The Art of Persuasion

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Abram Games in his studio, c1941

The only artist to ever earn the title “Official War Poster Artist”, Abram Games’ war posters have left a legacy that visual designers today are still trying to live up to. During the war, Games designed over 100 posters as a tool to recruit and educate soldiers and civilians, encouraging everyone to support the war effort. Until 24th November 2019, the National Army Museum, London, is celebrating his work in a special exhibition, The Art of Persuasion: War Time Posters by Abram Games. This retrospective of a major 20th-century artist displays 100 posters brought together for the very first time to explore how the art of persuasion helped mobilise a country at war.

“Maximum meaning, minimum means.”
– Abram Games’ motto

Abraham Gamse (1914-1996) was born in Whitechapel, East London, on 29th July 1914, the day after World War One was declared. His Jewish parents, Joseph Gamse, a Latvian photographer, and Sarah nee Rosenberg, a Polish seamstress, came to England as refugees in 1904. In 1926, Joseph Gamse officially anglicised their surname to Games and Abraham opted to change his first name to Abram. He joked that he had dropped the “ham” because it was not kosher.

As a child, Games attended Hackney Downs School, which he left when he was sixteen years old. Ironically, his school reports stated that his work was poor, careless and untidy and that his drawing skills were weak. In 1930, he enrolled at St Martin’s School of Art in London, however, was disillusioned by the teaching and left after two terms. Using the skills he had learnt during his brief time at college and the experience of helping his father develop photographs, Games worked for a short while as a “studio boy” for the commercial design firm Askew-Young, attended night classes in life drawing and entered a handful of poster design competitions. In 1935, Games came second in a competition to design a poster for the Health and Cleanliness Council and, the next year, won first prize in a poster competition for the London County Council.

From 1936 until 1939, Games worked as a freelance poster artist and had his work featured in an article in the journal Art and Industry. This led to several important commissions from companies, such as the General Post Office, London Transport and Shell. Unfortunately, the beginning of World War Two temporarily put an end to his design work.

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Private Abram Games (seated far right of middle row) with soldiers of The Royal Warwickshire Regiment, 1940

In May 1939, the Military Training Act coerced all men aged 20 or 21 years old to serve in the armed forces for a least six months. The following year, Games was called up for Army service and served as a private in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment for four months before being transferred to the Hertfordshire Regiment. In 1941, Games, who had been noticed for his artwork, was approached by the Public Relations Department of the War Office who offered him a job as a poster designer with the task of creating recruitment posters for the Royal Armoured Corps.

Games greatly admired the Surrealism art movement and opted to use combinations of silhouettes and abstract or geometric shapes in his designs to capture the viewer’s attention. Due to the restrictions on ink during the war, Games was often limited to a maximum of four colours but he was still able to produce vibrant posters.

Whilst conscription had already been introduced, only volunteers could serve in specialist units. Games’ task was to produce a poster to encourage soldiers to take on these roles that would, inevitably, expose them to greater danger. The Royal Armoured Corps had been founded on 4th April 1939 and, due to being fairly new, was lacking in volunteers. Later, Games designed the cap badge for the newly-created corps. The symbol of a fist represents the strength and power of the unit.

Due to the success of Games’ poster, he was commissioned to design a recruitment poster for the Auxiliary Territorial Army, which was the women’s branch of the British Army. The poster was aimed at young women who were needed to serve in a range of jobs, including, telephonists, drivers, bakers, postal workers, ammunition inspectors and military police. The first poster designer, however, was nicknamed the “blonde bombshell” on account of the hairstyle and red lipstick. The feminist Conservative Party politician Thelma Cazalet-Keir (1899-1989) objected to the design, stating, “Our girls should be attracted into the army through patriotism and not glamour.”

Games’ next poster for the ATS featured a smiling face, looking upward in enthusiasm, which was generally accepted by the war office, although, one critic complained that the colour red made the girl appear “slightly Russianed”. A later poster for the ATS featuring a sepia sketch was criticised for looking too much like an “English Rose”.

Throughout Games’ career as Official War Poster Artist, during which he was promoted lieutenant (1942) and then captain (1945), he produced a number of recruitment posters. Although people had been conscripted to the RAF, the Army needed to persuade officers and men to transfer to the Airborne Forces, which, of course, was more dangerous, however, parachute and glider-borne troops were promised higher pay.

In 1944, Games poster for the Royal Army Medical Corps Parachute units was displayed to encourage more people to join. Men were needed for Operation Market Garden, which was due to take place in September 1944. Of the 3082 men of the Parachute Regiment, only 462 avoided death or capture during the Battle of Arnhem.

Games’ poster for the Commando Medical Service asked medics to volunteer through their commanding officers after which they had to endure a rigorous selection process.

Usually, Games’ posters were printed using the lithography process, however, when he was commissioned to create awareness posters about bombs and weapons, he knew he needed to make the designs as realistic as possible; therefore, he resorted to photography. Titled “Danger Don’t Touch”, Games produced a couple of chromolithograph posters featuring photos of various bombs.

