Wednesday afternoon University of Miami Art and Art History Professor Paula Harper brought her students to the Wolfsonian to see a display of propaganda art from the library collection. Even before we stepped up to the library floor, the professor and her students were conducted on an impromptu stop-off and review of a suite of furniture and a couple of paintings hung in the foyer of our administrative offices to impress the students with the idea that propaganda comes in many shapes and formats. Upon entering the main reading room of the rare books and special collections library, the UM visitors were treated to a display of a wide variety of materials documenting the First and Second World Wars, and some political propaganda of the interwar period as well. Professor Harper and her students were shown a series of French propaganda postcards from the First World War featuring images of pitiable child victims of war. The postcards were designed to evoke sympathy for the orphaned and displaced children of the occupied territories, and to provoke righteous rage against the German invaders and perpetrators of atrocities against such innocents.




The students appeared to be very much moved by the artwork of Louis Raemaekers (1869-1956), a Belgian illustrator who picturing the horrors of the First World War in editorial cartoons. The library holds two large numbered and limited editions of this illustrator’s work: a two-volume Century edition de luxe of Raemaekers’ war cartoons, edited by J. Murray Allison and containing a foreword by Theodore Roosevelt; and The Great War victory volume illustrating the final phase of the war from the entry of America to the conclusion of peace, featuring 92 cartoons by the artist. Although understandably hostile to Kaiser Wilhelm II and the political and military leadership of the Central Powers, the cartoons demonstrated a surprising restraint and even sympathy for all of the common soldiers caught up in this bloody conflict. Some of the images drew on old Medieval motifs and themes, such as “The Dance of Death.”




Other books that caught their eye were the children’s propaganda books, including a book of Nursery rhymes for fighting times that pictured a “goose-stepping” Mother Goose on the front cover, and that same goose looking the worse for wear on the back cover.


Professor Harper had specifically requested that we pull some materials by Hugo Gellert (1892-1985) for the class to see. Since we have a large collection of his work, (including three extraordinarily rare oversized portfolios), we pulled a nice sampling of materials ranging from portfolio plates, dust jacket covers, a calendar leaf, and illustrated books. Born in Hungary, Gellert emigrated to the United States where he set all of his considerable artistic talents in the service of the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA), of which he was an active and committed member. Gellert also drew on Classical (Aesop Said So) and Medieval religious motifs (“The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”), but carefully reworked them to caricature contemporary political figures and make the new images relevant to the Communist class struggle.

Other of his work intended to draw African-Americans to the Communist Party recycled images of the Black folk hero, John Henry in representations of jailed Communist activist, Angelo Herndon and anonymous African-Americans working on Southern chain gangs. 


For the World War II era, we pulled several vintage sheet music covers, including one with a cover design by Arthur Szyk (1894-1951).


Szyk, a Jewish Pole, fled his native land before the German invasion and eventually made his way to the United States where he continued to create powerful anti-Axis propaganda.


The students also had the opportunity to see some of the propaganda produced by the Axis powers during the Second World War. The Wolfsonian library holds a large body of propaganda broadsides, leaflets, display cards, and other ephemera generated by Dante Coscia (born. 1921) and other Italian fascist propagandists in the late phase of the war.

Il Duce, like the Führer in Nazi Germany, benefitted greatly from the talented designers who lent their considerable talents to maintaining the popularity of these dictatorial regimes. Although he had originally earned a name for himself as a successful commercial artist specializing in creating voluptuous female figures, Gino Boccasile (1901-1952) became an avid supporter of Benito Mussolini. As such, he produced a large body of propaganda posters, postcards and other materials in support of the fascist regime in the heroic style. At least one of his advertisements in support of the fascist autarky (or “self-sufficiency” campaign), however, reverted back to his earlier “cheesecake” style as it promoted Italian synthetic nylons as an inexpensive and sexy alternative to imported silk stockings.

In 1943, the Allies began the liberation of Southern Italy, and eventually King Victor Emmanuel III dismissed Mussolini, installed Marshall Pietro Badoglio as prime minister, and had the carabinieri place the former fascist dictator under arrest. Although rescued from captivity by the Germans and installed as the titular ruler of the Repubblica sociale italiana (or Republic of Salò), Mussolini was wholly dependent on his German allies and their virtual puppet. A true and steadfast believer, Boccasile, Coscia, and others continued to produce propaganda for the RSI regime. Boccasile even enlisted in the Italian SS Division, where he designed their recruiting posters and created racist and anti-Semitic propaganda.


Branded a collaborator in the immediate aftermath of the war, Boccasile was reduced to selling pornographic sketches to support himself. But by 1946, he was able to revive his career and open an agency in Milan, and win lucrative commissions making commercial posters for a number of important clients including the Paglieri cosmetic company, Chlorodont toothpaste, and Zenith footwear.

~ by "The Chief" on April 1, 2011.

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