The Art of Persuasion at the National Army Museum is a fascinating exhibition of Second World War posters produced by the incredibly prolific and inventive artist Abram Games (although artist is not a term he liked to use about himself. He preferred the term “graphic thinker”). It’s also an insight into how the Second World War was seen by very many of its ordinary participants, military and civilian.
Games was born into an immigrant family of Russian Jews in Whitechapel, east London. He was a socialist, but he also embodied something of George Orwell’s brand of “progressive nationalism”, as expounded in his essay, “The Lion and the Unicorn”.
Games seemed to be part of a huge wave of dogged optimism, the idea that people were fighting the evils of fascism, yes, but also fighting to replace the old corrupt capitalist set-up with a bright new state after the war, where poverty, deprivation and exploitation would be replaced by a welfare state.
He showed very little artistic talent as a child, as his damning school report (included in the exhibition) shows, but somehow he managed to get himself a job in a London graphics studio, from which he was soon fired for “fooling around” in the office. Fooling around with imagery became the whole basis of his subsequent career.
At the outbreak of war Games joined the army. He really wanted to fight fascism, as so many of his generation believed they were doing.
Games was soon promoted to make better use of his talents. He knew his audience well, and he knew the sort of imagery that would work for them. He avoided using rolling English countryside motifs much beloved of many other artists at the time, and stuck to powerful direct images which were familiar to ordinary people whether soldiers or civilians.
Games’s art was entirely propaganda but he had a wonderfully playful and witty approach to his work, it had none of the ponderous heroism of the Soviet propaganda of the period, deeply Socialist Realist and not at all funny. Not that Games uses a lot of gags, it’s more the witty juxtaposition of images and ideas. He used to say 1 and 1 makes 3, by which he meant that by putting two different images together you can create an entirely new idea. One example is his poster of a merchant ship, which is also a shovel, encouraging people to grow their own food so as to be less reliant on imports.
In a way these posters work a bit like medieval stained glass windows in churches; they convey complicated ideas and stories without using words. Games was also one of the pioneers of the use of the airbrush, which gave his posters a modern feel.
Several posters stand out for their bold and innovative design and some for their historic significance. One striking image was produced towards the end of the war and starkly demonstrates the tensions between those who were fighting the war against fascism and those who were leading it. Games produced a poster depicting the squalid pre-war conditions of life for most people, contrasted with the hoped-for future of the post-war world, represented here by the spanking new health centre in Exmouth Market Islington, designed by the Russian socialist Lubetkin. This was too much for Churchill, who condemned it for not showing the England he recognised.
A truly iconic image is that for the Festival of Britain of 1951, an image which conjures up this time of unprecedented optimism and faith in the future. To us now these might seem like naïve hopes, but at the time they represented the dominant view.
One of the final images is a poster for Jewish settlers to move to what was then Palestine. It shows Games’s illusions in the possibility of building some sort of socialist society in the desert.
This is a very entertaining exhibition which offers fresh and unusual insights into a time which was much more contradictory than the usual narrative would have us believe.