Games stated, “These ammunition posters could only have been produced after much study of statistics and hours in ordnance depots. Collaboration with technicians was essential.” The weapons needed to be as clear as possible especially as the posters were aimed at children to keep them safe. The lines at the bottom of the page say, “You may find one of these on the ground or half buried. Leave it alone and TELL THE POLICE AT ONCE. Do not touch it even with a stick and do not throw stones at it.”

As part of the weapon safety campaign, Games used shock tactics to reinforce the message that ammunition must be treated with care. One poster titled “This Child Found a Blind” was taken down by members of the public because the image of the girl in a coffin reminded them too much of their own children. This fictional child had found a “blind”, i.e. a bomb that had failed to go off, which inevitably went off when she picked it up.

Games’ weapon posters were not all aimed at civilians; some were targetted at members of the armed forces. Mass conscription at the beginning of the war meant that there were hundreds of new recruits but not enough time to educate them. These posters acted as infographics with instructions about how to store and use weapons. Ammunition needed to be stored carefully in a well-ventilated area. If the storage room was too hot, wooden items would expand and split, labels would peel off and liquids would leak. Likewise, a damp area would cause just as much damage: metals would rust or corrode, some items would rot and labels would become damaged. Both these conditions could also cause “blinds”.

Clumsy handling of weapons could also cause damage or, even worse, accidents. Throughout the war, Games only produced one poster that featured the enemy. With the heading “His rifle will fire, will mine?”, it encouraged soldiers to check their weapons were in full working order before entering combat. A faulty rifle, for example, would be useless in battle; not only would soldiers be unable to fire at the enemy, but they would not be able to protect themselves from enemy fire.

Throughout the war, soldiers and civilians alike were warned not to talk about army secrets or plans in case information got into the wrong hands. Letters to and from Army Head Quarters were to be sent via the Army Post Office and not with the General Post Office. The Army would deliver mail unmarked, whereas the public post office would stamp it with a postmark. If the letter got into the wrong hands, a rough location of the headquarters could be interpreted.

Most of Games’ war posters were serious, however, when the Ministry of Information launched their campaign about the dangers of revealing information about the war effort in public, Games added a tiny bit of humour into his work. The poster “Keep a Guard On What You Say” features a visual pun of a man whose mouth is guarded by a sentinel.

It was not only in public that people had to be careful; soldiers recuperating in hospitals were warned not to speak about their missions to the other patients and nurses. In Games’ design, the hospital bed forms the shape of a German soldier, implying that spies could be anywhere, even where you least expect it.

A more serious poster was designed to resemble an official notice. Printed during the run-up to the Allied Liberation of Europe, Games’ poster warned troops that talking about the mission would not only put themselves at risk but their comrades as well. Amazingly, considering the scale of the operation, no information was leaked and the Germans were taken completely by surprise on D-Day.

Bombs and armed combat were not the only killers during the Second World War, lack of hygiene played a huge part too. As a result, Games was commissioned to produce medically approved posters to be hung in Army barracks and communal washing areas. Soldiers were warned about the dangers of failing to clean various parts of the bodies, such as their feet, to keep dirt and disease at bay. Dental health was also encouraged in order to prevent tooth decay and infection. Advice about diet was also provided. The medical journal The Lancet praised Games’ designs, saying, “There is every reason to hope that education in hygiene so ably presented will have its reward in a rising standard of health and personal pride among the men.”

Men were encouraged to keep their quarters well ventilated and their bedding free from lice and flies in order to prevent conditions such as scabies. They were also urged to kill flies and, for those in hotter areas, mosquitos that may be carrying diseases such as malaria.

Whilst the men were out fighting, those back home were encouraged to do what they could to help the soldiers. A campaign called “Plasma for Britain” called for blood donations. Inevitably, countless people died during the war, but a transfusion of blood was a lifeline for many of the injured.

“Please Knit Now” posters encouraged women in the forces and at home to knit socks for soldiers, particularly those fighting in the “jungle” or the Far East. This poster was printed in 1945, which was the same year Games married Marianne Salfeld. Showing his love for his soon-to-be wife, Games secretly added the words “To Marianne” on one of the loops of wool in the poster.

Other posters urged people to think about waste and unnecessary items that could be avoided for the duration of the war. Using petrol to go for a joy ride, for example, was using up petrol that could have been used to power one of the army’s vehicles. Buying produce and items from abroad meant that additional ships were needed, which, again, took resources away from the troops. Rationing had been introduced in order to limit the number of products shipped from abroad and homeowners were inspired to grow their own vegetables in their back gardens.

