Iconic, striking, colorful, surprising, propagandistic, bold, poignant, beautiful, inappropriate, funny, historic—these are some of the adjectives that popped into my head while looking at the amazing selection of posters from World Wars I and II featured in The Art of War, a small but choice exhibition at the Norton Simon Museum (through January 26). We are not used to seeing government-sponsored art promoting unity, sacrifice, patriotism, or America’s allies, so these images registered for me in startling, even funny, ways, especially given our current political and economic situation. The early posters were often by painter/illustrators and reproduced contemporary paintings created for the specific theme, such as J. C. Leyendecker’s Order Coal Now from 1918. The posters from World War II are stylistically more graphic (as in advertising), even cinematic. The World Cannot Exist Half Slave and Half Free is an astonishing image from 1942 that channels Simon Legree, Abraham Lincoln, and Hollywood-style horror.
One of my favorites is by a little-known modern artist, James Daugherty, who actually features significantly in my (in-progress) dissertation on Thomas Hart Benton. But it was Daugherty’s vividly colored image, not the name recognition, which drew me to his poster, THE SHIPS ARE COMING. Picture this: a fleet of half a dozen or so massive war ships are powering full steam ahead, churning through a teal-colored river that looks about to careen dramatically over, yet cling to, the curvature of the earth. Rising above this unknown beyond is a giant, blazing red-orange sun, molten and bubbling at the edges. Above it all? A screaming eagle. Yes, a screaming eagle—talons clawed, wings spread, blood red and orange-yellow tail feathers flared, beak wide open—a proto-Technicolor version of the one that swoops across every opening of The Colbert Report. I died laughing. I don’t know why, but that screaming eagle flying over “Colbert Nation” just never gets old. I always laugh. And here was 1918′s version!