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Making peace with art

My family had a picnic on a recent weekend, celebrating my dad’s 91st birthday. We passed around some photos of his time in Japan after WWII ended. I listened as several around the table described their time in the military (and now, as I’m editing this, I remember it was Memorial Day weekend). My father called himself lucky to come of age between World War II and the Korean War. One person was going to be drafted during the Vietnam war, so immediately after college he got into a reserve unit and somehow ended up playing on the battalion tennis team (yeah, white privilege pops into my head here too). Another served on carriers and bases in the UK through a relatively peaceful interlude of the 1980s; his only child was later killed by an IED in Iraq. So, war reached out from across the world and hijacked us, that young life an unendurable loss.

But in so many other ways we've been fortunate; war has never been rained down upon us where we live. Unlike millions of people in the past century, we haven’t had to look up at a B-29 or a drone, showering annihilation.

Many artists have not been so fortunate.

Tsuguharu Foujita, Suicidal Atta Island

Some were commissioned or coerced into cranking out propaganda for a war effort; some expressed their antiwar values and were censored. Some were conscripted, some signed up willingly. British artists were "official war artists" in the First World War; later they became “official recorders" in the first Gulf war. The artist Tsuguharu Foujita, Tokyo born, then blossoming in France, returned to Japan in the 1930’s and became an official war propagandist for the Japanese Imperial Navy. (After the war he renounced his Japanese citizenship, returned to France, became a Catholic, and changed his name to Leonard.)

Ernest Meissonier, Siege of Paris

When I picture “war art,” a battle scene comes to mind: a tattered flag, noble generals and dead bodies. For most of civilization, artists were meant to glorify the endeavor, arousing support and lionizing soldierly élan. I’m visualizing the Napoleon propagandist Ernest Meissonier’s semi-allegorical Siege of Paris. That’s Paris personified, standing noble and resolute in the middle of the fight. I had to think about how dead bodies supported the ideal though. Were they part of the morale-boosting message: even if you die, the patriotic sacrifice was worth it? Then I guessed they were probably enemy dead, there to personify victory.

But antiwar art is patriotic too, and maybe more courageous. And it takes many forms. I think of Guernica and Goya of course. George Grosz's Pillars of Society, and his other disillusioned renderings of Weimar fat cats and profiteers. Sometimes artists are communicating from the mud at the front to the people directing the bloodbath behind the lines—speaking truth to power. Like Charles Bell, the Scottish surgeon whose medical illustrations from Waterloo were purportedly for teaching, but I think there must also have been some intent to focus attention on the violence war inflicts on a vulnerable human body.

Being a kid in, and of, the 60’s though, the most visceral antiwar images for me are the posters that were plastered on my fellow flower children’s walls. War Is Not Healthy For Children And Other LivingThings. Make Love Not War. What If They Gave A War And Nobody Came? The one with the banged-up Uncle Sam (I Want Out) and the one with the dove—doves figured prominently on our dorm walls. Doves have long been used as symbols of peace, especially since the April 1949 World Peace Congress in Paris, which adopted Picasso’s lithograph La Colombe as its emblem.

Antiwar posters predate “my” war of course. The stone lithography breakthrough in the late 1800’s by Jules Chéret (the Parisian who's been called the “Father of the Modern Poster”) allowed a rainbow of colors to be printed using just red, blue and yellow ink, bringing down the cost and opening the door for the art of the poster. (Later some also called Chéret "Father of the Women's Liberation" for his posters with ladies in exuberant, semi-clothed abandon.)

In the so-called war to end all wars, many artists relished the chance to create morale-boosting, enlistment-promoting propaganda art, though after countless

patriotic young men went to war and never came back, more antiwar art emerged. Some artists signed up to go to war themselves, only to have nightmares forever after. Otto Dix volunteered for WWI, fought for Germany at the Somme and other points east and west. Then he depicted the suffering of war through the rest of his life; influenced by Dada, he was labeled a degenerate, his work burned by the Nazis. Heinz Hajek-Halke was later known as an experimental photographer, but his 1922 poster Nie Wieder Krieg (Never Again War) tells the truth of the world's post-war revulsion and exhaustion.

