Theater & art

Art REview

World War I revisited in posters and maps

A selection of war posters from different countries are part of the “Over There!” exhibit at the Boston Athenaeum.
Posters from different countries are presented in “Over Here” at the Boston Athenaeum.

The war to end all wars, didn’t. What it did do, eventually, was inspire many exhibitions in observance of the 100th anniversary of its outbreak.

Charles Knowles Bolton wouldn’t be surprised. Bolton was librarian of the Boston Athenaeum from 1898 to 1934. Shortly after the start of hostilities, he began collecting items relating to the war: books, pamphlets, maps, even sheet music. He acquired the first war posters for the library in December 1914. In 1915, the Athenaeum held three exhibitions of them.

The Athenaeum owns some 1,700 posters from the war. Bolton acquired about 500; the rest came from later donations. These holdings are the source for “Over Here: World War I Posters From Around the World.” The show runs through Jan. 31. The Museum of Fine Arts has its own World War I poster show, “Over There!,” which runs through late spring.


There are 43 posters in the Athenaeum exhibition. A third of them are American. The show includes 27 smaller items. They range from a contemporary magazine cover and a Felix Valloton print to postcards and a handkerchief bearing the faces of Woodrow Wilson, George Washington, the Marquis de Lafayette, and the Statue of Liberty.

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Posters had been a favorite outlet for modern artists in the years before the war. These particular posters, however, offer little evidence of experimentation. They’re generally text-heavy and graphically conservative. It wasn’t the avant garde these artists were trying to appeal to, but the general population. And they weren’t trying to change aesthetic assumptions. Their goal was to sell war bonds or get young men to enlist.

The occasional nod to modernity appears: tanks, motorcycles, submarines, airplanes, a Zeppelin (with a death’s head superimposed on the front). But there are also horses, bayonets, bagpipes, and at least one sword and one dog. In trying to rouse or reassure civilians, poster makers avoided the murderously modern aspects of the war.

Sometimes a poster will stand out stylistically. The elongated narrowness of a German poster from 1914 shows an artillery shell for the Big Bertha long-range cannon. The image of the shell fills the frame, determining the poster’s unusual shape. More often, an oddity of text or incongruity of image calls attention to itself. Another German poster, celebrating the submarine service, shows a naval officer with his arm draped around a soldier’s shoulder. Their body language almost makes it look as though they’re on a date — this despite the fact that the officer is pointing to an Allied ship sinking in the distance. Timing is what makes an Irish recruiting poster so startling: It dates from two months after the Easter Rebellion.

Most bizarre of all is “Will You Supply Eyes for the Navy?” It looks like a sick joke, showing a blindfolded naval officer at sea. Actually, it promotes a program urging Americans to send binoculars and other optical equipment to the assistant secretary of the Navy (one Franklin D. Roosevelt). This was no idle request. Prior to World War I, nearly all optical equipment in the United States was imported from Germany or Austria. The poster must have been effective. A wall label reports that 51,000 donations were made.


In poster art, the ratio of aesthetic consideration to information provided is very high. Maps reverse that ratio — though don’t assume a complete absence of artistry. Cartoon and caricature are among the cartographic elements found in “From the Alps to the Ocean: Maps of the Western Front at the Harvard Map Collection,” which runs at Pusey Library through Nov. 11.

The three dozen maps come in various forms: global, continental, geological, aerial, battleground (the Argonne Forest). All but one were executed during the war years. They’re often hard to read, being visually dense without necessarily being dense with information.

Informational graphics have come a long way over the past hundred years. For proof, one need only look at the sole modern-day map. Executed for the show by the collection’s Bonnie Burns, it’s a behemoth: 8 feet by 9 feet. The map details the network of trenches gouged across the length of France and Belgium, extending from the Swiss border to the North Sea. How inexplicable the Swiss terminus must have appeared — and how much more so the other end. What must that final bit of dug-up beach looked like?

Art Review

OVER HERE: World War I Posters From Around the World

Boston Athenaeum, 10½ Beacon St., through Jan. 31,


FROM THE ALPS TO THE OCEAN: Maps of the Western Front at the Harvard Map Collection


Pusey Library, Harvard Yard, Cambridge, through Nov. 11,


Mark Feeney can be reached at