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Explore World War I propaganda posters online

The Ransom Center recently launched a new platform of digital collections on its website, which includes the World War I poster collection. More than 120 items from that collection, including the posters highlighted in this blog post, can be viewed on the new platform. Some of these posters can also be seen in the current exhibition The World at War 1914–1918.

 

In the era before broadcast radio and television, posters were one of the simplest and most powerful ways to coerce or inform the public. During the First World War, all the major powers produced posters to convey messages rapidly and efficiently. Some of the most successful paired compelling imagery and bright visceral color with appeals to emotion, patriotism, and duty. As an American artist said, “The poster should be to the eye what the command is to the ear.”

 

The Ransom Center’s World War I poster collection illuminates the lived experience of the war from the point of view of everyday people worldwide. Lithographs in English, French, German, and Russian illustrate a wide spectrum of sentiments from military boosterism to appeals for public austerity. (English translations of foreign-language poster titles are available in the description of each item.) The posters document geo-political events and the social and economic transformations set in motion by the war. The role of women, new technologies, international aid, wartime economy, and food supply all feature prominently in the collection.
The majority of the posters in the Center’s collection are authentic lithographs. Discovered in the late eighteenth century, the techniques of lithography reached a golden age during the First World War. In the modern four-color process, combinations of colors are separated using photographic filters into four primary colors: cyan, magenta, yellow, and black. To print lithographs, colored ink is added to printing “stones” in solids and patterns. The ink only adheres to marks on the wet stone made by a greasy crayon. Early lithographs featured simple blocks of solid colors. By the turn of the century, artists harnessed overlay and blending to create more subtle visual effects.

 

The World War I poster collection features many works by notable artists who applied their talents to the war effort. Among them, the French caricaturist Georges Goursat (1863–1934), known as Sem, stands out for his skillful application of lithographic techniques to create sumptuous gradients of color and shadow. His poster Pour la liberté du monde depicts the Statue of Liberty, a gift to the United States from the people of France, appearing on the horizon over the Atlantic Ocean. In the soft pink and yellow sky, a new day is dawning, and Lady Liberty emerges from shadow. It is no coincidence that the French name for the Statue, La Liberté éclairant le monde, translates to “Liberty lighting the world.”

 

Produced in 1917 shortly after the United States entered into the war, Sem’s poster suggests that the American soldiers will turn the tides of battle and bring liberty to Europe. The artist conveys most of his message wordlessly. The text urges support through the purchase of a war bond: For the liberty of the world. Subscribe to the National Loan at the National Credit Bank. Pour la liberté du monde pairs artistry and symbolism to rouse support among the war-fatigued French public.

 

Explore the World War I poster collection to see more examples of artists using lithography to transform political ideas into persuasive compositions of image and text.

 

Please click on thumbnails below to view larger images.

In the Galleries: Dogs played major role in the First World War

During the First World War, dogs attached to the Medical Corps and the Red Cross lived up to the title “Man’s Best Friend” by helping to rescue soldiers. 

 

Medical Corps dogs were trained to enter No Man’s Land (an unoccupied zone between the trench systems of the Allied and Central Powers) at night and locate fallen soldiers.  These dogs could recognize the scent of blood, check for a man’s breath, and–if the soldier were alive–deliver his hat to a Medical Corps officer.  (The hat’s insignia was an important identification method for the officer.)  Stretcher-bearers were then dispatched to rescue the soldier at daybreak. 

 

Indeed, dogs have participated in warfare for thousands of years.  According to some Egyptian murals, dogs were unleashed against enemies in Egypt as far back as 4000 B.C.E.  Dogs make excellent companions in modern war because of their superior auditory sense, which allows them to hear artillery fire before humans.  They also have superior night vision, making them valued message-bearers.

 

Included in the Ransom Center’s exhibition The World at War, 1914-1918 is Mildred Moody’s propaganda poster, reading “Even a Dog Enlists, Why Not You?” Also, explore other World War I-era posters in the Ransom Center’s new digital collection.

 

The World at War, 1914-1918 runs through August 3, 2014.