During WWII, antiwar groups proliferated and posters were used to promote their cause. The mission of the Peace Pledge Union in Great Britain was advocating pacifism and providing for war victims, though some members of the PPU initially pushed for a negotiated peace with Germany. Some were arrested for holding open-air meetings and selling the Peace Newspaper during the war. But after six activists were prosecuted for publishing a poster inciting soldiers to refuse to fight, the Council withdrew the poster.

Being a kid in, and of, the 60’s though, the most visceral antiwar images for me are the posters that were plastered on my fellow flower children’s walls. It was a time of changing social norms and political upheaval, both influenced by the grinding conflict in Southeast Asia. A time when both war and antiwar agitation were broadcast nightly into living room TVs, the only time the daily cost of war has been reported so directly to everyone. I think we forget how chaotic it felt.

For many of us, posters were the viscerally-powerful, viral medium of choice. As I dig around and uncover posters from that period, I’m feeling almost nostalgic, not that one can feel sentimental about a time when hundreds of thousands of boys were dying, campuses were boiling over, and students were being shot for protesting the war.

Artists and designers, professionals and amateurs alike, turned out piles of posters to protest military involvement in

Indochina, the draft, war profiteers, nukes and Nixon; and advocate for peace, disarmament, and bringing the troops home. We see doves and the peace symbol of course, bombs and other weapons, Uncle Sam, the red white and blue, a raised fist, and occasionally the distinctive, swirling typography and bright, bleeding colors of San Francisco’s 1960’s graphics (I grew up nearby and remember them well). And such memorable language: War is Good Business/ Invest Your Son. Peace Is Patriotic. I Want YOU/To Work For Peace. Help End Demonstrations/End The War. Bombing For Peace Is Like Fucking For Virginity. Drop Acid Not Bombs. Fuck The Draft. The Draft Is White People Sending Black People To Make War On The Yellow People To Defend The Land They Stole From The Red People. These posters were the memes of their time, incredibly potent and viral in their immediacy and grass roots fervor.

Many designs created on campuses were silk screened on dot matrix computer paper—accordion-folded with tractor-feed holes down the sides—because it was cheap and plentiful. One of the most recognized is the Amerika Is Devouring Its Children poster, designed by Jay Belloli at U.C. Berkeley in response to the Nixon decision to bomb Cambodia in 1970; the artist is riffing on Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son from his Black Painting series. Stacks of these posters were shared around the school for students to post across the San Francisco bay area. The urgency and raw passion of these antiwar messages, many thousands churned out on campuses all over the US and beyond, shines through.

Japan, in particular, has an illustrious graphic design tradition, so it’s not surprising that artists there weighed in on antiwar themes. Clean lines and typography, boldly-scaled graphics that celebrate a modernist aesthetic, and effective use of bright flat colors on many of these works helped establish a distinctive Japanese poster style in the post-WWII period.

Shigeo Fukuda was one of the masters of the movement’s eye-catching, thought-provoking style. Best known for his antiwar and pro-environment graphics, he was able to concentrate complex messages down to simple, engaging, often satirical or visually humorous posters. (He once said, "I believe that in design, 30 percent dignity, 20 percent beauty and 50 percent absurdity

are necessary.") That these potent antiwar convictions were emanating so powerfully from the home country of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was fitting. As an articulate someone named Sofia commented regarding a showing of Japanese antiwar posters, “If we hide from history, the future will be a very sinister place.”

Today, the Center for the Study of Political Graphics in Southern California is preserving and exhibiting posters, historical and contemporary, supporting movements for social change in order to educate and inspire people to action. I'm proselytizing here, but I want to put in a good word for posters! We now conduct so much of our social engagement online. By their large-scale visual impact, these posters, even decades on, are still viscerally powerful and persuasive in communicating the antiwar manifesto.

© 2019 Susan Cummings. All rights reserved.

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