Propaganda Posters

Propaganda Posters
It’s commonly thought that “propaganda”, as a technique of spreading misinformation, or slanted opinions, for the purpose of manipulating opinions, has been utilized primarily by oppressive regimes like Imperial and Nazi Germany in the early part of the 20th Century or the Soviet Union or Communist China in the latter part.

That in itself is a form of propaganda, which can be, and often is, utilized by Western democracies. Propaganda is simply a technique, not a set of values. It can just as easily be employed in a “good” cause as an “evil” one.

What distinguishes propaganda from information, aside from the fact that it is often disinformation, is that it is calculated to appeal to the emotions and circumvent rational judgement. One of the key features of propaganda is that it most often (almost always, in fact) taps into the power that images have to reach us on an unconscious level.

You may be familiar with propaganda’s rich cousin, advertising.

The two join forces in times of political change, i.e. elections, in the form of campaign ads. Case in point: turn the sound off on political ads and look at the images employed, the use of unflattering or even scary pictures of the untrustworthy opponent, coupled with images of suggestive associations, often designed to provoke fear or uncertainty, and the noble, shining face of the candidate being promoted (often shown in a thoughtful or heroic upshot).

The use of propaganda in times of war, both hot and cold, has long included the art of propaganda posters, used to elicit feelings of nationalism, encourage enlistment and contributions to bond and materials drives, and frequently to characterize the enemy as subhuman, often with the use of racial stereotypes.

Some of these posters, particularly in the periods around the first and second World Wars, utilized the talents of top illustrators, as exemplified by the posters in the top row above for WWI U.S. War Bonds by J.C. Leyendecker and Navy Recruitment by Howard Chandler Christy (and of course the iconic “I want you” Uncle Sam poster by James Montgomery Flagg).

The ASIFA Animation Archive has two fascinating articles based on a collection of propaganda poster images collected by Louis Van Den Ecker, a technical advisor for early 20th Century films like Beau Geste, Adventures of Robin Hood and The Three Musketeers, who was hired by the studios to ensure period accuracy. They were found in a junk shop by ASIFA director Stephen Worth and are presented in separate articles on WWI and WWII.

Wikipedia has a collection in association with their article on propaganda, and there is a collection of re-purposed propaganda posters, reworked to serve as commentary (and propaganda) on current social and political issues on I’ve listed more resources below.

Some of them may seem quaint and out of touch with modern sensibilities, but others still carry an impact. As you look through them, see if you can be mindful of your emotional response, either for or against the intentions of the posters’ creators (outrage and indignation are emotions, too).

The range and visceral impact of these images point out the striking power artists have to affect emotions and elicit an unconscious response. Even those of us who consider ourselves intellectually removed and visually sophisticated are not immune to the effects of manipulative images.

Think about that as you watch ads, political or commercial, on television. How often are our impressions and opinions being shaped by images?

Ah Pook is Here

Ah Pook is Here - Malcolm McNeill and William S. Burroughs
Ah Pook is Here (originally Ah Puch is Here) is a collaborative graphic narrative by writer William S. Burroughs and artist Malcolm McNeill. I was tempted to say “experimental graphic narrative”, but using the word “experimental” and the name William S. Burroughs in the same sentence is redundant.

Named for Ah Puch, the Mayan Death God, the never-finished book was to be part comic, part illustrated book. The comic story segments were drawn as a continuous panorama (top three images above, with detail below), a format inspired by the Mayan Codices, which can be thought of as graphic narrative or a kind of comic book.

McNeill worked on parts of the panorama out of sequence, emphasizing the non-linear narrative and in keeping with the story’s time-travel theme. (For more on McNeill and the project, see my previous post on Malcolm McNeill.)

McNeill didn’t know Burroughs or his work when they first started collaborating; initially without meeting, on a project called The Unspeakable Mr. Hart.

The story, which ran in the English magazine Cyclops until it folded, was eventually expanded into the book project. McNeill and Burroughs began collaborating directly, and worked on the “word/image novel” on and off for seven years before it was abandoned for lack of funding (in the 1970’s, “graphic novel” was a not a widely recognized term or a viable marketplace option).

Burroughs’ text was published by itself in a more conventional form as Ah Pook is Here.

