Forging Identity – Imagining the Enemy: American Propaganda and the Great War

Sidney H. Riesenberg
American, 1885-1971
Over the Top for You, 1918
United States Treasury Department, Third Liberty Loan
Philadelphia: Ketterlinus
29-3/4" x 20"
The Peabody College Collection, Vanderbilt University

(September 18 – December 10, 2015)

The United States of America declared war on Germany on April 2, 1917, beginning our country’s official entry into what was known then as the Great War and, more ominously, the War to End All Wars. America’s official declaration of war required mass mobilization of the entire populace and an urgent need for troops, nurses, money, food, and unity of spirit. The Committee on Public Information was formed to produce a large-scale campaign advertising the war and these needs. Forging Identity—Imagining the Enemy: American Propaganda and the Great War draws on the large collection of World War I posters in Vanderbilt University Fine Arts Gallery’s Peabody College Collection. While the specific messages of the posters address diverse needs of a nation gearing up for a fight, the method of conveying those needs often distills to two things: Appealing to patriotism and defining Americanism, and demonizing the far-away enemy, stoking fear for loved ones at the front and of invasion at home.

The exhibition explores these continuous currents of patriotism and fear in the messages found in World War I posters, especially as issues relating to immigration, assimilation, and warfare abroad still resonate in American society one hundred years later. Supplementary works, particularly photographs, will create context for this propaganda, locally and historically, by highlighting individual soldiers, nurses, and artists whose work went into fighting this first total war.

Forging Identity—Imagining the Enemy: American Propaganda and the Great War is presented to mark the centenary of the First World War. The exhibition is organized by the Vanderbilt University Fine Arts Gallery and curated by Margaret F. M. Walker, art curator assistant. The exhibition is supported, in part, by the Ewers Gift for Fine Art.