Kansas City Art Institute Professor's Posters Reframe 'Traditional Memory' Of World War II
Two young children look toward a mother figure, her face turned to the side facing the American flag.
“For in thee the oppressed find justice and mercy,” reads the accompanying text.
The image is from a World War II poster created by Polish artist Wladyslaw Teodor “W.T.” Benda.
“Isn’t that beautiful?” asks Hal Wert, a professor at the Kansas City Art Institute.
Most war art imagery of the time depicts fighter planes, ships and soldiers on the battleground. But Work, Fight, Give: American Relief Posters of WWII shifts the focus from the front lines to the sidelines. It tells a chronological story of the war through diverse lenses, with unique artwork, typography and content organized by country.
Wert curated 50 posters and memorabilia from his personal collection for the exhibit, which will travel to Colorado, Texas, Arkansas and elsewhere this year. First Friday visitors to the Crossroads can see 15 of the works at the Mid-America Arts Alliance on Friday, Feb. 3 (and by appointment through February).
The exhibition is the first “to challenge our traditional memory of World War II, putting relief efforts at the forefront,” according to MAAA.
“Not often do you find somebody who has the collection and who is also the content expert,” says Tim Brown, MAAA’s curatorial assistant, noting that Wert is both.
“There’s that tension between the desire to be comprehensive and the desire to put together a show of 50 posters that knock your eyes out,” says Wert, who spent nearly two years compiling the show.
Wert and Brown selected works from the United States, Finland, Norway, Yugoslavia, Poland, Lithuania, Greece, Russia, France, Britain, China, Hungary, and the Philippines. Beside the posters are labels with acrylic photos of famous stars of the 1940s who supported aid efforts, and some images of the artists.
“World War II is not only a war between nation states, (but) between competing ideologies, and most of the states knew there was a civil war going on between the right and the left,” Wert explains. “In Greece that’s true. In Yugoslavia that’s true. In Italy that’s true. In France that’s true. So the undergrounds are split, (and) the relief agencies are split.”
After Franklin D. Roosevelt created the National War Fund in 1941, which started to streamline the war relief aid process and create more efficiency, Brown says artists and other groups began to produce posters, Cinderella stamps (poster stamps) and bags. Each had a similar purpose – to prompt help from their audience – but messages were tailored for different audiences.
American war relief posters, for example, used cheery, attractive images of war heroes with slogans such as “Keep it up … Don’t let them down!”
But European posters, such as one by the United Yugoslavia Relief Fund of America from 1942-45, highlights the aftermath of war using images of gaunt children.
“It’s hard to hide the atrocities of the war,” Brown says. “A lot of this is pretty cleaned up compared to what was really happening. This is just the tip of the iceberg. They tried to make these starving children as palatable as possible.”
“Yeah, that’s a break-your-heart poster,” Wert adds.
Wert says his interest was piqued by his grandmother, who was politically active and stoked his interest in history.
“When I was a kid, my grandmother gave me buttons for each of the candidates clear back to 1888,” Wert says. “And then I decided, ‘No, I’ve always liked posters, I like posters better.’ And you know it’s hard to control your diseases,” he adds with a laugh.
Wert says he bought his collectibles at art auctions, on eBay and from other collectors Almost all are from the 1940s, and all of the works are originals.
“All posters are ephemeral,” he notes. “Most of them are made to be thrown away and the majority of them are. So they all lead a sort of precarious life.”
But they shouldn’t be ignored, he says.
“They’re an important part of political history.”
Work, Fight, Give: American Relief Posters of WWII, 6-8 p.m. Friday, Feb. 3, at Mid-America Arts Alliance, 2018 Baltimore, Kansas City, Missour, 64108, 816-421-1388.
KCUR contributor Vicky Diaz-Camacho has written for multiple local and national publications, including Alt.Latino. Follow her on Twitter @vickyd_c.