Power to the pictures: The evolution of propaganda

From ancient carvings to Norman tapestries, political portraits to public health posters, propaganda has taken man forms over the centuries. Holly Williams charts its evolution

Friday 10 September 2010 00:00 BST

Propaganda has become something of a dirty word. Until the end of the 19th century, it held a neutral meaning, true to its Latin route: the propagation of a particular doctrine or practise. Today, propaganda holds implicitly political – and negative – connotations. It's something our enemies use against us.

But when we think of propaganda, we may also think of a certain visual style: the propaganda poster, using a modernist aesthetic – all bold block colours, strident text and simple imagery – to convey a crude but effective message.

Visual imagery has long been used to convey a persuasive message, from the Mesopotamian relief carvings advertising a victorious battle in 2250 BC to the Bayeux Tapestry propagating the Norman take on 1066 to Napoleon's keen grasp of the power of a good portrait. But visual propaganda as we tend to think of it didn't kick off until the time of the First World War, when the political poster was born.

The impact of striking images and simple slogans was harnessed for the war effort, and a secret propaganda bureau was established in Wellington House in London to encourage enlistment at home, and to aid the cause in America. Chunky text – "Help Stop This", "Women of Britain Say 'Go!'", "Fight for the Dear Old Flag" – sat above cartoon-simple images, in bright primary colours or nostalgic sepias.

Graphic art also proved a vital tool during the Russian Revolution. Avant-garde artists were quick to lend their skills to the Agitational-Propaganda Section of the Central Committee of the Communist party (Agitprop), and images were deemed crucial for spreading the message to the illiterate working classes. This gave rise to Constructivism, the Russian school of "production art" that embraced machine-age design functionality and ditched the decorative. Simple flat colours, short, sharp slogans, geometric shapes and diagonal lines combined to produce bold images that are now often celebrated as works of art in their own right.

Colin Moore is the author of a new book, Propaganda Prints, which brings together a history of visual propaganda, from its earliest incarnations to the iconic, bold prints we associate with similarly bold political messages. "An effective piece of propaganda is often also a striking piece of art," says Moore, whose own background is as a "visual communicator": he's worked as an architect, brand consultant and print maker. "I think the Russian Constructivists were geniuses – I kept finding images and thinking 'this is fantastic'."

But even if it has value as art, propaganda always has a purpose too – and often a sinister one. The Nazis were alive to the possibilities and importance of propaganda, with Hitler devoting two chapters of Mein Kampf to the topic and employing Joseph Goebbels as propaganda minister. As Moore writes, Hitler insisted that "visual presentation was of fundamental importance. So it was that Nazism, as brutal and depraved a regime as the world has ever seen, was provided with one of the most effective corporate identities ever devised." Both abstract and associative symbols were utilised – eagles, swastikas, flags. In the 1930s, the regime even had a favoured Germanic typeface – Fractur Blackletter – which lent visual drama to basic imperatives.

In 1966, the Cultural Revolution launched by the Chinese Communist Party also got in on the poster-printing act, the enthusiastic young Red Guards plastering propaganda posters on walls, windows and pavements. The most prominent image was of Chairman Mao himself, standardised and repeated endlessly. Sunbeams frequently shot off him; one poster called Mao "the reddest reddest sun in our hearts", and showed his face shining down onto a cheery crowd of arm-band wearing youngsters.

Elsewhere, however, the emotive impact of a strong image was being used not by governments, but by counter-cultural groups. Opposition to the war in Vietnam was driven by media reporting: photographic images brought home the true horror of war in way never before experienced. One chilling poster by the Art Workers Coalition printed a quote from an interview with a soldier – "Q. And babies? A. And babies" – over an image taken by photographer Ronald Haeberle at the My Lai massacre, showing slaughtered South Vietnamese women – and babies. The shock of My Lai proved a crucial turning point in American feeling about the war; such simple text and gut-wrenching images proved impossible to ignore.

"Many images in the book are key images which really changed things," says Moore. "Some are great works of art, but sometimes they change things because the content is so powerful – like the image of the victims of the My Lai massacre."

Propaganda isn't just political, however. While today the term is used quite narrowly, Moore suggests that actually "propaganda is any type of targeted information with a purpose which benefits the sender not the receiver." He includes advertising images, promotional posters, and health and safety campaigns in his collection, which reflect the interplay between political and commercial "propaganda" in terms of design. American and British health and safety posters from the 1930s and 40s, while not exactly seen as art in their moment, now seem like exemplary Modernist pieces. They exhibit the influence of Agitprop and other political prints, even if their slogans are a little more prosaic, or even amusing: "Keep Your Teeth Clean", "Prevent Syphilis in Marriage", "Wear Goggles or Use the Screen".

As the areas of marketing, advertising and public relations developed throughout the 20th century, the lessons learnt from political propaganda weren't lost on those industries. Pictures and photographs are powerful tools to make us think or feel a certain way – or buy into a certain product and lifestyle. Edward Bernays, credited as the father of PR, even unabashedly entitled his 1928 book 'Propaganda'.

But more recently we've gone full circle; artists are subverting advertising conventions to make political statements. Consider the poster which turned the Coca Cola ad into an ironic tourism slogan: "Enjoy Sarajevo", in 1993, or Forkscrew Graphic's "iRaq" poster, morphing the well-known iPod adverts into an anti-war statement.

And if you thought the heyday of the traditional political print was over, don't forget the American election. The "Hope" poster, featuring a stylised stencilled image of Barack Obama, self-consciously utilised the classic features of a good prop print: bold lines, primary colours and a simple slogan. But in the digital age, the visual interplay didn't stop there. The image was endlessly copied, parodied and satirised by both supporters and dissenters, and quickly spread across the uncensored internet.

It's become easier than ever to disseminate imagery – but we're also increasingly surrounded by commercial "propaganda" and advertising. "The internet and social media are really changing the game," says Moore. "We're probably touched by hundreds of images every day, all propaganda of one kind or another. Propaganda has helped define our lives, and it's everywhere now: we just don't call it propaganda."

'Propaganda Prints' is published by A&C Black (£35). To order a copy for the special price of £31.50 (free P&P) call Independent Books Direct on 08430 600 030, or visit www.independentbooksdirect.co.uk

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