TRUTH AND PROPAGANDA
Last evening FIU Professor and Mellon-grant recipient Sean Hermanson brought the students taking his “Truth and Propaganda” class to The Wolfsonian for an orientation and tour of the museum and rare book and special collections library. The students were guided through the galleries by our own Academic Programs Coordinator, Jon Mogul and Assistant Director for Special Projects and Academic Initiatives, Regina Bailey. As the students discovered during the course of their visit, there was an abundance of art objects and artifacts on view to explain why the museum has earned an international reputation as an important repository for the “persuasive arts.”
Professor Hermanson and his students spent about forty minutes in the library as well. Following a quick review of our virtual and physical access policies, the students were treated to a display of rare propaganda materials housed in the library collection. We hoped to avoid lecturing the students while they passively looked over an array of propaganda. Instead, we encouraged them to participate in some Q & A intended to deconstruct and critically analyze the imagery of a few specific artifacts, and then to tease out some of the overt and subliminal messages embedded in their designs. The bulk of the items laid out on the tables in our main reading room had been produced as wartime propaganda for domestic and enemy consumption during the First and Second World Wars.
Additionally, some of the items on display had been designed to drum up support for a particular fascist dictator or their programmatic agendas,…
… or conversely, to lampoon and skewer their pretentions to power and glory through satire.
Other artifacts were intended as social critiques designed to mock such political-economic systems as capitalism, fascism, and colonialism. The pochoir plates included below, for example, were designed by Frederico Antonio Carasso (1899-1969) and published as a portfolio in Belgium by the Italian-born artist under the pseudonym Fred Deltor.
Even as some propaganda openly criticized European colonial ventures, other items aimed to justify and promote Italian colonial undertakings in Ethiopia.
One such item that caught the students’ eyes and imaginations was an artifact that linked corporatist and fascist propaganda: an advertisement produced in the form of a fan. By virtue of its shape and design, the ephemeral advertisement was transformed into a utilitarian object—especially useful in the tropical African climate. On one side of the fan was an advertisement for Boro-Talco powder manufactured by H. Roberts & Co. in Florence, Italy.
On the other side was a color image that included the ubiquitous “tropical” palm tree, a pretty North African or Ethiopian native girl, and an Italian colonial soldier. While the figure representing Italy’s colonial troops holds a rifle in his hand, he is shown to be at ease and smiling; the native woman also smiles, and in this early version of product placement, holds up a can of talcum powder.
Knowing how the fascist regime actively discouraged interracial mixing, it struck some of the student as somewhat ironic that they paired the Italian soldier with an exotic, dark-skinned woman in their own propaganda, perhaps encouraging their colonial troops to equate military with sexual conquest.
Below I have included an image of an American World War II broadside—one of the library items singled out for detailed analysis by the group.
With a little gentle prodding, the students began to talk about various aspects of the design. One student noted the attention to detail in the depiction of the helmeted enemy soldier and the sinister expression on his face. Another noted, by way of contrast, that the most the viewer saw of the victim, Anton Svoboda, was the anonymous shadow of his body hanging from a noose—suggesting, perhaps, that the viewer was intended to imagine themselves in his place. Another noted the positioning of the victim’s bare feet in the top left frame—an inclusion no doubt intended to conflate this innocent victim with the iconography of the Christian crucifixion. The broadside actually recalled the June 10, 1942 Nazi eradication of the village of Lidice, Czechoslovakia, where hundreds of civilians were dispatched by firing squads rather than the hangman’s noose.
The students are scheduled to return during the course of the summer semester to select and conduct their own research on specific museum objects or artifacts from our rare books library.