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Four Questions for Donald Albrecht

New York artists created works to stir the American public to wartime loyalty, duty, and sacrifice

By Alyssa Carter
Staff Writer

There is a great new World War I exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York. It is called "Posters and Patriotism", and it explores the effort that the U.S. government made to communicate the war, and to recruit people to join. When the United States entered World War I in April 1917, hundreds of New York City's artists and illustrators were enlisted in the war effort. Many of them worked for the federal government’s new Division of Pictorial Publicity. Posters and Patriotism: Selling World War I in New York examines the outpouring of posters, flyers, magazine art, sheet music covers, and other mass-produced images created by these New Yorkers to stir the American public to wartime loyalty, duty, and sacrifice. Donald Albrecht is the curator of the exhibition, and he took some time to tell us about it.

Tell us a bit about the “Posters and Patriotism” exhibit and the “Culture Goes to War” panel being held at the Museum.

Donald AlbrechtDonald AlbrechtUnknown 17When the United States entered World War I in April 1917, New York City's artists and illustrators were enlisted in the war effort. Many of them worked for the Federal government’s new Division of Pictorial Publicity. Posters and Patriotism: Selling World War I in New York examines the outpouring of posters, flyers, magazine art, sheet music covers, and other mass-produced images created by these New Yorkers to stir the American public to wartime loyalty, duty, and sacrifice. The show merges design, politics, and social history, which many of MCNY's exhibitions do. The "Culture Goes to War" panel will extend the exhibition's reach into art, music, and literature--three fields it only touches on. In addition to presentations by leading scholars, there will be live performances.

The website for the exhibition says that it centers around images created by artists from New York. Who are some of your favorite artists and why?

The exhibition's posters range from examples that are very graphic with flat planes of bold color that have a real visual punch to others that are more illustrative and revel in the artist's hand. There are well known artists featured such as James Montgomery Flagg, known for his “Uncle Sam Wants You” poster, to Howard Chandler Christy. Visitors will also meet lesser known figures, often from the city's advertising industry, such as Herman Roeg.

Unknown 18Unknown 20What were some of the changes that came to American art, music, and culture as a result of WWI that you have seen through this exhibit?

The city's best known songwriters, such as George M. Cohan and Irving Berlin, were fully invested in the war. Cohan wrote the famous song “Over There” during World War I. Berlin, who before the war wrote anti-war songs, shifted sides once war started and went pro-war. The biggest influence, however, was that the war helped popularize and legitimize American jazz. It was embraced by the French when they heard New York composer and band leader James Reese Europe. The war also influenced literature, as authors such as John Dos Passos, E.E. Cummings, and Ernest Hemingway addressed the war's devastation in their early novels.

Was more of the propaganda of this period social in nature--focusing on issues of pacifism, cultural loyalty, etc.--or did it mostly call young men to enlist?

Unlike today, when wars are often disconnected from our everyday lives, WWI propaganda not only addressed the need to enlist, save food, and buy war bonds--topics specific to the war--but also broader issues such as the role of women and African Americans to even the definition of masculinity.


Alyssa Carter is a 2017 Summer Intern at the U.S. World War One Centennial Commission


 

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