Art to spread awareness for syphilis?
During the depression in the 1930’s, jobs were hard to come by for most everybody in the United Sates. Artists especially felt the squeeze as Americans worried more about putting food on the table than supporting the arts. As part of the New Deal, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) recognized unemployed artists and developed the Federal Art Project (FAP). The WPA designated one branch of FAP artists in New York to produce posters for public service. Out of this newly created poster division an aesthetic to promote messages for public agencies formed. To reach the masses, over 2 million posters from thirty-five thousand designs were produced. The aesthetic of the posters was primarily influenced by the artists’ adaptation to and use of processes required to mass produce the posters. Although WPA lost funding as the economy improved, the influences of the WPA aesthetic can be seen in many propaganda materials during WWII. The aesthetic dwindled with modern printing methods, but can still be seen in propaganda for the national parks and other organizations.
Most posters of the era were hand painted requiring hours of work for one reproduction of the poster. To help mass produce the posters Anthony Velonis, an artist working in the poster division with experience in screen printing, suggested adapting the process for posters. This technique, coined as serigraphy and employed later by artists such as Andy Warhol, significantly influenced the aesthetic of the posters produced. Screen printing is not kind to incredibly intricate designs and requires successive addition of colors. Thus strong lines and bold designs where emphasized. Although many posters are striking and colorful, artists had to think carefully about color use since shading and gradients are hard to achieve.
While many different artists brought their owns styles to the poster division, a cohesive aesthetic is easily recognized. The poster’s almost exclusively utilized sans-serif fonts to aid in legibility and clarity at distances. The artists behind many designs are unfortunately unknown, as the works were predominately unsigned. Although only a couple thousand designs are left today, there are many remaining examples of beautiful posters promoting public safety, government propaganda and american values. Many original works are also now reproduced for art and souvenirs.