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In 1944, the National Savings Committee (NCS) organised a “Salute the Soldier” week during which people were urged to save and donate money to help finance the war effort. Games helped by designing posters, pamphlets and banners to advertise various local fundraising events. These events included fetes, talks, exhibitions, pageants and concerts. Each town involved had a target to reach. Oldbury, a market town in Sandwell, West Midlands aimed to raise £500,000. Smaller communities were given lower targets, for instance, £50,000.

Being Jewish and a passionate Zionist, Games was particularly interested in supporting the Jewish Relief Unit, which worked in conjunction with the British Red Cross, the Salvation Army and Quakers to deliver food, clothing and comfort to the victims of Nazi cruelty. His posters encouraged donations from the people of Britain plus created awareness of the scheme to establish a Jewish state in Palestine. Due to his personal affiliation, Games designed these posters free of charge.

In 1941, the Army Bureau of Current Affairs (ABCA) had been set up by the War Office to boost morale and educate British service personnel. The ABCA considered current affairs to be an essential part of Army training and provided a number of activities, including lectures and films, to equip soldiers with this knowledge. They also produced a number of pamphlets and informative posters, which Abram Games designed. A series of prints titled “Your Britain. Fight For It Now” aimed to remind soldiers what they were fighting for. Combining images of derelict, bombed-out houses with future, modern constructions, the posters suggested that if the soldiers persevered, they could achieve a better quality of life back home.

Unfortunately, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (1874-1965) was anti-ABCA claiming the posters were a “disgraceful libel on the conditions prevailing in Great Britain before the war… It is a very wrong thing that the War Office should be responsible for such exaggerated and distorted propaganda. The soldiers know their homes are not like that.”

Nonetheless, the ABCA’s ideas were generally adopted and many officers took up the challenge to educate their troops. This led to the Army Education Scheme (AES) that optimistically claimed education would open up a world of opportunities for the soldiers.

“Officers must provide creative ideas from which a positive faith can be generated. To get the best out of men it is not enough to tell them that they must be ready to die in the last ditch. They must be given a new vision of the future and a new hope.”
– Military theorist Captain Basil Liddell-Hart, 1940

The ABCA and AES also aimed to boost the morale of the soldiers. As some troops began to return home, many found themselves facing unemployment and the inability to reintegrate themselves into civilisation. Games’ posters advertised various resources for these soldiers, for instance, the Civil Resettlement Units. These units were particularly aimed at soldiers who had been held as prisoners of war. The rehabilitation process involved helping the men find work, providing training and advice, and giving general assistance to aid their readjustment to their freedom.

There was a political side to the ABCA, which encouraged soldiers to register to vote in the general election held at the end of the war. Once again, Churchill was displeased about this because their left-wing bias painted the Conservatives as responsible for the economic depression of the 1930s and the cause of the mass unemployment at the end of the First World War. Afraid of returning to a lack of jobs and homelessness, the Labour vote in the 1945 General Election was higher among service personnel than civilians.

“Churchill may have been a great wartime leader, but he never visited a slum.”
– Abram Games

After the war, Abram Games resumed his freelance work, designing for clients including London Transport, the Financial Times, Guinness, British Airways and El Al Israel Airlines Ltd. He also continued to design for the Army, for example, the Household Cavalry, which combined the Life Guards (who wear red) and the Blues and Royals (who wear blue).

Two years after he had been demobilised, Games entered the competition to design the emblem for the Festival of Britain, which he won. The Festival of Britain was a national exhibition to celebrate the centenary of the Great Exhibition held in 1851, which was organised by Prince Albert (1891-61). It was also considered to be a post-war “tonic for the nation”. Games’ design comprises a star in the colours of the Union Flag, the head of Britannia and a string of bunting.

“I am not an artist, I am a graphic thinker.”
– Abram Games

Games continued to practice his “graphic thinking” for the rest of his life. He designed the stamp for the 1948 Olympic Games, becoming the first designer to have his name on a British stamp. Between 1946 and 1953 he took up the role of visiting lecturer in Graphic Design at the Royal College of Art, then in 1956, he was appointed Art Director of coloured covers for Penguin Books. His successful design for the Festival of Britain led to several more commissions, including the designs for the BBC Television’s first animated ident.

In 1957, Games was awarded an OBE for his services to graphic design and two years later was appointed Royal Designer for Industry. He travelled to the USA to speak at the Ninth International Design Conference in Aspen, Colorado plus wrote a book titled Over My Shoulder.

Although still under the design umbrella, Games turned his hand to other enterprises, for example, designing machinery. In 1959, he designed a coffee maker and patented an imagic photocopier. Later, he invented “Boil in the Bag” coffee, which he patented in 1963.

For the Muswell Hill Synagogue in North London, Games designed a memorial window for the victims of the Holocaust. Then, in 1970, he designed the “Stockwell Swan” tiled memorial for London Transport’s Victoria Line.

Throughout his career, Games was involved in a number of organisations. In 1962, he presented a paper about poster advertising to the Royal Society of Arts, winning him the RSA Silver Medal. In 1965, he was made a member of the Stamp Advisory Committee and in 1968, he was appointed the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation Consultant on Graphic Design at Bezalel School of Art in Israel.