Before and After: World War I–era panoramic photo undergoes conservation before exhibition

The Ransom Center’s exhibition The World at War, 19141918 features a panoramic group portrait of the 103rd Aero Squadron (Lafayette Escadrille), the first U.S. aviation pursuit squadron in combat in France during World War I.

 

The photograph was sent to the Ransom Center’s conservation lab because it was tightly rolled, making it brittle and fragile.  Previous attempts to unroll the paper had left one corner almost detached.  The only clue as to its contents was a handwritten inscription on the roll’s outermost edge.  Learn more about how photo conservators Barbara Brown and Diana Diaz worked to safely unroll the photograph to preserve it and display it in the exhibition.

 

Image: Eugene O. Goldbeck. Panoramic portrait of the 103rd Aero Squadron (Lafayette Escadrille). ca. 1919.

World War I-era Russian propaganda posters portray food as evil

Food was in high demand during the First World War, especially in Russia. The food shortages were so constant that they were ultimately one of the factors that helped to incite the revolutions of 1917. Although seemingly minor compared to the famine Eastern Europe would later experience under Stalin, food shortages were instrumental in harvesting a deep resentment toward the tsar and general war weariness.

 

For everyday citizens, getting food in cities was a full-time job. It required spending long hours in line only to be rewarded with slim rations—and sometimes nothing at all. It would make sense to assume that all the food was going to soldiers at the front. However, by 1915, only a year into the war, the Russian Army was also suffering from the food shortage.

 

The Russian economy simply wasn’t equipped both to fight a war and feed its citizens. Young men left the countryside in droves after being conscripted into the army, severely cutting the available labor force and slowing agricultural production. Inflation as a result of the war then made it impossible for the remaining farmers to make a profit on their goods. No one could afford to grow food, and few could afford to buy enough of it. Food then became a prominent subject in Russian propaganda.

 

The Harry Ransom Center is home to the diverse collection of Kuharet’s Russian World War I posters. A surprising number of these prints pertain to food: specifically food that has been personified as evil. Even the act of eating food is portrayed as unpleasant—something that would likely have been incomprehensible to the starving nation.

 

Staples such as onions and potatoes morph into crude caricatures of Franz Josef, Wilhelm, and his sons, insisting that the evil of the Germans could only have grown in the garden of the devil himself. Another poster titled “Wilhelm’s Menu” replaces the expected food on the menu with violent actions against Wilhelm: showing him drowning, beaten, and left broken and alone. Posters such as these served to create negative connotations between food and eating.

 

Food was also strangely tied to nationalism, specifically in a series of posters titled “European Cuisine.” In this set, countries involved in the war are all personified as food: Germany and Austro-Hungary are both portrayed as conniving sausages, while Russia is equated to a hearty bowl of kasha (the Russian equivalent of porridge). While the sausages try in vain to consume the other “countries,” the kasha spills forth to overtake them. This poster is on view in the Ransom Center’s current exhibition The World at War, 1914–1918. The Russian kasha is made up of figures of soldiers—the only human characters on the poster. Even in posters real Russian food was lacking.

 

Food and the experience of eating were both portrayed as dangerous, violent, and unpleasant in a futile effort to make the starving Russian population forget the normalcy associated with these actions.

 

The Ransom Center’s collection of World War I-era propaganda posters have been digitized as part of the digital collections.

 

Please click the thumbnails below to view full-size images.

 

In the Galleries: Frank Nicolet Lucien poster pays homage to poem “In Flanders Fields”

In the spring of 1915, John McCrae, a young Canadian surgeon, conducted a burial service for a friend, killed by German artillery during the Second Battle of Ypres, in the First World War. Inspired by the friend’s death, McCrae composed a poem, which he discarded, believing it to be no good. An officer retrieved it and convinced McCrae to keep working on it. The poem was published in December of that year.

 

The poem, “In Flanders Fields,” is an important work in the literature surrounding the First World War. Written in 1915, it did not describe the horrors and brutality of the conflict in the way authors such as Erich Maria Remarque would after the war ended. Rather, “In Flanders Fields” invokes a Romantic vision of the Great War, with its images of soaring larks and blowing poppies. These poppies have become emblematic of those who died during the war.

