Arts & Culture » Art

Propaganda ministries in the museum

by Sura Wood

LEFT: Unidentified artist (British), "Telling a Friend May Mean Telling the Enemy (Navy)," ca. 1940-42 . Color lithograph poster. Printed by J. Weiner Ltd., London, for H.M. Stationery Office. Photo: Courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco RIGHT: Homer Ansley, "Let Me Do the Talking! Serve in Silence," 1941-43. Color screenprint poster. Issued by the San Francisco Junior Chamber of Commerce for the Northern California WPA Art Program, San Francisco. Photo: Courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
LEFT: Unidentified artist (British), "Telling a Friend May Mean Telling the Enemy (Navy)," ca. 1940-42 . Color lithograph poster. Printed by J. Weiner Ltd., London, for H.M. Stationery Office. Photo: Courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco RIGHT: Homer Ansley, "Let Me Do the Talking! Serve in Silence," 1941-43. Color screenprint poster. Issued by the San Francisco Junior Chamber of Commerce for the Northern California WPA Art Program, San Francisco. Photo: Courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco  

In the mid-20th century, long before social media and the Internet, posters that adopted the bold graphics and snappy slogans of the advertising industry were a powerful tool of psychological warfare and the instruments of choice for mass persuasion - make that propaganda - and mobilizing public opinion. "Weapons of Mass Seduction: The Art of Propaganda," a new show at the de Young Museum, with a title that would make Don Draper ("Mad Men") proud, has the odd distinction of quoting both Winston Churchill, who promulgated the "V" for Victory sign, and Nazi Reich Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels, an evil genius who knew a thing or two about "The Big Lie."

Covering the eras of two World Wars, from around 1910 through the 40s, the exhibition also includes some oddball films from unusual sources, and propaganda kimonos. Yes, you heard that right: these garments come in a variety of patterns, from parachutists descending from the sky into enemy territory, and a line of rifle-toting soldiers in teacup blue, to khaki green tanks storming through the waves to confront foes on the shore. Eye-catching, colorful recruitment posters such as a 1917 lithograph for the U.S. Navy with an All-American sailor riding a torpedo on the ocean as if it's a bucking bronco, and another from the following year for the U.S. Tank Corps of a neon hellcat leaping out of the flames with the tagline, "Treat em Rough," encouraged young men to choose their favorite brand of macho and sign up. Other graphics and newsreels were dispatched to promote fundraising for the war effort and self-sacrifice on the part of civilians, and to caution against "Loose Lips" that might inadvertently aid the enemy lurking among us. "Army Command" (1940), a dramatic monochrome lithograph where the shadow of an oversized helmeted soldier with his finger to his lips looms over a small gathering on a street, is enlarged on a wall in the darkened entry to the exhibition. It's a noirish, paranoia-inducing sight.

Jim Ganz, curator of the FAMSF's Achenbach Graphic Arts collection, adds depth to this small show by including wartime propaganda from both the Allies and Axis powers, which effectively exposes the insidious nature of propaganda itself. Its techniques bypass the rational mind, appealing to a mob mentality, gung-ho militaristic jingoism, and a reflexive dehumanizing of the adversary. No matter which side they're on, people have proven to be susceptible to images and ideology that exploit prejudices and incite hatred and suspicion of "the other." As primal fear is a potent method of turning off the brain, demeaning racial stereotypes and denigration of the opposition as animals, ogres or vermin were deployed by good and bad guys alike, illustrating that two can play at this nasty game of manipulation. The Nazis depicted Franklin D. Roosevelt as a monstrous King Kong, while the Japanese caricatured him as a demon with fangs and hairy, inordinately large hands. It should be noted the FDR was not above utilizing virulent propaganda to justify his campaign for incarcerating Japanese Americans in internment camps during WWII.

In "Scare Tactics," one of the show's most affecting sections , some especially vivid specimens are on parade, like a giant, hulking, gorilla-like beast wielding a machete in one hand and a lit cherry-red bomb in the other that looms large in Bavarian artist Julius Ussy Engelhard's alarmist poster "Misery and Destruction Follow Anarchy" (1918). "Rest Assured - the Amputations Are Proceeding Methodically" (1941-42), a color lithograph produced in German-occupied France, serves up a slime green octopus endowed with a repulsive horror-film likeness of Churchill's face, his blood-red lips squeezing his iconic cigar, and a dozen tentacles extending greedily to continents across the globe.

Propaganda shorts made by the Walt Disney Studio, which devoted 90% of its output to the war effort from 1942-45, are anything but subtle. From this vantage point, it's frankly disconcerting to see Donald Duck headlining the rambunctious anti-Nazi cartoon parody "Der Fuehrer's Face." Originally called "Donald Duck in Nutzi Land" and set to the strains of a hit novelty song, it finds our hero encountering goose-stepping storm troopers and an oompah-pah band, later toiling on a munitions factory assembly line, where he's forced to give the Hitler salute to every picture of the Fuehrer coming down the conveyer belt. Will his nightmare ever end?

It's one thing for Disney to draft his beloved characters for the cause, but quite another when the Nazis appropriated Donald Duck, Popeye and Mickey Mouse, portraying them as Allied fighter pilots dropping bombs on quaint French farm houses in "Nimbus Released." The pernicious black & white short, widely disseminated in Vichy France in 1944, was a low blow, even for them.

Through Oct. 7. www.famsf.org.

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