As well as the awards already mentioned, Games won the Design and Art Direction President’s Award in 1991. His last achievement occurred in 1992 when he was made an Honorary Fellow of the Royal College of Art. Four years later on 27th August 1996, Abram Games passed away. He was buried in the Bushey Jewish Cemetery in Hertfordshire.

The Art of Persuasion certainly earns the caption “special exhibition”. With around 100 posters, it is a larger than expected display of work by an artist – sorry, graphic thinker – whose contributions during the Second World War deserve to be honoured for time immemorial. The National Army Museum has made the exhibition suitable for all the family. For children, there is an activity page in the back of the free exhibition guide, which challenges visitors to think about the poster designs and what life during the war may have been like. Activities range from discussing what your favourite poster is to standing on one leg for 30 seconds or attempting to say “Maximum meaning, minimum means” ten times without getting tongue-tied.

For people of all ages, an interactive screen allows visitors to design their own poster using elements from some of the original designs by Abram Games. These can be emailed to personal addresses so that everyone can keep their artwork.

Not only does the exhibition introduce the graphic designer Abram Games, but it also creates awareness of the intricacies of war. Most history lessons focus on the physical fighting, the politics and the outcomes of the war, however, little is said about the effects on the individuals living through it, the concerns about hygiene and the amount of encouragement needed to persuade people to support the war effort. As the title states, art can indeed be persuasive.

The Art of Persuasion: Wartime Posters by Abram Games costs £6 per person, although there are various concessions. Tickets can be purchased on site or booked in advance online. The rest of the National Army Museum can be visited for free.

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Love and Angst

“We want to create, or at least lay the foundations of, an art that gives something to humanity. An art that arrests and engages. An art created by one’s innermost heart.”
– Edvard Munch, 1889

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Self-Portrait with Skeleton Arm, 1895

When Edvard Munch (1863-1944) produced The Scream in 1893, little did he know it would retain the international appeal it garnered, encapsulating a mood to which nearly everyone can relate. Dying a recluse at his estate in the suburbs of Oslo, Munch bequeathed the works in his studio to the city, which included 18,000 prints. The British Museum in London managed to acquire a mere 21 of Munch’s prints, however, the opportunity recently arose to borrow works from abroad to hold their first-ever exhibition about the Norwegian artist – the first exhibition solely about Munch since 1974.

Although Munch was also a painter, the British Museum’s exhibition Edvard Munch: Love and Angst focused almost entirely on his print work, including lithographs and woodcuts. Having been born to a close-knit family on 12th December 1863 in Kristiania (renamed Oslo in 1925), Munch’s childhood was shattered after the death of his mother Laura Catherine Bjølstad from tuberculosis when he was only five years old. This left Munch, his older sister Johanne Sophie, and younger siblings Peter Andreas, Laura Catherine, and Inger Marie to be brought up by their father Doctor Christian Munch, the son of a priest.

The first print displayed in the exhibition is Munch’s Self-Portrait with Skeleton Arm (1895), which he produced as a memento mori of his own mortality. Not only did Munch suffer through the death of his mother, but his sister (Johanne) Sophie also died from tuberculosis when he was thirteen years old. It is primarily due to these two tragic instances that Munch began to produce artwork with the intention of expressing his deep, painful emotions.

Whilst Munch’s father was a loving, kind man, he was deeply pious and the conservative teachings of the Lutheran church dominated much of his life. “My father was temperamentally nervous and obsessively religious—to the point of psychoneurosis. From him, I inherited the seeds of madness.” As a result, Munch wanted to escape from this type of lifestyle. Firstly, in 1879, Munch enrolled in a technical college to study engineering. Whilst he excelled at maths, chemistry and physics, Munch left the college after a year with the determination to become a painter. In 1881, Munch enrolled at the Royal School of Art and Design of Kristiania, one of whose founders was his distant relative Jacob Munch; nonetheless, his father disapproved.

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Hans Jaeger, 1896

One thing that particularly upset Munch’s father was his relationship with the local nihilist Hans Jaeger (1854-1910). As a writer, philosopher and political activist, Jaeger was the central figure of the Kristiania bohemians with whom Munch became affiliated. Despite being jailed for blasphemy in 1885, Jaeger wrote the book From the Kristiania Bohemians, which greatly influenced the young Munch, helping him to develop a highly subjective expressionistic art style.

Munch briefly studied in Paris in 1885 and again in 1889, where he was influenced by several contemporary French artists. These included Edgar Degas (1834-1917), Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), Vincent van Gogh (1853-90) and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901). Unfortunately, Munch’s father died in December 1889 and Munch, destitute, was forced to temporarily move back home.

