What’s in the word “enemy”? Certain other words seem like its natural companions, as in “the fucking enemy shows up,” the tongue-in-cheek title of a satire by New York poet Ted Berrigan. But when it comes to enemies we’ve known and loved to hate — the Nazis, the Borg, the Wicked Witch of the West — there’s not much tongue-in-cheek involved. We know evil when we see it, pure and simple. And we’re more than ready to rally round the flag and kick those mothers’ collective asses!
But enemies come and go. Yesterday’s foes become today’s allies, and vice versa. Then sometimes we’re forced to re-examine our original animosities — as with the Sioux, the Mexicans or the Viet Cong. And with an ever-renewable supply of evildoing adversaries in today’s world, it seems like a perfect time to think about how propaganda and patriotism define enemies to national populations. With the opening Monday, Jan. 6, of “Graphic Combat: Propaganda and Patriotic Art Exhibition” at Eastern Michigan University’s Ford Hall Gallery, we get a unique opportunity to view more than 100 examples of World War II postcards, posters, leaflets, etc., that portrayed “the enemy” from various sides of that conflict.
Focusing on the years 1937-1949, “Graphic Combat” includes images made in the United States, England, Canada, Germany, Japan, Italy, France, Spain, Portugal, Argentina, the USSR, Poland, Czechoslovakia and China. Looking back at the war from such a variety of viewpoints does little to change our sense of historical right and wrong, but it does suggest something that we often forget: We too can be someone’s evil empire.
Curated by EMU art historian Richard Rubenfeld and World War II memorabilia collector James Lees, the show sets up this world war of images in a series of vivid oppositions. Drawn and painted in styles as varied as their countries of origin, these calls to action range in technique and genre from cartoon to caricature, grim realism to brilliant fantasy, black-and-white starkness to gorgeous color. But the “we win” and “you stink” messages don’t vary. In that global and deadly Super Bowl played for all the marbles, there was no room for doubt or hesitation.
Fifty posters commissioned in 1943 by New York-based Artists for Victory’s National War Poster Competition, reproduced in miniature, take up such themes as “Deliver Us From Evil” (with Nazis shown leading women into prostitution or children to abuse and death), “Victory Starts Here” (with workers at home compared to soldiers at the front) and “Slave World or Free World” (in a series of clearly drawn contrasts).
On the other side of the Pacific Ocean, Japanese artists were concocting their own ideological messages. In one postcard scene, a gigantic samurai figure — representing traditional Japanese heroism, strength and battle skill — single-handedly blows away a fleet of British and American ships. In the sky behind this gargantuan — who’s drawn in a style worthy of a 2003 action comic — flutter the flags of the three Axis powers. There’s no doubt in this mind as to the war’s ultimate victor.
The “V for Victory” campaign by the Allies, on the other hand, spawned thousands of variations — from comic strips in which Hitler gets tormented by endless apparitions of the “V,” to straight-on portraits of American true grit embodied in a youthful Uncle Sam rolling up his sleeves (“Defend Your Country,” pictured). In another typically patriotic collage, we find the initials USA standing for Unity, Security and Allegiance.
Part of the success of “Graphic Combat” is in the way it juxtaposes images of great beauty (the Japanese artists, in particular, created works that seem almost postmodern in their aesthetic reach) with brutal representations of the issues at stake. But for us, after Sept. 11 and in the face of a dubious New World Order, this stunning exhibition is also a reminder that obviously manipulative postcards and posters have been replaced by the much more subtle nightly news and presidential speeches on CNN. To paraphrase a famous Pogo cartoon, “We have met the enemy and he is us too.”
“Graphic Combat: Propaganda and Patriotic Art Exhibition” opens Monday, Jan. 6, 4-6 p.m. at Eastern Michigan University’s Ford Hall Gallery in Ypsilanti. Design historian Victor Margolin (from the University of Illinois, Chicago) will speak on World War II propaganda in EMU’s Halle Library Auditorium, Tuesday, Jan. 7 at 7 p.m. The exhibition continues through Jan. 31. Call 734-487-0465 or 734-487-1268 for more information.George Tysh is the arts editor of Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org