Windows on the War at the Art Institute of Chicago
During World War II they made posters. The exhibit includes display of stencils used to make one image, since most of these posters were made using spray paint and stencils in a modified printmaking technique. Each country used painterly images to talk about enduring the process of making war, giving faces of sorts to enemy leaders, and create images to tell the story of discovering the atrocities perpetuated in the Germans’ Holocaust.
windows on the war : gallery view
The Art Institute of Chicago currently displays an enormous selection of these posters from its own collection. Of course I thought about how we talk about war now. I thought about the lack of created images representing the struggle with America’s wars abroad. I thought about how the more publicized American artists fiddle with ‘beautiful decoration’, cleverness, and technology. I thought about how young artists crucify themselves on the pursuit of fame in the castrated visual language of the academy. I thought about how digital media will not survive in the way these works on paper have survived. I thought about how each poster did not have an ‘artist’s signature’ yet somehow ‘credit’ was given the artist, or the group of artists, responsible for the work on view.
Then, I thought about the work.
I am interested in the artists’ choices as they created visual language of the evils unfolding somewhere else.
ben shahn poster describing nazi brutality
Wall text accompanying the 1942 image by Ben Shahn, published as an offset lithograph by the Office of War Information, US Government Printing Office:
This is one of only two designs by Ben Shahn printed for the Office of War Information. Inspired by the destruction of Lidice, Czechoslovakia, an industrial village razed by the Nazis in retaliation for the 1942 shooting of Nazi official Reinhard Heydrich, Shahn portrayed a cornered man cloaked in a hood, fists clenched against a high brick wall.
This design prompted critics to ask what kind of “realism” could best communicate to the American people – the storybook folk realism of Norman Rockwell, or the chilling documentary realism of Shahn.
nikolai denisovskii : straining in vain
Nikolai Denisovskii’s stencil poster, one of an edition of 650. Russian.
From the wall text : Despite the fact that Germany’s human resources are exhausted, the Fascists keep announcing new “super-total” mobilizations.
Plucked clean from all ends,
There sits the blood-drinking vulture.
But no matter how hard the killer tries,
He cannot get his chicks to hatch.
Against an ominous sky, a Nazi bird of prey with Hitler’s features sits on the skulls of slain German soldiers as if they are eggs from which it is possible to hatch new recruits. The text by the young satirical poet Mikhail Vershinin displays an admirable economy of means, underscoring all the ironies of the image in just four brief lines.
a statesman for contemporary germany
Nikolai Denisovskii’s stencil poster, one of an edition of 1,000. Russian.
From the wall text : The Lublin camp, with its calculated and fearsomely methodical technique of exterminating people, again strongly underscores the STATE-SPONSORED nature of the German organization of mass murder and torture. From the newspaper, Krasnaia zvezda.
In this chilling poster, the soldier being honored symbolizes all of the occupying German forces along the Eastern front, which were Hitler’s willing executioners. This poster coincided with the Red Army’s first encounter with a Nazi extermination camp – Majdanek – on July 24, 1944.
The wall text describing what it was like to discover the concentration camps broke my heart. I have read anecdotes of American GIs suffering post traumatic stress responses (sleep disturbances and more) years after they discovered what they discovered freeing those camps. The Russian stories are in its own category.
For images from the Art Institute, click through here.