The British Museum used Munch’s prints of Kristiania Bohemians II (1895) as examples of the etching and drypoint technique Munch used during the 1880s. The image reveals the smoky interior of the Grand Café in Kristiania where Munch used to meet various writers and artists, including Hans Jaeger, who can be seen at the far end of the table. Etchings are usually created by drawing on a metal plate covered in acid-resistant wax with a needlepoint. The plate is then immersed in acid, which “bites” into the metal along the exposed scratched lines. Alternatively, Munch scratched directly onto the metal plate, a technique that is known as “drypoint”. Either way, the plate can then be inked, covered with dampened paper and passed through a printing press to produce a print of the design etched onto the metal. This can be used again and again to create several copies of the same image.

Another technique Munch utilised was woodcut. An example of this style is Munch’s Head by Head (1905), which he initially printed in black and white. To produce a woodcut, the artist has to cut into a block of wood with a chisel so that the raised surfaces can be inked to create a print – similar to how a rubber stamp works today. As shown at the British Museum, Munch often used different coloured inks on his woodcuts. This can be done by carefully applying various shades of ink to particular sections of the block. Munch also took a more unconventional approach and sawed up the woodblock so that the various sections could be inked separately before being reassembled like a jigsaw to create the final print.

In 1892, Munch was invited to put on an exhibition of his paintings in Berlin. His work, however, horrified the traditional art world and the exhibition was closed after a week. Fortunately, the younger, avant-garde artists were impressed with his style and the scandal, instead of ruining him, helped to launch Munch’s international career. As a result, Munch opted to stay in Berlin where he made use of their many traditional printing establishments.

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August Strindberg, 1896

Whilst in Berlin, Munch met intellectuals from all over Europe, the majority of whom met in the Black Piglet bar to debate about art, love, science and philosophy. They also discussed the concept of the death of God, an idea that was radical and shocking at the time. Amongst these thinkers was August Strindberg, a Swedish playwright (1849-1912) who Munch painted in 1892. Unfortunately, their friendship began to drift after Strindberg wrote a satirical review of an exhibition of Munch’s work in Paris. To get his own back, when Munch produced a print of his painting in 1896, he added the deliberately misspelt name “A. Stindberg”, which is a play on words meaning “mountain of hot air.” The naked woman in the border of the print alludes to Strindberg’s growing paranoia and bouts of hallucinations.

The works that unsettled the mainstream art world belonged to a cycle Munch titled Frieze of Life. These artworks were produced over several years and encompassed themes such as love, jealousy, anxiety and death.

“The Frieze is intended as a poem about life, about love and about death.”
– Edvard Munch, 1918

Some of Munch’s Frieze of Life recalls his first love affair with a married woman, Milly Thaulow. The affair took place during summer visits to the Norwegian coastal town of Åsgårdstrand. As a result, many of Munch’s romantic or angst-ridden artworks feature the shoreline in the background. “I get so inspired to paint when I am here”.

When talking about his print Separation II (1896), Munch stated that he “symbolised the connection between the separated couple with the help of long wavy hair.” This represents a “kind of telephone wire.” Perhaps this metaphor relates to Munch and Thaulow who could only meet in the summer and were, therefore, separated throughout the rest of the year.

During his career, Munch was obsessed with and afraid of female power, resulting in numerous affairs but no marriage. In 1898, Munch entered a relationship with Tulla Larsen, an upper-class woman, who was eager for marriage, however, Munch deliberately dodged the proposals. At the same time, Munch was struggling with alcoholism and poor health, which enhanced his fears about commitment. In 1900, he fled from Tulla to Berlin, however, the couple briefly reconciled a little later. The end of their relationship came about after Munch’s self-destructive and unpredictable behaviour involved him in a violent quarrel with another artist, followed by an accidental shooting in the presence of Tulla, which damaged two of Munch’s fingers.

In Man’s Head in Woman’s Hair (1896), Munch used the woman’s hair to represent his fears of female entrapment. The woman’s hair, which in this print is coloured red, surrounds the head of the man, symbolising that he has been ensnared in his love with the woman. Perhaps his thoughts have been clouded due to emotion, thus preventing him from avoiding a relationship or marriage.

“Ever since he was a child he had hated marriage. His sick and nervous home had given him the feeling that he had no right to get married.”
– Edvard Munch, speaking about himself

Two Human Beings, the Lonely Ones (1899) is a woodcut that Munch produced using his jigsaw technique so that he could ink each section separately. As a result, each element of the print – the woman, the man and the sea – has a white border, highlighting Munch’s solitary mood. Although he may be with a woman, Munch deliberately distances himself from commitment and a steady relationship.

For Munch, his constant state of separation and isolation led to an increasing feeling of anguish. It was this strong emotion that led Munch to produce his legendary painting The Scream in 1893. The artwork first appeared in an exhibition in Berlin titled Life Anxiety. Two years later, Munch produced a print of the painting, adding the title “Geschrei” (Scream) followed by the German words “Ich fühlte das grosse Geschrei durch die Natur” (I felt the large scream pass through nature).

