Arts & Entertainment: Handforth observes centenary of WWI with show of propaganda posters

This year marks the centenary of the beginning of the conflagration of World War I. In observation of this fact, Handforth Gallery – housed inside the main branch of the Tacoma Public Library – is currently exhibiting the library’s collection of WWI propaganda posters.

Entitled “Defending America’s Freedom: It’s Everybody’s Job!” the exhibit consists of posters collected by John B. Kaiser who served as library director from 1914 through 1924.

There are recruitment posters, exhortations to purchase war bonds, instructional messages and a nice collection of posters encouraging support of and participation in the Red Cross.

Soldiers, sailors, nurses and Lady Liberty herself are the heroes of the story told in these images. The villains are the “Huns,” German soldiers portrayed as hunkering brutes with spiked helmets, walrus mustaches and blood on their hands. They drag away Belgian maidens from ruined cities. From the coning towers of their submarines they fire upon poor nurses who were passengers aboard ships that their U-boats have sunk. One poster simply depicts a bloody handprint: “The Hun. His Mark,” the poster says, “Blot it out with Liberty Bonds.”

A variety of art media was used in the production of the originals that were commissioned from some of the best artists of the day. Howard Chandler Christy, known for his sensual nudes, has depicted a cute, young woman clad in a sailor’s outfit. The quick, broad-brush strokes are reminiscent of the style of painters of the ash can school. “Gee I wish I were a man,” reads the poster, “I’d join the Navy…”

Gordon Grant’s Red Cross poster, “What are you doing to help?” looks like it was originally done in charcoal. A nurse standing beside a wounded soldier is reaching out to the viewer.

The Red Cross was branded as the “Great Mother,” who cares for the wounded with its legion of nurses. One rather surreal poster, by Alonzo Earl Foringer, depicts a colossal nurse holding a wounded soldier on his stretcher like the Madonna holding a baby.

Joseph Pennell’s war bond poster gives us an apocalyptic vision of New York City in flames. German aircraft fly in a burning sky and U-boats are in the harbor. The Statue of Liberty is in ruins; its head has fallen to the ground. The message here is fight the enemy abroad so that we don’t have to fight him at home. This sentiment was echoed by some of the rhetoric that was heard leading up to the invasion of Iraq in the wake of the 911 attacks.

This is a show that will appeal to history buffs, art lovers and those interested in advertising and graphic design. Exhibition curator Robert Schuler will give a gallery talk April 5 at 1 p.m.

“Defending America’s Freedom” runs through April 26. For further information visit http://www.tpl.lib.wa.us/page.aspx?hid=437.

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