The Daily Heller: When Graphic Design Served Portugal’s Dictatorship

Posted inThe Daily Heller

As news of a burgeoning anti-democratic movement grows in the United States, it is sobering and cautionary to look back to the 1920s and ’30s when fascist ideologies and authoritarian leaders were appealing to broad populations throughout Europe. Italy, Germany and Spain were among the first to succumb, then Austria, Vichy France; Eastern European nations, too. Even England and Ireland had vociferous ultra-right parties. Elsewhere, Argentina and other South American nations were long hotbeds of military rule.

One regime that, for me at least, slipped through the historical dragnet, is Portugal. Despite the longevity of António de Oliveira Salazar, he was lesser-known outside the country’s borders. His authoritarian paternal state regime controlled Portugal for 48 years (until the revolution of 1974), feeding the people with a diet of print propaganda equal to, if not derivative of, the “best” branding of dictatorships.

Recently, an email correspondent from Germany, Jeffery Ladd, sent me the following query. He had found a booklet titled Yesterday and Today. “I believe it is from 1946, contrasting the state of the first Portuguese republic with the Estado Novo [Salazaar’s dictatorial regime]. It has no credits whatsoever. I know it is a longshot trying to find out who the designer might have been, but have you seen other things like this? Ring a bell somewhere from your research. I’m guessing it is just most likely just from an employee at the state office of propaganda. I find it beautiful with all of its clunkiness!”

The employ of “clunky” yet curiously stylish graphic design mannerisms in the service of propaganda is a large area of interest for me. So Ladd’s question inspired a research spree to learn more about Portugal’s long affair with (or at least resignation to, and tolerance of) the “paternal” dictatorial state.

I stumbled upon MIT’s ongoing open course Visualizing Cultures Project/Visualizing Portugal: The New State (1933–1974). After a brief dip into its informative website—just the tip of a new area of study—I expect to dive right in. For now the Visualizing Portugal project (quoted below) does not answer Ladd’s specific design question but it does shed light on a huge campaign and the basis for Ladd’s artifact. Here’s some background:

“In the late ’20s, Europe was mired in a crisis of democracy. Shaken by the upheavals of emerging fascist and communist regimes, followed by the economic devastation of the Postwar, Portugal, like other countries, was affected. The country’s situation after the First Republic (1910–1926) was chaotic, with successive governments, one after another, succumbing to the unstable times. A new political regime was in order and the Republic was overthrown by a dictatorship that positioned itself far from recent liberalism. António de Oliveira Salazar was the key figure upon whom the design of the New State depended. The new regime that emerged out of the military coup of May 28, 1926, was formally established with the approval of the 1933 Constitution. This was one of Salazar’s first major victories. Posters in Portugal’s National Archives show how the government communicated with the public. Many were text-only messages, designed to convince the citizens (who could vote at the time) to accept these new ideas. Some kept the request simple: ‘Vote for the new Constitution!’ The Decálogo do Estado Novo (1934) was modeled on the idea of the 10 commandments that broadcast the values of the Estado Novo.”

Like many other European authoritarian regimes, Salazar created a strong, centralized propaganda secretariat. “The Secretariat of National Propaganda (SPN/SNI) was considered essential to the maintenance, consolidation and to the dissemination of Salazar’s government policies within and outside Portugal. António Ferro was under the direction of the Secretariat that implemented the New State Propaganda. He was the mentor of the Decalogue—the document that summarizes the principles of the New State, and could be seen as a short version of the Constitution.” (Below right.)