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The Scream became the centre of Munch’s Frieze of Life series and quickly became his most well-known work. Munch produced two paintings of the artwork, two pastel versions and several prints, all of which have been widely coveted. In 2012, one of the pastels became one of the most expensive pieces of art ever sold when it went for £74 million during an auction at Sotheby’s.

To make the prints, Munch used a technique called lithography, which relies on the fact that grease and water do not mix. The image is drawn on a flat stone with a wax crayon, which is then dampened by water. The waxy area repels the water and when ink is applied, it adheres to the drawn image and avoids the damp areas. A piece of paper is then placed upon the stone and passed through a press to transfer the image.

Much to Munch’s annoyance, The Scream has been misinterpreted by the majority of viewers who automatically assume the open-mouthed figure is screaming. Munch originally intended to title the painting The Scream of Nature before settling for the shorter name. Munch claims the titular scream comes from the surroundings and not the person. The person is attempting to block out the shriek they can hear (the Norwegian title is Shrik).

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Although generally believed to be a man, the figure in The Scream is featureless and genderless, thus de-individualised, which has helped it to become a universal symbol of anxiety in the 21st century. The Scream has recently been turned into an emoji for use on social media, such as Facebook, Twitter, Whatsapp and so forth. It has also found itself in Pop Art and popular culture, for instance, works by Andy Warhol (1928-87) and Peter Brooks (b. 1943) and has recently been replicated on new Pokémon trading cards.

“The angels of fear, sorrow, and death stood by my side since the day I was born.”
– Edvard Munch

One of the strongest themes in Munch’s work is sickness and death. Munch’s life began with the death of his mother but it was the death of his sister Sophie when he was only 13 that haunted him for the rest of his life. He directed the emotions tied up with this experience into his large painting The Sick Child, which was on loan to the British Museum from the Tate Modern. Tuberculosis was a common illness during Munch’s life, however, the rapidly industrialised cities had no means to tackle it. Munch witnessed people like his father resorting to prayer in an effort to save lives, which in the case of Sophie was futile.

Munch also suffered from ill health as a child and grew up to believe that tuberculosis and mental illness was a fact of life. His sister Laura was institutionalised in 1894 with schizophrenia and, later, Munch suffered a number of mental breakdowns. Nonetheless, Munch wrote that he would not wish himself free of mental illness “because there’s so much in my art that I owe to it.”

“In The Sick Child I paved new roads for myself – it was a breakthrough in my art. – Most of what I have done since had its genesis in this picture. No painting in Norway has elicited such a scandal.”
– Edvard Munch, Origins of the Frieze of Life, 1928

It took Munch a year to complete the oil painting The Sick Child, which recalls the death of his sister Sophie. The woman seated beside Sophie’s bed is Munch’s aunt, Karen Bjølstad who had looked after the Munch siblings since the death of their mother in 1868. Unfortunately, when the painting was displayed at the Berlin Artists’ Association in November 1892, it was criticised for its rough appearance, however, once again the negative press gave Munch the much-needed publicity.

Munch believed that he had experienced more than his fair share of grief and produced several works on the same subject. In fact, his oil painting of The Sick Child was the fourth of six images in a series of the same name. Munch created a dry point of The Sick Child from which he produced ten signed prints. Despite being black and white, the child’s face still appears drained of colour as the life ebbs away.

The Sick Child I is a lithograph based upon the head and shoulders of the child in the previous print. Munch produced several stones of the same image and had them printed in different colours, for instance, yellow, pink and red.

“All art, like music, must be created with one’s lifeblood – Art is one’s lifeblood.”
– Edvard Munch

At the beginning of the 20th century, Paris was beginning to assert itself with modernity, hosting The World Fairs of 1889 and 1900 and inaugurating the newly built Eiffel Tower. It was a time when Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) was changing the way mental disorders were treated, Marie Curie (1867-1934) was discovering radioactivity and new experiments were occurring in film, art, dance and theatre. Munch was swept up by the hype of Parisian artists who were embracing coloured printmaking and working alongside the groundbreaking experimental theatre.

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Eva Mudocci/The Brooch, 1903

“Fraulein Mudocci is wonderfully beautiful and I almost fear I am falling in love …” Eva Mudocci was both a friend, muse and short term lover of Munch. She was a famous violinist at the time Munch was in Paris and he produced a print titled The Brooch based on her appearance.

Mudocci was not the only well-known name with whom Munch associated. Munch had already befriended and unfriended Strindberg but was also in contact with other contemporary playwrights. Scandinavian dramatists were beginning to take precedence in the experimental theatre world and they relied upon avant-garde artists to design stage sets, posters and programme covers. Artists included Toulouse-Lautrec, Edouard Vuillard (1868-1940) and, of course, Munch himself.

