The propaganda of war

Mention the 'art of war' and people will probably think about military strategy, a book by Sun Tzu, or perhaps official works by such battlefield artists as Paul Nash or Lawren Harris.

But when London's National Archives launched an online exhibit of the same name this year, they were more interested in the ephemera of wartime - posters, magazines, and even newsreels used to boost morale and promote an official point of view. The Archives' interpretation of The Art Of War demonstrates that there is indeed an 'art' to effective propoganda.

Created to mark the 60th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day (May 8th), The Art Of War features 250 images created for Britain's Ministry of Information during the Second World War - images intended to 'inform and inspire' the nation, as well as influence overseas opinions. Exhibits range from pen and ink to oils on canvas (and from works in progress to completed projects), with the majority of the site's contents arranged under the three themes of Illustrations, Propaganda, and Valour & Gallantry. (A rotating, three-screen 'slide show' on the home page provides samples of the work available in each section.)

With each theme's contents subdivided into more specific categories, Illustrations displays work featured in wartime books, magazines and comics, as well as caricatures of such personalities as Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, and a collection of images from the (atypically frank when compared to the other collections) booklet, "Horrors of War."

Propaganda breaks its material into "Home Front" (featuring such themes as warnings against 'careless talk'), "Allied Unity," "The Fighting Forces," "Personalities (including a complimentary portrait of the temporarily 'rehabilitated' Josef Stalin)," and "Production - Salvage." (The last category ranges from such timeless subjects as littering, to the helpful advice that, "a single chop bone, weighing 2oz, could supply two rounds of ammunition for RAF Hurricane guns.")

Valour & Gallantry recounts 41 acts of heroism that earned either the Victoria Cross (the highest military medal in the British Commonwealth) or the George Cross (given for similar acts of bravery when not performed "in the face of the enemy"). In this section, the materials created for public consumption are complemented with the original citations for the awards, describing in detail the actions that lead to each commendation.

After touring the main categories, a collection of "Site Extras" provides visitors with a brief history of the Ministry of Information, and available backgrounds on the 74 artists represented in the exhibit. And while there are no still photographs featured in the production, Art Of War does have a collection of eight short motion pictures. These include "Words For Battle" (displaying the British form of mom and apple pie, with script by the nation's great writers -and Abraham Lincoln- and narration by Sir Laurence Olivier) and "Hitler Assumes Command," in which the Nazi's own propaganda footage is 'repurposed' in order to mock the enemy leader, all synchronised to the tune of "Doing the Lambeth Walk."

Each artifact is given its own page, with curator's notes, a link to the artist's background and other pieces, and a multi-tabbed interface for examining the work. With a full-screen image loading as the default, a zoom tab reveals scalable and movable copies of each image, and documents are given a third tab, which accesses a transcript of the featured texts.

In addition to the images themselves, Art Of War frequently provides behind the scenes tidbits about their creation - such as the decision to 'de-glamorize' the young model in an Auxiliary Territorial Service poster, so parents of potential recruits wouldn't have to worry about their daughters gaining a reputation for being 'cheap.' In another case, a poster featuring a British Hurricane intended for use in the African colonies is specifically painted in a bright African style, while a cutaway illustration of an aircraft carrier receives a failing grade with the handwritten note, "This looks more like a child's sketch than a serious representation of an aircraft carrier. Please have a specialist do this, as suggested originally."

A note about load times. When my second visit to the site resulted in much faster page loading than the first, I originally put it down to lighter traffic at the Archives' server - but soon realized that I had my JavaScript turned off during the later viewing. JavaScript is necessary for certain site features (most importantly the ability to zoom and move around the artworks), but if you're finding progress too slow for your taste, you might consider disabling JavaScript until you need it.

While all created in aid of a single purpose, the exhibits at The Art Of War span a broad range of artistic methods and styles, and while people with different tastes will prefer different specific works, the variety makes for a fascinating collection. Whatever else the site might offer, the simple knowledge about the lethal potential of your garden variety pork chop is worth the price of admission.

The Art Of War can be found at http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/theartofwar/.

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