 

In the Harry Ransom Center’s exhibition The World at War, 1914-1918, a 1918 propaganda poster by Frank Nicolet Lucien features a Canadian soldier mourning the dead amid a field of the iconic poppies. One of the poster’s aims is to coerce civilians into buying war bonds. It entreats the viewer, “If ye break faith—we shall not sleep,” a reference to the last stanza of McCrae’s poem.

 

In the poem, the line is delivered by dead soldiers who ask that the living continue the fight so that the sacrifices of the fallen will not be in vain.

 

The World at War, 1914-1918 is on view through August 3.

 

Image: Frank Nicolet Lucien “In Flanders Fields” poster, 1918.

In the Galleries: Gordon Conway “Vanity Fair” cover illustration highlights shifting gender roles in World War I

World War I played a crucial part in the transformation of gender roles.  As men left for the battlefields, women took on traditionally male occupations at home.  Buoyed by this experience and a new sense of confidence, these women started demanding more rights and independence.

 

These shifting roles were mirrored by new fashions, such as the flapper attire, which was ushered in by the rebellion of the post-war Jazz Age.  Style magazines like Vanity Fair captured these trends on its covers.

 

Gordon Conway, a Texas-born fashion designer and illustrator, was famous for her drawings of these sophisticated and independent “New Women.”  Conway launched her career at Vogue and Vanity Fair, and she was so talented that she was soon working for other publications, as well as a host of different advertising clients.  Throughout her career, she did costume design, magazine art, and poster art for film, cabaret, and theater, working in New York, London, and Paris.  She was remarkable not only for her artistic talent, but also for her ability to influence women’s desires for more cultural, sexual, and legal freedoms.

 

A Conway cover illustration for Vanity Fair is currently on display in the Ransom Center’s exhibition The World at War, 1914-1918.  The illustration features a stylish, svelte nurse with an Afghan hound.  Although the illustration was rejected for publication, it was later used by the Red Cross as a recruitment poster.

 

The Ransom Center’s Conway collection includes original art; photographs of family, friends and productions; and diaries, costumes, personal effects, datebooks, and numerous scrapbooks.

 

The World at War, 1914-1918 runs through August 3, 2014.

 

Image: Gordon Conway “Red Cross Girl” illustration for Vanity Fair, 1918.

War photography exhibition showcases images from the Ransom Center’s photography collection

Back in November the exhibition WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath opened at its fourth and final venue, the Brooklyn Museum. This exhibition, which I curated with Anne Tucker and Will Michels in my former role in the photography department at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, featured over 400 photographic objects dating from 1848 to 2012, including a number of photographs from the Harry Ransom Center’s collections. Our curatorial mission was neither to tell a history of war illustrated by photography nor to present a series on singular photographers. Instead, we hoped to bring together a selection of objects that highlighted the intersections between war and photography.

 

Photographs from the Ransom Center collections were included throughout the exhibition, enriching the thematic sections that explored daily routine, shell shock, and dissemination, as well as battlefield burial and death.  The Gernsheim collection yielded a chilling 1871 print of communards in coffins, an image likely used to discourage further unrest in the streets of Paris, as well as Roger Fenton’s iconic and controversial 1855 photograph The Valley of the Shadow of Death from the Crimean War.

 

A Ransom Center fellowship funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Research Fellowship Endowment enabled curator Anne Tucker to spend weeks going through box after box of the Ransom Center’s prints, lantern slides, and stereographs. While in the reading room, she could compare the croppings of multiple photographs of Captain Ike Fenton and the U.S. Marines during the Korean War by David Douglas Duncan and share her findings. She also surveyed the collection of prints made at the height of the civil war in El Salvador by 30 international photographers, including Donna DeCesare and Harry Mattison.

 

The New York Journal- American photo morgue provided one of my favorite photographs in the exhibition. It is a small print from 1918 of a carrier pigeon being released from a tank on the Western Front. The image itself references one of the means of communication (pigeon transport) that is often associated with World War I, but it is also important as a photographic object because it carries the marks and highlights of an editor’s pencil, readying the print for reproduction and the image for dissemination.

 

Please click on the thumbnails below to view larger images.