Munch felt an affinity with the Norweigan playwright Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906) whose plays, like his own work, shocked bourgeois society. They challenged social and moral conventions with themes of adultery, hypocrisy, mental illness and diseases, such as syphilis. Munch said of the audiences’ reaction, “Ibsen threw a huge log into the anthill.”

Munch initially met Ibsen whilst back home in Kristiania where the elderly playwright lived in a self-imposed exile. Whilst Munch admired the older gentleman, Ibsen saw a bit of himself in the artist. He warned Munch, “Believe you me – you will have the same fate as I – the more enemies, the more friends.”

Munch designed programme covers for at least two of Ibsen’s plays, John Gabriel Borkman and Peer Gynt. He also designed the set for Ibsen’s Ghosts in 1906. Ibsen had passed away earlier that year and in his honour, Munch was asked to design the sets for a performance at the Kammerspiele, which had recently opened in Berlin. In some ways, Munch associated Ghosts with events of his only family life, particularly the deaths of his mother and sister, and he used these personal memories as visual aids when creating the stage set.

Despite living to the age of 80, Munch remained emotionally attached to his family and homeland all his life. Although he had tried to escape from his life as a young adult, he was constantly drawn back to Kristiania, especially the village of Åsgårdstrand, which, as already mentioned, features as a backdrop in many of his works. “To walk around here is like walking among my pictures.”

In 1908, Munch was admitted to a clinic in Copenhagen due to acute alcoholism and an anxiety-driven nervous breakdown. He eventually returned to Norway in 1909 but his style of art had undergone a radical change. Rather than concentrating on past events, love and angst, Munch focused more on Norwegian landscapes and daily life. In 1916, Munch settled in Ekely on the outskirts of the capital where he remained until his death in 1944.

Although the exhibition only focused on prints, Edvard Munch: Love and Angst managed to explore the artistic development and powerful intensity of Munch’s work. Throughout his career, Munch received mixed reactions. Whilst the traditional art world rejected him, there were plenty of bohemian artists to encourage and support his more outspoken work.

“We want more than a mere photograph of nature. We do not want pretty pictures to be hung on drawing-room walls. We want to create, or at least lay the foundations of, an art that gives something to humanity. An art that arrests and engages. An art of one’s innermost heart.”
– Edvard Munch

Until the end of the 19th century, Munch had little financial success. Ironically, it was the outraged reaction of art critics that gave Munch the recognition he needed to become successful in the contemporary art world. A report in the Frankfurter Zeitung about his 1892 exhibition in Berlin exclaimed, “Art is endangered! All true believers raise a great lament! … An Impressionist, and a mad one at that, has broken into the herd of our fine solidly bourgeois artists. An absolutely furious character.”

It is difficult to judge the quality of Munch’s work, particularly as it is impossible to determine what is good and what is not in modern art. Most of the time it is a matter of personal taste. The fact that prints can be replicated several times makes each one feel less personal in comparison to a unique painting, however, Munch’s life story reveals the underlying emotion in each artwork. Just because it was possible to make several copies does not make the image any less meaningful. Seeing a print of The Scream is just as emotionally intense as seeing one of the painted versions.

The British Museum’s exhibition was scheduled to finish at the end of June but has been extended until 21st July. It has hopefully awakened a new interest in the work and life of Edvard Munch. Most people are familiar with The Scream but knowing the artist’s history makes it all the more powerful.

Edvard Munch: Love and Angst has been developed in collaboration with the Munch Museum, Oslo, Norway. Ticket prices are £17 but under-16s can visit for free.

Pop the American Dream

 

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Jasper Johns (b1930) Flags I

 

The past 60 years have seen significant changes in the United States of America. As the country became more industrialised, upsetting many workers and families, people began to reject the past government methods and ideals, in response to the changing times. Although sometimes resulting in adverse outcomes, for example, assassinations, citizens passionately expressed their views on the changing times, highlighting racism, homophobia, AIDS and other crises.

Although often open to interpretation, artwork can provide a more accurate representation of past events than written accounts, which may omit truths and lack evidence. The Great Depression of the 1930s prompted the beginning of a new wave of art, now known as Abstract Expressionism, which expressed the artists’ opinions far more greatly than landscapes and portraits that only depicted what the eye could see.

The development of technology meant that the tools available to artists increased, thus a new art movement exploded onto the scene. Pop Art is a term that encompasses works of many famous American artists, such as Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, who, with the help of technological advancement, experimented with printmaking and bold, vibrant colours.

The British Museum in London is currently displaying examples of Pop Art in their exhibition The American Dream: pop to the present (until 18th June 2017). Amongst the assorted works is the notable Marilyn Diptych by the aforementioned Warhol, which despite being recognised by the majority, is not usually easy to view in person.

Coined in the late 1950s by art critic Lawrence Alloway, Pop Art is the term used to describe the artwork and imagery based on consumerism and popular culture. Artists appropriated iconography from comic books, advertisements, television and film in their artworks and designs, thus appealing to the common people rather than the highbrow interests of the upper classes.

