters in its extensive collection of 20th-century graphic material. The exhibition, titled “Your Country Calls!” will run from Saturday through Nov. 3 in the West Hall of the Library building at the Huntington.
Its final tally of 55 colorful vintage posters — drawn from the Huntington’s collection of more than 700 such posters used to market the war to both troops and the public — provide visitors lessons in how such promotions shaped and influenced national identity, built unity across international borders, and mobilized citizens into action for the collective effort to win the war. They are drawn from six nations: England, France and the US (including the iconic “Uncle Sam Wants You”), as well as Belgium, Canada and Italy.
“When World War I began, posters were already powerful advertising tools and a successful medium of artistic expression,” says David Mihaly, the Jay T. Last Curator of Graphic Arts and Social History at the Huntington. “They were able to be printed quickly and inexpensively, making posters the ideal choice for spreading wartime propaganda.”
The use of posters in promoting the war started almost immediately after WWI was declared on July 28, 1914. The eclectic uses of the pervasive posters are spotlighted by the Huntington’s division of the exhibition into six sections that explore enlistment, fundraising, labor and conservation, relief efforts, inspirational figures and posters before the war.
“Your Country Calls!” will also explore the artists behind the posters, a volunteer army of illustrators who created poster art for government publicity departments and private charities. Some were quite famous at the time, including James Montgomery Flagg, Charles Dana Gibson, and Edward Penfield in the United States and Francisque Poulbot in France and Alfred Roller in Austria-Hungary.
“These works are so stunning, powerful and engaging that it’s really no surprise they aroused quick and committed responses in their day,” says Mihaly. “And they elicit similar reactions today.”
“Your Country Calls” runs from Saturday through Nov. 3 at the Huntington Library, Art Collection and Botanical Gardens, 1151 Oxford Road, San Marino. Tickets are $20 to $23 for adults, $15 to $18 for seniors ages 65 and up, $12 to $13 for students ages 12 to 18 or with full-time student ID), $8 for ages 5 to 11 and free for children under 5. Call (626) 405-2100 or visit Huntington.org.