I’ve been mildly obsessed with WPA posters ever since I saw the National Park sets as a kid on summer vacation (wherein my father would obsessively drive my sister and me to every historic battlefield and park he could find on a U.S. map).
It was years before I discovered the true scope of the government’s poster project—35,000 designs—and the vital role that the campaign played in many artists’ lives during a tumultuous period of American history.
Though the government killed the project in due time, the Library of Congress offers a sizable historic gift to the world of design… if you know where to look.
From among the LOC’s collection of more than 900 posters, PRINT presents a selection of 92 designs, from the quaint and charming to the bizarre and propagandistic.
But first, here’s a piece on the posters from PRINT’s July/August 1978 issue, which Jeannie Friedman has kindly allowed us to repost here.
“WPA Poster Project: When Government Sponsors Art”
By Jeannie Friedman
Originally published in PRINT XXXII:IV, July/August 1978
From 1935 until the early 40s, the project produced 35,000 poster designs created by scores of unemployed artists who were kept alive and working with government stipends. But eventually, the political ax fell.
It isn’t often that the poster flourishes as art and good graphic design enjoys public appreciation and awareness as well as government support. One such time was the troubled 1930s when the Federal Art Project was sponsored under the umbrella of the Works Progress Administration.
Little has been written or said about the WPA Poster Project and the two million silk-screened posters and 35,000 original designs that it produced in studios across the country between 1935 and 1942. Nor has there been discussion of the major innovation wrought in graphic design by the WPA Poster Project: government sponsorship of commercial artists as a group.
By 1938, the New York City Poster Project alone, which employed only about 50 artists, had produced a total of 306,472 prints from 11,240 original designs. At its peak, the New York City division of the Federal Art Project employed 2,323 artists in a variety of activities, including mural and easel painting, graphics and printmaking, sculpture, photography and poster design. The project provided jobs for thousands of unemployed artists during the Depression. These artists also taught classes across the country in community art centers and neighborhood houses.
Today, the original WPA posters designed by those artists are buried in the basement of the Library of Congress, categorized according to state and rarely pulled from their bins. They present a vivid historical record of the 1930s, documenting the various public programs of the federal government. By publicizing the activities of various state, city and federal agencies, they announce safety rules, promote obedience to the law, and advocate prenatal care, noise abatement, visiting the local library, and prevention of syphilis. In addition, they record a time of change in American graphic design.
By 1913, the Russian Constructivists had transformed typography. Largely through the work of El Lissitzky, type became an abstract design element. Lissitzky believed that good typography should achieve for the reader what voice tone conveys to the listener. Type could combine as an equal design element with geometric shapes—the circle, the square, the triangle—to create visual patterns that had strong emotive meaning. The designer was no longer dependent on illustration to tell a story. Type was no longer restricted by the rules of symmetry.
The surge of interest in new typographical design and the influence of the WPA Poster Project’s supervisor, Richard Floethe, had a dynamic effect on the project designers. Floethe had studied at the Bauhaus and genuinely believed in a utilitarian approach to art. The designer, he felt, should be equally at home in industrial design, stage design, typography or painting. Good visual thinking could be applied to any discipline.
Floethe’s dedication to good design, his democratic organization of the studio to maximize creative output, and advances in silk-screen technology contributed to a change in design thinking. And in spite of economic conditions, the camaraderie which developed among such a large group of artists working together, silk-screening together, struggling together, created a genuine expansion in the concept of work. The small two- or three-person advertising studio grew into a community.
Silk-screening as a medium came into its own under the WPA largely through the work of Anthony Velonis. When Velonis, an artist hired to work in the Federal Art Project, first walked into the studio, posters were being painted individually by hand. There was no organized system of mass production. He had the idea that silk-screening could be more than just a commercial reproduction process. It became, through him, a valid way to produce art, both for the printmaking division and for the Poster Project.
Silk-screening was an ideal printing method for the poster makers of the WPA. The printing could be done in the same shop as the designing. Artists were able to see their work through from initial sketch to final print. And, at less than a dime a print, it was inexpensive.
In creating the first WPA Poster Project, the federal government united the artistic community and greatly increased the self-respect of the graphic designer in a time of real economic hardship. Fine artists, graphic designers, sculptors all found themselves in the same category of the unemployed. The Poster Project, however, like the rest of the larger Federal Art Project, was never fully supported by the Administration or Congress. It faced a continual cutback of funds, primarily as the approach of World War II promised a reviving economy. The Artists Union kept up a continual struggle against layoffs, harassment and firing of artists for political activities. In December 1936, 219 artists were arrested in New York, some brutally beaten, for protesting a cut of 2,000 artists from the project and the threatened liquidation of the entire program. In May 1938, salaries were slashed from $23.86 to $17.28 a week. In 1939, the final blow came. The Emergency Relief Appropriations Act passed by Congress killed the art, music, writers, historical records and other WPA cultural projects, turning them over to the states with the certain knowledge that this meant their early demise. The message was clear. Government support for the arts was merely a stop-gap until the war could revitalize the overall economy.
After the war, the design profession became organized as it never had before. The more prosperous economy demanded more advertising for commercial businesses, and design agencies sprang up around the country.
Artistically, the WPA Poster Project provided an opportunity for experimentation and community. It pulled together the new typography from the Soviet Union, the spirit of the Bauhaus, and the fresh approach to silk-screening as a medium. The project was only a taste of what can happen when art and politics start to fuse constructively. For the designers on the project, the experience remained for a lifetime. As Velonis states, “The whole thing was exciting for me. It was an education, and it enriched my whole life.”
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