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“The Phalanx” is one of the postcards on display at the MFA.
“The Phalanx” is one of the postcards on display at the MFA.Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Postcards provide reminders: a trip taken, a sentiment expressed, sights seen. They inspire thought. The postcards in “The Art of Influence: Propaganda Postcards from the Era of World Wars” are meant to inspire action. “Wish you were here”? “Wish you were aware.” Vivid and bracing, the show runs through Jan. 21 at the Museum of Fine Arts.

The several hundred postcards on display are drawn from the museum’s Leonard A. Lauder Postcard Archive. That promised gift includes some 110,000 cards, and it’s still growing. The collection may be the most cherishable — certainly the most capacious — forthcoming addition to the museum’s holdings. Also included in the show are several film clips, posters, and photographs. (You ever seen that Rodchenko before, the one from the early ’30s of a political demonstration? Me neither.) The MFA’s Benjamin Weiss has curated the show with customary panache.

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Bookended by the two world wars, “The Art of Influence” includes postcards from both conflicts and numerous countries: Germany, the Soviet Union, Spain, Italy, Britain, the United States, Japan. National styles or tendences emerge. Is it a quirk of curation or do the German postcards tend more to photographs than the other nations do? Certainly, no one could match the Soviets for visual dynamism.

Almost without exception, the most interesting postcards come from what the French call l’entre-deux-guerres: the years between the wars. They’re more interesting both visually and thematically. An effort to persuade (or cozen) can lend the images a greater subtlety than those from either war. Battle puts a premium on bluntness.

This particular period makes for a striking collision of isms: artistic (Futurism, Expressionism, Constructivism, hence that Soviet dash) and political (Nazism, Bolshevism, Fascism, Falangism). It can be dizzying to see the two streams come into alignment, as they frequently do with Futurist design and Fascist message.

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“Churchill the Chamber Pot.”
“Churchill the Chamber Pot.”Courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts

There are all sorts of strange things to be seen here. The letter V as theme and variations? Hitler as Santa Claus? Churchill as chamber pot? Kaiser Wilhelm as Nero? Mussolini at a ship’s wheel? That last one conjures up the words “reef,” “rocks,” and “capsize.” That was clearly not the artist’s intention. Sometimes propaganda that’s pro can be as damaging as propaganda that’s anti.

The great propaganda media of the ’30s were radio and film. The collection of vintage documentary footage includes a snippet from “Triumph of the Will” (1935). The poisonous skill Leni Riefenshtahl deployed in making it remains astonishing. How can a postcard compare to that? Well, postcards have their own strengths: mass production, inexpensiveness, graphic vividness, portability, familiarity. Even their small scale affords an intimacy that can make a message effective in a different way from something seen on a big screen or heard over a loudspeaker. Reduced in size, the intellectual caricature that is propaganda doesn’t seem quite so . . . reductive.

A lithograph promoting the 1936 Winter Olympics — like the Summer Olympics, held in Germany: the Nazi Games — is shown in three different sizes: poster, postcard, and in between. It’s a striking demonstration of how size can matter, though not necessarily in ways one might expect. And the size that might matter most is the one that lets a viewer put the image in his or her pocket and carry it away for another day.

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Is propaganda a bad thing? The answer is obvious — except that it isn’t. The word is cognate with propagate. Propagating seeds is a very good thing. What about propagating ideas, even dubious ones?

True, the other side’s propaganda is a bad thing. And hindsight may make your own side’s seem like a bad thing, too. It’s a very different story during the heat of battle — figurative no less than literal. Righteousness, even when it’s just supposed righteousness, trumps nuance every time.

“Just a little something to ‘Remember Pearl Harbor!’”
“Just a little something to ‘Remember Pearl Harbor!’”Courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts

Dorothea Lange, as enlightened yet also as unillusioned an artist as 20th-century America knew, took an unconventional view of these matters.

“Everything is propaganda for what you believe in, actually, isn’t it? I don’t see that it could be otherwise. The harder and the more deeply you believe in anything, the more in a sense you’re a propagandist. Conviction, propaganda, faith. I don’t know, I never have been able to come to the conclusion that that’s a bad word.”

It’s one thing for a show to be diverting and full of surprises, as “The Art of Influence” is. It’s quite another for that same show to raise questions like Lange’s, doing so not with a sledgehammer or wordy texts but with something so simple you can affix a stamp and stick it in a mailbox.

THE ART OF INFLUENCE: Propaganda Postcards from the Era of World Wars

At Museum of Fine Arts, 465 Huntington Ave., through Jan. 21. www.mfa.org, 617-267-9300


Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.

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