A good deal of art was created for the book, however, and some of it is on display McNeill’s site and on a site devoted specifically to the Ah Pook is Here project.

There is an interview with McNeill online, conducted by Larry Sawyer, that includes larger versions of some of the images from the project, as well as some other examples of McNeill’s art.

McNeill has written an account, not yet published, of his collaboration with Burroughs titled Observed While Falling.

McNeill did a year and a half of research for the Ah Pook is Here project, combing through the Mexican Cultural Library in London and researching the artwork of Frederick Catherwood, a real-life Indiana Jones with a paint box (see my post on Frederick Catherwood).

Other artistic influences seemed to be less from mainstream or European comics and more from art history, in particular the horrific visions of Hieronymus Bosch, shadowy gothic art, mid-20th Century book illustration and the deep chiaroscuro of the Baroque, lending the panels a unique visual tone.

There will be a show of artwork from the project, The Lost Art of Ah Pook is Here, at Salomon Arts gallery in New York (Tribeca) from November 14 to December 14, 2008.

[Note: sites linked here contain some NSFW images]

Andrea Mantegna

Andrea Mantegna - Basillica di San Zeno
Andrea Mantegna was an influential Itallian Renaissance painter and engraver who was noted for his monumental, almost sculptural, figures, his command of perspective and his unusual, often visceral, portrayals of Biblical events.

Mantegna was apprenticed at the age of 10 to Francesco Squarcione, who also legally adopted him. At the age of 17, he had advanced far enough to establish his own studio and declare his independence from Squarcione, who he accused of exploiting his abilities.

Roman sculpture was being collected in Padua during Mantegna’s time there, and the influence of those sculptors, as well as contemporary sculptors like Donatello, is evident in the sculptural (some would say stiff) qualities of his figures.

Mantegna married Nicolosia Bellini, daughter of Jacopo Bellini, one of the key figures in early Renaissance art, and brother of painters Gentile and Giovanni Bellini. Mantegna had a working relationship with Giovanni, and you can see the influence of his masterful command of landsacpe in the rocky intricate detail of the landscapes in Mantegna’s Biblical scenes (see my post on Giovanni Bellini).

Mantegna worked on monumental sized works as well as smaller, more intimate works, and was fascinated with experimental perspective and elements of architecture.

One of his most renowned pieces is La Camera degli Sposi (The Wedding Chamber) of the Mantua Palazzo; a “camera picta” (painted room), covered with illusionistic frescoes. This included his famous example of “di sotto in sú”, or illusionistic ceiling painting, depicting a false oculus in the ceiling, through which cherubs, servants and a peacock lean over a balustrade, peering down at the viewer; rendered in trompe l’oeil realism and dramatically foreshortened perspective (image above, top); the first example of this kind of ceiling effect. I love the underside of the seemingly precariously placed urn and the cherubs poking their heads through the balustrade. The perspective rendering of the geometric elements of the balustrade is astonishing.

One of his other works that incorporated illusionistic perspective and his fascination with architectural elements is his striking grand altar-piece for the Basillica di San Zeno in Verona (supposedly the setting for the marriage of Romeo and Juliet in Shakespeare’s play). Mantegna’s work for this featured a polyptych (multiple paneled painting) depicting Mary and Child in the central panel, flanked by scenes of disciples and saints, with scenes below of the prayer at the Mount of Olives, the Crucifixion and the Resurrection (image above, middle and bottom).

The upper panels, in particular, break the paradigm of such altarpieces in that the top three scenes, though depicting separate events, are joined into one by a common background. The architectural elements are rendered in dramatic perspective and with great attention to realistic texture, an effect heightened by trompe l’oeil garlands of fruit seeming to hang between the actual carved pillars on the face of the altarpiece.

Mantegna has pulled out the stops here, and used the almost magical ability of the newly popular medium of oil paint to render his subjects with extraordinary detail.

He continued to render his paintings in this kind of canvas-wide pinpoint focus, even as Leonardo and Giovanni Bellini began to move Renaissance painting toward more atmospheric effects of tonal color and sfumato.

The Louvre in Paris, which has the largest collection of Mantegna’s works outside of Italy, has mounted a major retrospective of his work. Simply titled Mantegna (1431-1506), the show contains over 190 works and and runs until January 5, 2009.