 

Ransom Center partners with Texas Exes on World War I-themed anniversary tour

2014 will mark the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War, a watershed event that claimed millions of lives and changed the course of the twentieth century.  The Ransom Center’s exhibit The World at War, 1914–1918 will illuminate the lived experience of the world’s first global war, and will be supplemented with a trip led by exhibition curators and historians to its key monuments and battlefields throughout Great Britain, France, and Belgium, from June 14 through June 23, 2014.  The trip is organized by the Texas Exes Flying Longhorns.  Information regarding the trip can be found on the Texas Exes alumni travel website.

 

Sites in London include the Imperial War Museum, Westminster Abbey, the Douglas Haig Memorial, 10 Downing Street, and the Houses of Parliament.  Participants will also travel to Oxford to meet with scholar Dr. Jon Stallworthy, the leading scholar on the works of English soldier-poet Wilfred Owen.  The Ransom Center holds a collection of Owen’s letters.  While in London, participants will stay in the Grosvenor House, a historic 5-star hotel that is frequented by celebrities and royalty.

 

From London, the group will visit towns such as Ypres, Somme, Verdun, and Rheims, home to key battlegrounds and memorials along the Western Front.  The town of Ypres was the site of three major battles, as well as the first documented use of poison gas.  Visitors can still view Ypres’ trenches, underground bunkers, and even a church where Adolf Hitler was treated after being wounded.  Trip participants will also visit La Maison Forestière in Ors, a memorial to Wilfred Owen, and the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme.  France is also famed for its champagnes, and participants will enjoy a tasting, featuring classics like Veuve Cliquot and Tattinger.

 

The trip ends in Paris, home to attractions like the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, and Notre-Dame.  Participants will stay in the Intercontinental LeGrand Hotel, a luxury hotel with views of the Paris Opera House.  There is an optional two-day extension of the trip here, which includes a Seine River cruise and a show at the Moulin Rouge.

 

For more information, visit their website.

 

Image: Cover of trip brochure.

Photo Friday

Each Friday, the Ransom Center shares photos from throughout the week that highlight a range of activities and collection holdings. We hope you enjoy these photos that reveal some of the everyday happenings at the Center.

Staff members view materials for an upcoming 2014 exhibition about World War I. Photo by Alicia Dietrich.
Staff members view materials for an upcoming 2014 exhibition about World War I. Photo by Alicia Dietrich.
New members enjoy a preview of items from the fall 2014 exhibition "The Making of Gone With The Wind" with Curator of Film Steve Wilson at a curators' reception for new members. Photo by Pete Smith.
New members enjoy a preview of items from the fall 2014 exhibition "The Making of Gone With The Wind" with Curator of Film Steve Wilson at a curators' reception for new members. Photo by Pete Smith.
Curator  of Photography Jessica McDonald shares materials from the upcoming fall  2013 exhibition “Radical Transformation: Magnum Photos into the Digital  Age” at a curator’s reception for new members. Photo by Pete Smith.
Curator of Photography Jessica McDonald shares materials from the upcoming fall 2013 exhibition “Radical Transformation: Magnum Photos into the Digital Age” at a curator’s reception for new members. Photo by Pete Smith.

Postcards from France: Paul Fussell and the Field Service “Form-letter”

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May 23, 2012, marked the passing of literary scholar and public intellectual Paul Fussell, whose monumental 1975 study of World War I, The Great War and Modern Memory, brought widespread attention to how the experience of trench warfare helped foster a modern, ironic sensibility that still influences art and culture today. Fussell’s book was the first in-depth study of the cultural legacy of the First World War and remains a landmark in the scholarship of early twentieth-century literature. As critic Vincent Sherry has written, the book’s “ambition and popularity move interpretation of the War from a relatively minor literary and historical specialization to a much more widespread cultural concern. [Fussell’s] claims for the meaning of the War are profound and far-reaching . . . . [he] has set the agenda for most of the criticism that has followed him.”

Staff members who are working on the Ransom Center’s 2014 centenary exhibition Looking at the First World War have certainly found Sherry’s claim for the importance of Fussell’s influence to be true. Fussell, a former patron of the Ransom Center, centered his work on many of the British trench poets and writers whose manuscript collections are held at the Center. The Great War and Modern Memory frequently refers to the poem drafts, letters, and diaries of writers such as Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, and Edmund Blunden. Fussell maintained that these writers—all of whom were young officers in the trenches of the Western Front—developed a new and often satiric poetic language that served to subvert the “official” rhetoric that was used by the British government and army. Combining biting irony with graphic descriptions of newly industrialized warfare—gas attacks and machine guns, for example—the Generation of 1914 sought to tell the public the eyewitness truth about modern combat.

