World War I, the Great War, the war to end all wars, was not the war to end all propaganda. That may be the most striking lesson offered by “Over There! Posters From World War I,” which runs at the Museum of Fine Arts through May 25. A terrifyingly 20th-century conflict, waged with machine gun and submarine, airplane and tank, seems almost sedate as presented graphically and ideologically in these posters. The title of J. Paul Verrees’s “Join the Air Service and Serve in France — Do It Now” is emblematic: The urgency at the end of the title seems almost an afterthought. In a world of total war, these posters tend to be awfully . . . polite.
This is a bit unexpected, since posters from the war — or at least two of them — loom so large in collective memory. What must be the conflict’s two best-known images are recruiting posters. (Recruitment is, as it were, propaganda on the hoof.) James Montgomery Flagg’s “I Want You for U.S. Army” shows Uncle Sam pointing his finger at the viewer/prospective recruit. Slightly cater-corner from that is Alfred Leete’s “London Opinion — Your Country Needs You,” with Britain’s defense minister, Lord Kitchener, doing the finger pointing. The hanging of the posters is just right, since Flagg unashamedly lifted from Leete. They were fighting on the same side, after all.
Most of the 51 posters are American. There are samplings from Germany, France, Austria-Hungary, Russia, and six others from Britain. One of those is almost as famous as Leete’s, Savile Lumley’s “Daddy, What Did You Do in the Great War?” The “You” is in all caps on the poster, turning question into accusation. It’s a rare example of psychology being put to work. Nastily effective work: Even if it is for king and country, using a chap’s children against him doesn’t seem quite cricket. America wasn’t above guilt tactics. Richard Fayerweather Babcock’s Red Cross poster “Come On — Join Now — 15,000,000 Members by Christmas” shows a dog staring at the viewer. Between his teeth he holds a hat for donations. Resistance is futile.
The Red Cross is one of several unexpected organizations represented in the show, along with the American Library Association, the United States Shipping Board, and US Food Administration (which oversaw Allied food supplies). They’re an acknowledgment that total war extended far behond the battlefield. In fact, the sight of a bread knife in “Save a Loaf a Week — Help Win the War” is a reminder of how rare it is to see weapons, of any sort, on these posters. Conversely, the machine gun in Caspar Emerson Jr.’s “Help Them — Keep Your War Savings Pledge” is a no less rare symbol of modernity — and modern warfare. There are more horses in the show than there are tanks. General John J. Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Force, rides a rearing white charger in K. M. Bara’s highly dynamic “You Are Wanted by U.S. Army.”
Such anachronisms tend to be the rule. An exception is Jules Abel Faivre’s “We’ll Get Them — Second National Defense Loan — Subscribe!,” with its realistic view of a French soldier attacking. His pose is dynamic — arm outstretched, body leaning forward, eyes widened — without being exaggerated. In contrast, were Pershing’s charger any bigger the general would need an extension ladder to get down. Such naturalistic details as the poilu’s unshaven face and dirty hands are highly unusual.
The strangest poster in the show, hands down, is Babcock’s “Join the Navy/The Service for Fighting Men.” A sailor straddles a very phallic-looking torpedo. His pose, in its aquatic way, uncannily foreshadows Slim Pickens’s onscreen ride astride a bucking H-bomb in Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove.”A distant runner-up in oddity is Fred Spear’s “Enlist.” Inspired by the sinking of the passenger liner Lusitania, it shows a woman and child drowning underwater. Yet say this for those two posters: They’re neither tame nor stolid, as are so many others here. Something like Charles Buckles Falls’s “Teufel Hunden — German Nickname for U.S. Marines,” with its helmet-wearing bulldog chasing a helmet-wearing dachshund, is more representative.
The show includes the work of at least one fine artist, Joseph Pennell. His poster for Liberty Bond sales presents New York in flames and the Statue of Liberty damaged. Here is shock and awe, circa 1918 — and a hint of the end of the original “Planet of the Apes.”
Viewers should be aware that “Over There!” is the equivalent of split seating. Half the posters hang in the Vrachos Gallery, and half in the Stamas Gallery. The Fenway entrance separates them. An unsuspecting museumgoer, having seen one portion, might easily overlook the other. It doesn’t help that the galleries aren’t really galleries. They’re a corridor. But what donor would cough up the dough for a [Your Name Here] Corridor? A [Your Name Here] Gallery, now that’s another story.