The third-world poster

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From the end of World War II until the dismantling of the Iron Curtain in 1989, the industrialized nations formed two groups: the capitalist democracies of Western Europe, North America, and Japan, and the communist block led by the Soviet Union. The emerging nations of Latin America, Asia, and Africa have been called the third world. In social and political struggles, ideas are weapons, and the poster is a major vehicle for spreading them. The medium is effective because access to newspapers, radio, and television is often limited in these countries, where the poster is sometimes used with the intensity and frequency that characterized the European context during World War I.

In this context, posters become vehicles for challenging authority and expressing dissent untouched by the traditional censorship of government, business, and newspapers. Some are spontaneous expressions, crude folk art created by unskilled hands, while others are created by accomplished artists. In both cases, the artists/advocates who create such posters have an agenda and seek to alter viewers’ perspectives.

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Third-world posters address two constituencies: in their native lands, they tackle political and social issues, motivating people toward one side of a political or social struggle; a secondary audience exists in the industrial democracies, where distributors such as Liberation Graphics in Alexandria, Virginia, make posters available to Westerners who feel strongly about international issues.

Cuba became a major center for poster design after the revolutionary force led by Fidel Castro defeated the regime of President Fulgencio Batista on New Year’s Day in 1959. Over the next two years, Cuba’s Marxist course led to a complete breakdown in diplomatic ties with the United States and a close association with the Soviet bloc. The creative arts had been virtually ignored under Batista, but three conferences in June 1961 enabled artists and writers to meet with the Castro regime to forge a mutual understanding. At the final meeting, on 30 June, Castro delivered his lengthy address “Words to the Intellectuals,” defining his policy toward the creative arts. Castro assured artists and writers “that freedom of form must be respected,” but freedom of content was seen as a more subtle and complex matter. He said artists and intellectuals “can find within the Revolution a place to work and create, a place where their creative spirit, even though they are not revolutionary writers and artists, has the opportunity and freedom to be expressed. This means: within the Revolution, everything; against the Revolution, nothing.” Each person could “express freely the ideas he wants to express,” but “we will always evaluate his creation from the Revolutionary point of view.” Castro defined “the good, the useful, and the beautiful” as whatever is “noble, useful, and beautiful” for “the great majority of the people—that is, the oppressed and exploited classes.” Popular art forms—cinema and theater, posters and leaflets, songs and poetry—and propaganda media were encouraged. Traditional painting and sculpture were seen as relatively inefficient in reaching large audiences with the revolutionary message.

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Artists and writers admitted to the union for creative workers receive salaries, work space, and materials. Graphic designers worked for a variety of government agencies with specific missions. Leading Cuban graphic designers include Raúl Martínez, a painter who created illustrative designs, and New York–educated Félix Beltrán. Beltrán served as art director for the Commission for Revolutionary Action (COR), which created internal ideological propaganda and maintains public consciousness of the revolution by promoting commemorative days and past leaders.

Bureaus and institutes in Cuba have responsibility for motion pictures, musical and theatrical events, publishing, and exhibition programs, and use graphics to promote these cultural events. Emphasis is on outreach—unlike in many countries, where cultural programs are only available to the urban population, in Cuba a serious attempt is made to reach the rural areas. Film posters are lively and happy affairs printed in an uninhibited palette of bright silk-screened colors.

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Posters and leaflets for export throughout the third world are produced by the Organization of Solidarity with Asia, Africa, and Latin America (OSPAAAL) to support revolutionary activity and build public consciousness for ideological viewpoints. OSPAAAL posters are printed via offset and use elemental symbolic images readily comprehended by people of diverse nationalities, languages, and cultural backgrounds. The Castro government sees itself as being involved in an ideological war against “Yankee imperialism” for the hearts and minds of people in the emerging third-world countries. The eye of the beholder is tantalized while revolutionary consciousness is formed through repeated exposure. The international distribution of OSPAAAL graphics is evidenced by the presence of Arabic, English, French, and Spanish typography on each poster.

Lacking artistic traditions, Cuban graphic designers have assimilated a variety of resources. American sources—including pop art, the psychedelic poster, and the Push Pin Studio—are important inspirations, as are Polish posters. The “heroic worker” school of romanticized realism prevalent in the former Soviet Union and in China is avoided. The icon, ideograph, and telegraphic message are far more effective in developing nations. Myth and reality have been unified in a powerful graphic symbol based on the image of Ernesto (“Che”) Guevara. A leader of the Cuban revolution, Guevara left Cuba in the mid-1960s to lead guerrillas in the South American country of Bolivia, and on 9 October 1967 he was killed in a gun battle in the jungle village of Higuera. Graphic designers have converted Che’s image, one of the most reproduced of the late twentieth century, into a symbolic icon representing struggle against oppression throughout the third world. Drawn in light-and-shadow planes like high-contrast photography, the fallen guerrilla wears a beard and a beret with a star; his head tilts slightly upward. A specific person, Ernesto Guevara, is converted into the mythic hero or savior who sacrificed his life so others might live.

The importance of conceptual images in the second half of the twentieth century developed in response to many factors, and ideas and forms from modern art have filtered into popular cultures. By usurping graphic art’s documentary function, photography and video have repositioned graphic illustration toward a more expressive and symbolic role. The complexity of the political, social, and cultural ideas and emotions that graphic artists need to communicate can frequently be presented more effectively by iconic and symbolic rather than narrative images.

2017 History of Graphic Design

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