Numerous items that will be on display in the upcoming exhibition highlight Fussell’s observation that the First World War, as a watershed moment of the twentieth century, inspired soldier-poets to produce deeply personal accounts of their combat experience—often in direct response to government and army propaganda. One of The Great War and Modern Memory’s most memorable examples of the division between the “official” language of the War and the literary response to trench life is Fussell’s discussion of the standardized “Field Service Postcard” issued by the British Army in November 1914. Known as “Quick Firers,” these postcards were mass-produced in the millions and issued to infantry servicemen who would send them to family and friends as evidence of being alive and safe.

The Ransom Center’s Wilfred Owen collection houses more than a dozen of the Field Service Postcards that the young poet-officer sent his family while on active duty in France during 1916–18. As you can see from this image of a postcard sent by Owen to his mother in 1917, the card forces the sender to report his well-being by choosing between uniform, pre-printed sentences: “NOTHING” written in the margins of the card is allowed, or else the card will be destroyed instead of sent. Thus, soldiers such as Owen faced what Fussell refers to as the “implicit optimism” of the Field Service Postcard: they were forced to report that they were “quite well, “going on well,” or were to be “discharged soon” and happily sent back home. The standardized sentences of the card did not allow soldiers to report, for example, that they were facing an artillery barrage, had lost limbs, or were wounded beyond hope of recovery. Owen, who detested the army’s censorship, made an agreement with his mother that if he were advancing to the front lines of battle he would send her a Field Service Postcard with the sentence “I am being sent down to base” struck out twice. The double strikeout is apparent in this postcard, sent just days before Owen was transferred to the Somme region of France, where he participated in some of the heaviest fighting of the War.

In the years following the Great War, the Field Service Postcard, which Fussell calls the first widespread “form” letter, would be spoofed by poets and writers wishing to point out the lack of humanity in these standardized communications. As discussed in a blog post by Rich Oram, the Ransom Center’s Edmund Wilson and Evelyn Waugh archives reveal that both men mocked the “form-letter” model when sending or declining social invitations in the postwar period.  This 1929 letter from the poet Edmund Blunden to Siegfried Sassoon, housed in the Ransom Center’s Siegfried Sassoon collection, demonstrates that the memory of the standard Field Service Postcard stayed with soldiers long after the Armistice.

Blunden offers only alternative variations of “well” as a means of describing his mental state and mixes contemporary references with allusions to wartime objects or locations. When listing the possible enclosures of the letter, Blunden offers “H. Wolfe’s Poetical Works” or a “Signed Portrait of H. Williamson” (Humbert Wolfe and Henry Williamson were literary rivals of Blunden’s) alongside a “D.C.M. and Bar” (Distinguished Conduct Medal and insignia for a soldier’s uniform) and a “Silk Card” (an embroidered postcard that was often sent as a souvenir by British soldiers in France to their loved ones at home). Likewise Blunden brackets obsolete military destinations—“base hospital,” a “delousing station,” and “Red Dragon Crater” (a section of No Man’s Land where Blunden endured some of his worst combat experience)—with Lord’s, the famous London cricket ground beloved by both Blunden and Sassoon. In personalizing the “form-letter,” Blunden emphasizes the hollow and automated nature of the Field Service Postcard in its original form. As Fussell reminds us, such gestures of individuality were acts of defiance against the industrialization of war, death, and language during the First World War and its aftermath.

Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory discusses several Great War poets and writers whose archives are housed at the Ransom Center, including Owen, Sassoon, Blunden, Robert Graves, H. M. Tomlinson, and Isaac Rosenberg.

Related content:

Last Letters From World War I Literary Heroes

A standard British Army Field Service Postcard sent from Wilfred Owen to his mother, Susan Owen, on April 5, 1917.
A standard British Army Field Service Postcard sent from Wilfred Owen to his mother, Susan Owen, on April 5, 1917.