[Exhibition link via Art Knowledge News]

Different Strokes from Different Folks (Karin Jurick)

Different Strokes From Different Folks
In addition to her own painting and blogging regimen, the indefatigable Karin Jurick (who I have written about previously here, as well as in my posts on “painting a day” painter/bloggers here and here) has a new project in which she participates, guides and hosts a collaborative painting blog based on a simple but fascinating concept: multiple artists’ interpretations of the same scene.

Different Strokes from Different Folks starts with the premise that multiple artists paint a painting from the same photograph. Jurick provides the photograph and gets the ball rolling in each case with her own interpretation, leaving subsequent submissions open to any artists who wish to participate.

She emphasizes that the intent is to paint the scene and not the photograph, which is basically a digital stand-in for the physical impossibility of all of the artists painting on location together. Each artist looks for their own composition and interpretation of the subject.

Each session starts on Wednesday evening and is open for a week. The results are posted on the blog with links to each participating artist’s web site or blog. The original photograph is posted first, followed by Jurick’s starting piece and followed by subsequent submissions in sequence.

Those interested in participating should read the instructions on the blog’s sidebar carefully. Submissions are limited to traditional media, must be sent directly to her email address, with a specific subject line, as a JPEG file (not as a link and no blurry photos) and accompanied each time by the artist’s name and web site or blog address (regardless of previous submissions).

The result is a fascinating look at how different artists interpret the same scene in paint, and once each session has ended they participating paintings can be viewed as a group, as well as in the blog post (weekly results links on the sidebar).

Jurick also posts her own painting, and often a composite poster of the others, on her own blog.

As of this writing, the subject is the Cloud Gate sculpture (locally known as “The Bean”) in Millennium Park in Chicago.

(Image above: left column: Karin Jurick, Emma Pierce, Dean Haven, Nancy Rhodes Harper; right column: Alice Thompson, Tommye Easterlin, original photograph)

Exquisite Corpse

Exquisite Corpse
When I was in grade school my friends and I, particularly those of us who considered ourselves “artists”, played a game with no name; in which we would fold an elongated piece of paper in thirds or quarters, and take turns drawing parts of a figure.

The first participant would usually start by drawing a head on the top third of the paper, leaving two lines indicating a neck extending slightly below the fold into the middle third of the paper. The top third was then folded under so that it couldn’t be seen, and the paper handed off (usually surreptitiously in the middle of class) to the next participant, who would then draw a torso, likewise leaving two lines indicating a waist extending over the fold into the bottom third of the paper for the last artist, who would add legs and feet (or some bizarre substitute for them). The variation was a paper folded in fourths, in which the waist and upper legs are separate from the lower legs and feet.

It wasn’t until the last part was added that the paper was unfolded and the work of the other participants revealed, that the final figure seen in all its collaborative glory.

As young as we were, our artistic collaborations usually involved grinning, slobbering monsters, Frankenstein monster heads, superhero torsos, dinosaur tails, webbed feet and the like; but it was a fun game; and looking back, surprisingly creative and imaginatively liberating.

It wasn’t until I discovered books on Surrealism lurking in the dark corners of my high school library (changed me forever) that I found that the Surrealists had indulged in the same game; and had codified it and given it a name, “le cadavre exquise”, or “the exquisite corpse”.

The phrase was taken from one of the results from an early session in which they played a verbal version of the game (based on an earlier parlor game called “Consequences”), in which parts of phrases are written by the participants without knowledge of the other’s input. Their session yielded the phrase: “Le cadavre exquis boira le vin nouveau.” (“The exquisite corpse will drink the new wine.”).

Provided the participants aren’t inclined to cheat, this can be done by mail; and recently, of course, these collaborative artworks can be assembled digitally. There have also been variations in music, film, video and sculpture.

Photographer Jon Rendell maintains an excellent site devoted to the subject at, including a brief history of the practice by Surrealist leader, poet Andre Breton (Surrealism was primarily a literary movement, at least initially), and a nice Morgue of some of the original Surrealist corpses (from which the images here were taken).

I’ve listed some other resources below to current digital revivals of the practice and other items of related interest.

The best way to explore The Exquisite Corpse, of course, is to get together with your friends, artistically inclined or not, and make some. Only then can the exquisite corpse drink the new wine.

The best exquisite corpse is a live one.