World Wars to COVID-19: The Evolution of Art During Crises

Updated: Jan 28

Last week, through our blog, we had a look at how lockdowns have been a common occurrence in the past, and how it has historically influenced the visual arts. In a similar way, we have been trying to look into the other ways that art has passed down to us from the days of yore, and guess what? We found our latest idea from the unlikeliest of places!

Last month, when the virus was just rearing its ugly head and becoming noticeable in every country one after the other, French President Emmanuel Macron during a COVID-19 press briefing befittingly claimed that “We are at war.” Having been picked up by news outlets and media organisations worldwide since then, there have been varying instances that the coronavirus pandemic has been compared to a war-like situation -- just without the violence, and how it is against an invisible enemy.

Of course, being locked up at home with wifi is nothing close to the experience of taking shelter during the Blitzkrieg as a Londoner. But from the World War era to the Corona age, and through all the ups and downs in between, what has remained constant is art -- and how even in the grimmest of times it holds the power to uplift and change. And when we think of world wars, art posters were being created and circulated at an unprecedented level -- the likes of which were not seen before.

As always, the hard times are bound to pass one day. But the art that comes out of it remains forever. In this case, let us have a look at some of the art posters that made rounds during the world wars, and how the trend has evolved or changed at present, during the corona age.

For starters, the biggest problem encountered during wars was that of financing them. People had two choices: either get recruited in the army, or donate for the same. Those who did not enlist were asked to do their part and serve the country by buying bonds, or subscribing to war loans that would help invest war efforts. So finance posters having numismatic imagery or of coins transforming into bullets, crushing the enemy, or becoming shields turned into a common art poster trope in all the warring countries.

A poster by the Parliamentary War Savings Committee, showing a pair of cupped hands overflowing with silver coins which turn into bullets as they fall. In the background, there is a scrip voucher showing a 4% interest rate for the loan.

Similarly, we cannot talk about the World Wars and not bring up propaganda posters! However, it might surprise you to know that these posters were not created by the governments, but by artists who received little to no compensation for their work. Government agencies often held such competitions from where they could choose from.

One such poster was the “We Can Do It” by Howard J. Miller, which has been repurposed and used many times since it was created in 1942 -- and is now even used as a meme template!

“We Can Do It!” -- the iconic war time poster by Howard J. Miller

On the other hand, France was probably the most diverse and creative during the Wars when it came to producing propaganda posters. They were really known for their aggressive anti-German slogans, primarily as a response to violent Nazi policies. Believe it or not, the French were so up in the game of producing posters that the ComitŽ National de PrŽvoyance et d'Économies (National Committee on Foresight and Savings) sometimes sponsored poster competitions among even schoolchildren to design conservation and propaganda posters!

Poster by Jean Carlu depicting how the Nazi emblem is being crushed between the hammer and anvil

Meanwhile, although it was common practice to use posters for spreading positive or patriotic messages, there were some that even tried to tap fear to rally support for the Allied side, or warn against leaking information to spies.

As a result, it led to the common saying "loose lips sink ships", which became a war message that was spread far and wide -- from art posters, to newspapers or radios and even as a footnote in many letters exchanged during that time!

A later version produced by Seagram Distillers Corporation for posting in bars, by the artist Seymour R. Goff

Another pressing issue faced by all the nations engaged in the wars and that found a place in art posters was food shortages. People were told to go meatless and wheatless and save some food every week to be sent to those fighting on the frontlines. In Britain especially, people were almost forcefully made to give up eggs. Eggs started getting reserved and were meant to be collected for the wounded to aid in their recovery, as it was the cheapest source of protein which could be carried and shipped easily.

The poster by R.G. Praill that shows a chicken wearing a red leg band and a sash decorated with a crown.

If we are to fast-forward to the present, we will see that like food shortages, war funds and recruitment calls were to the great wars, hand washing, social distancing and staying home orders are to the corona age -- you get the drift. Could you deny then, that one of the smartest things to come out of the pandemic is the quirky twist to The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo, but with a sanitizer bottle in between?

The Recreation of Adam with Sanitiser

If we are talking about creative twists, then there’s also the socio-economic twist to Howard J. Miller’s ‘We Can do It’ poster -- this time depicting a black nurse. It not only cuts through existing racial norms in America, but also makes it clear how most of the essential healthcare workers are not only women, but also women of colour and how they have been constantly undervalued until the pandemic came round.

Miller’s “We Can Do It” repurposed in the Corona age

Here’s another: if you would brush up your history knowledge, you should remember that when men were dying on the frontline during WW2, there were not enough people to work in the factories or other workplaces. The economy was crumbling, and there was an acute shortage of labour. As a result, art posters were being created asking men, women and literally anyone else who was able to come out and take up work to keep their countries running.

The demand was so extreme that counter posters were also being created to push people to work. With little scope for resting, it was such a time that all work and no play would make Jack a patriot instead of a dull boy!

Poster which tries to urge someone to get to work

There has been a complete role reversal since then if it comes to doing your part for your country. While our grandparents’ generation had to get out of their houses and risk their lives for work -- we have to do the exact opposite: stay home so as not to risk our lives, no matter how hard that is turning out to be.

Poster circulated by Cambridge Health Department. Artist: Alice Bellchambers, a junior doctor in the UK.

At the same time, if we are to tell our grandchildren all about how we survived a global pandemic, can it even be possible to not mention the phrase ‘Quarantine and Chill’? This is like our characteristic poster version of ‘loose lips might sink ships’.

Quarantine and Chill poster by Ilmion Design

Honestly though, this would have been an almost Utopian situation if there wasn’t a looming uncertainty lying ahead of us. At the risk of sounding repetitive, we must however say that hard times don’t last, and very soon, before we know it, this too shall pass and become something which we would refer to as “that time when”. Believe in the words of one of the worst-hit countries of this coronavirus pandemic, Italy, that tells us Andrà tutto bene, and that we shall see each other on the other side. Till then, we hope you stay well and safe, and can one day proudly flaunt the art poster that is sure to become a trend once all of this is over!

New, soon to be trending poster created by Fine Art America

In the meantime, might we suggest you head on to our Quarantine Art Guide? We have listed a number of independent artists who are hosting art lessons or posting a lot of art prompts which you can use to make your own art poster! You can also create a DIY by reimagining a world war trope, or the current pandemic trope too, and show us what you came up with!


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