As an expansion of Abstract Expressionism, this latest movement rejected the theories and seriousness of art and welcomed the new methods and machines that allowed artists to reproduce imagery of everyday items. Examples of this new way of production can be seen in Jasper Johns paintings of flags, numbers and beer cans. Robert Rauschenberg took this one step further, employing collage to demonstrate a range of subject matter.

Eventually, even the use of painting was rejected in preference of commercial techniques, for example, screen-printing, which Warhol is famous for utilising. Video demonstrations can be viewed at the British Museum of the screen-printing process. In fact, it shows Warhol producing one of his numerous works, applying stencils and paint to produce the shapes and imagery he intended.

By using commercial techniques, Pop Art, unlike previous art movements, was quick and easy to produce, making it a suitable method of expressing the views and wants of the people of America. As food, motor vehicles and sex became commodities in the eye of the public, artists were swift to encompass these themes in their work. As a result, these contemporary methods and styles were the go to media to produce banners, posters and such forth to demonstrate views on black civil rights, homosexuality, the AIDs crisis, war in Vietnam and so forth.

Britain was also influenced by the growing popularity of Pop Art, particularly inspiring artists such as David Hockney and Richard Hamilton. Hamilton expressed the style as “popular, transient, expendable, low-cost, mass-produced, young, witty, sexy, gimmicky, glamorous and Big Business.” Despite his overindulgence of adjectives, Hamilton is certainly correct about its popularity, no doubt enhanced by the easy and lack of cost to mass-produce the artwork. Unlike other art movements, which start off small before eventually being recognised, Pop Art was a success on a material level, appealing to both the public and collectors.

Naturally, there were critics who retained an unfavourable opinion of the flamboyant movement. Harold Rosenberg, an American writer, deemed Pop Art “a joke without humour, told over and over again until it begins to sound like a threat.” Noting the use of commercial technology, Rosenberg expanded his opinion, stating that it was like “Advertising art which advertises itself as art that hates advertising.”

Despite the contrasting opinions, Pop Art certainly had its uses, as demonstrated in the British Museum’s exhibition. Examples of posters and artwork featuring the typical style are shown alongside videos and explanations of the growing unrest, boycotts and protests occurring throughout the 60s and 70s in America. However, the original intention of Pop Art remains ambiguous. Certainly, it benefitted the expression of political discord, but was the movement created with that in mind?

The initial rooms within the exhibition The American Dream appear to be more experimental than purposeful. With technological developments happening around them, artists appeared to be thinking “what happens if I do this?” rather than “I am doing this because …” Experimentation with various methods of printmaking provided artists with the opportunity to learn and discover new techniques and apply. Take, for example, Jim Dirie’s paintbrush etchings (c1970s), of which he did several. There is no message, such as with the majority of Pop Art, yet he has used one of the developing methods of the time. The fact that Dirie produced so many of the same object, implies he was searching for a style and effect he was happy with aesthetically, rather than attempting to communicate anything to the audience.

Robert Longo is another artist featured in the exhibition who appears to have used typical Pop Art techniques as a method of producing art, rather than conforming to the commercial and demonstrative scene. Famed for his hyper-realistic charcoal drawings, Longo has produced numerous illustrations of the same figures (Eric and Cindy) in various expressive dance poses. Firstly by staging photo shoots, Longo copies the figures onto paper to produce life-size representations. Although charcoal is his primary medium, the version of Eric and Cindy presented in the exhibition is created using lithography, a technique often applied in the commercial printing industry (pre the computer-age).

Lithography involves drawing (usually in wax) onto a stone slab or other suitable material. With the application of chemicals and ink, a print of the drawing can then be transferred to paper. This method provides the opportunity to create several copies of the artwork, rather than painstakingly sketching each one from scratch. Longo, an exhibiting visual artist, most likely employed this technique in order to benefit himself, rather than as a contribution to the movement.

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As the exhibition progresses, the artwork becomes more functional, particular in terms of politics. Pop Art was an expressive means of getting opinions across to a wide audience, in particular, members of the general public who may be interested in the pop culture references. Displayed in chronological order, enabling viewers to witness the progression of the movement, the artwork covers all the major events that occurred in America from the 1960s onwards.

Although visual methods of propaganda had already been used before, Pop Art was probably the first opportunity the general populace had to communicate their beliefs and attitudes. This is something that is still employed today, for example during public marches and demonstrations, or in the form of guerrilla advertising.

The Pop Art aesthetic may not appeal to all, but it reveals so much more than an artist’s skill. The movement has altered the way society can involve itself in matters where they have previously been forced into silence. It is not merely an art movement, it is a form of widespread expression. Without it, many people may not have the rights they take for granted today.

Only a month remains of the exhibition, so if you wish to view the collection of American Pop Art, you need to get yourself to the British Museum as soon as possible. As a bonus, under 16s can get in for free!