Modern Art and Propaganda

Max Pechstein (Germany, Zwickau, 1881 – 1955), Erwürgt nicht die junge Freiheit, Don’t Strangle Our Newborn Freedom, 1919

As the first world war drew to its bitter end, hunger and despair were rife throughout Germany. Military defeat and economic collapse were making themselves felt. Deserting soldiers roamed the streets and added to the chaos- The country was ripe for change. On November 9, 1918, Kaiser Wilhelm II fled to Holland, and a few days later announced his abdication. The stage was set for a revolution that would replace the old regime with a system in which the leaders were to be responsible to parliament.A coalition government of the moderate Social Democratic party and the more radical Independent Social Democrats was set up. Elections were called for January 1919. In the intervening period many artists became politically active, some for the first time, trying to stimulate action, strengthen opinions, or alter the social conscience.

Posters were the visual weapons in the struggle of the working class against the rich. In marked contrast to the censorship that had been so strictly enforced during the Kaiser’s reign, German cities now became a not of colors and slogans as strident messages covered every available wall space. Among the most traumatic events of the period were the brutal murders in Berlin of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, leaders of the abortive Spartakus (communist) Revolution. This Pechstein’s poster is a stark plea for an end to civil war.See: Stephanie Barron, “Introduction” to Barron (ed.), German Expressionism: The Second Generation (Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1988): :

Modernist art movements were influencing propaganda posters from the early 20st century.  A good example of the avant garde movement influence is a famous piece Beat the Whites with the red wedge – by El Lissitzky, in 1920 which used various geometric color surfaces in an abstract fashion. Lissitzky used this subtle platform to suggest in a blunt propaganda massage.

This early Russian revolutionary poster, “Believe, will celebrate the hundredth anniversary,” is one of the many posters that used modernism as was practiced by Fernand Léger , Marc Chagall and others.

The Bauhaus School of Design
Beat the Whites with the red wedge – 1920

Figurative Cubism was introduced by Strakhov-Braslavskij A. I. in his poster “Liberated woman – build up socialism!“, in 1926  and by V. Kulagina’s poster  called   “To Defend USSR” ,  in 1930. The quality of the artistic works in these early posters reveals that these creative artists were trying to use propaganda platform as a conduit for the realization of their aesthetic inspiration. Perhaps in those early years of Soviet Union these artists still had a degree of conviction in the legitimacy of their cause, something that was lacking in the propaganda posters of the later years,

Strakhov-Braslavskij A. I, Liberated woman – build up socialism! , 1926


V. Kulagina, ; To Defend USSR,  in 1930.

This ambitious poster  celebrates Fascism  in strictly modernist flavor. The Mostra della Rivoluzione Fascista was held in Rome in 1933, to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the coup that made Mussolini absolute ruler of Italy. In the words of the catalog, the exhibition aimed to to express

… the atmosphere of the times, all fire and fever, tumultuous, lyrical, glittering. It could only take place in a style matching the artistic adventures of our time, in a strictly contemporary mode. The artists had from Il Duce a clear and precise order; to make something MODERN, full of daring. And they have faithfully obeyed his commands.


Magda Koll, Four Rest at Homes Behind the Front for Soldiers from Bremen, 1915. The poster message that; humanity is alive and well, was a German  response to the Allied allegation of German barbarism in the first world war. The minimalist design of the poster was quite innovative at the time.

Ludwig Hohlwein,. Red Cross Collection 1914. Collection in support of volunteer nursing in the war. 1914,


Women in Propaganda Posters

Images of women have been prominent in the war poster propaganda as well as in other ideologically driven posters. The images of motherhood have been exploited to symbolize national security, sanctity of homes, duty to country and duty to family. Many of the propaganda posters portrait femininity as passive and in need of protection. Some posters emphasize the patriotic mother who is willing to sacrifice her sons to the war effort. The propaganda has been used to provoke a nationalistic attitude towards the motherland, a place that is pure, noble and different. In the classic war propaganda campaigns of the 20th Century, women as victims of rape often symbolize the brutality of the enemy as well as the despoiling of the motherland’s culture and harmony. Ironically, however, women are sometimes portrayed as potential traitors or unwitting accomplices by virtue of their supposed tendency to gossip. Through this cultural stereotyping, an atmosphere of suspicion is created and domestic surveillance becomes embedded into the national consciousness as one of the justified costs of war.

Soviet propaganda posters of the 1920s and the 1930s often portrayed women as larger-than-life figures, reflecting their new economic role and socio-political power and importance. Women equality was enshrined in the Soviet constitution. To realize this ideal, there was a need to set up various institutions that would allow women to become engaged fully in the productive sectors of the economy. Thus, the government invested heavily on various child care facilities, and large-scale canteens to allow them to enter into the workforce. In the propaganda posters, the liberated Soviet women were depicted in various productive roles, although in reality, the gender inequality persisted, and during the whole Soviet era no woman of consequence did emerge at the helms of power.

“Women workers take up your rifles” – A revolutionary poster of 1917.

In contrast, the ideal role for a woman in Nazi Germany  was to work at home and be a mother. The Winterhilfswerk, or Winter-Help-Work of the German People, was founded by the Nazis after Hitler was appointed Chancellor. It was their official winter relief charity that was operating under Reich propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels . Hitler introduced the fund in a speech in September 13th, 1933, in which he claimed, “This great campaign against hunger and cold is governed by this principle: We have broken the international solidarity of the proletariat. We want to build the living national solidarity of the German people!” The Winter Fund’s main aim was to propagate and popularize the Nazi idea of a national community. The focus of the propaganda was to create an image of the party as a caring institution that was concerned about the welfare of the German people.

Support the Relief Organization Mother and Child, Goebbels in his inauguration address of the Mutter und Kind (Mother and Child) organization, in February 24, 1934 stated; “Mother and Child are the pledge for the immortality of the nation”. This was to address one of Hitler’s major concern over the falling German birth rate. The Organization sought to increase the birth rate by assisting mothers. The effort was primarily geared to help the mother in the home.

A People that Help Themselves, the Winter Fund poster, 1933, projects the image of a “genetically healthy” family, as the racial nucleus of the nation. The “natural” duty of women, according to the National Socialists’ doctrine was to bring as many racially pure and healthy children into the world as possible, in order to expand the “Aryan race”. This was an effort to increase the birth rate significantly. Artists were encouraged in this context, “to show at least four German children when they were depicting a family ” .


NSDAP (The National Socialist Party ) will save the people’s community; Fellow-Countrymen, if you need advice and help, apply at the local branches. 1938.

Jin Meisheng, The seeds have been well selected, the harvest is more bountiful every year, 1964.
Women in the Chinese propaganda posters are also depicted as fully equal to men, but like the Soviet Russia, they appear totally absent in the leadership roles.

Li Mubai, Jin Xuechen, Chairman Mao meets with model workers, 1964. It appears that the male model workers are more engaged in their discussion with the Chairman. The woman is placed standing at the back and just admiring the wise and handsome leader!

Most of the times women jobs are depicted as menial agricultural works, like this poster by

Wu Shaoyun, We sell dry, clean, neat and selected cotton to the state, 1958.

…While men are doing serious industrial jobs, as this poster by Li Zongjin, called “Study the advanced production experience of the Soviet Union, struggle for the industrialization of our country” in 1953 shows. In the early years of the People’s Republic of China, the Soviet Union sent many experts to help. Here a Russian industrial expert is shown giving advice. The text at the top is a handwritten announcement of a Russian exhibition.

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