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"The Power of Words and Images in a World at War" on view at the Grolier Club
Kenneth W. Rendell, collector and founder of The Museum of World War II, in the exhibition The Power of Words and Images in a World at War at the Grolier Club. Photo: Gavin Ashworth.

NEW YORK, NY.- The Grolier Club is marking the 75th anniversary of the outbreak of World War II with the public exhibition The Power of Words and Images in a World at War. On view in New York City until August 2, 2014, the exhibition focuses on a time when the world was at war. The approximately 200 rare printed objects are drawn from the collection of The Museum of World War II in Boston. Founded and directed by Grolier Club member Kenneth W. Rendell, The Museum of World War II is, according to Doris Kearns Goodwin, Pulitzer Prize winning historian, “An unparalleled collection of original letters and artifacts…. The most extensive in the world.”

The show uses powerful and dramatic images, including posters, broadsides, propaganda leaflets, telegrams, maps, periodicals, and original letters and documents, to demonstrate how this worldwide conflict was waged and how communications, from top to bottom, affected their lives. It was vital to convince people on the home fronts and battle fronts of the necessity and worthiness of their cause. The mosaic of The Power of Words and Images in a World at War was crafted to reflect the reality of the war, what people were seeing and saying at the time.

To many of us, World War II was an unimaginable time. In the United States alone, two thirds of the national production was devoted to the manufacture of guns, tanks, bombs, planes, and other war supplies. However, World War II was as much a war of ideas as of physical weapons, ideas that swayed much of the earth’s population, for good or evil, affecting how they thought, how they worked, and how they fought. These ideas, rendered in words and images, still ring with the truth of those times and, in many cases, our times as well. Their force is palpable.

The major themes – the rise of Nazism, the Blitz, Pearl Harbor, the European and Pacific theaters, life on the home fronts – are represented by dramatic examples of the graphic and propaganda arts as well as the art of choosing the right words or phrases to announce or to frame an event, a task requiring imagination as events in their raw state were often beyond comprehension.

The Power of Words and Images in a World at War reflects how the war, from the German Blitzkrieg to the atomic bomb, was affected by changes in technology. Radio addresses were a highly effective means of reaching large numbers of people. The voices of Hitler, Churchill and Roosevelt became easily recognizable. So, too, in England, that of the King, George VI, who was known to have a stutter. At the time, a radio broadcast could not be pre-taped; it had to be live. In the exhibition is an early draft of what came to be known as “the King’s speech,” thanks to the recent movie. We now know that the King was secretly working with a speech therapist on his stutter. The initial draft would be revised because the sentences were too long. The King, who was expected to address the nation on the day that it declared war, would do so in short sentences.

In a world without computers, e-mails, iPhones, text messages, tweets or television, important events were conveyed via telegram. In this exhibition are telegrams signaling the start of the war, the bombing of Pearl Harbor (“This is not a drill”), and the beginning of D-Day (Communique #1).

With all the changes in technology, people still wrote letters. Eisenhower’s letters to his wife Mamie (one of which is in the exhibition) are as close as we will get today to appreciating the burdens of leadership on a great general with a genius for holding together a team of rivals.

Then as now, it was important to know your audience. Churchill was an early master of setting the right tone. Gone were posters which stressed England’s imperial greatness. Churchill recognized that those who were most likely to do the fighting and to bear the brunt of the hardships of war, were what were then called the common people (sometimes East Enders), and that they were unmoved by such sentiments. What they wanted, thought Churchill, was practical information such as how to fight in the streets, what to do about gas, how to tackle a fire bomb, and what to do if the invader comes (including how to spot uniforms). From the government flowed posters such as the one exhorting miners to keep up the good work as their coal was essential to the fleet (“Miners! The Battle of the Atlantic is YOUR fight”). These dramatic pamphlets and posters are in the exhibition.

The full force of the conformity expected of the German people by Hitler, who sought to control not only their government, their economy and their military but also their culture and their personal lives, is clear in the signage, the posters and in the exceedingly rare exhibition catalogue for the famous “degenerate art” show.

Fear and courage intersected in interesting ways before and after the Fall of France. When a realistic fear settled over one of the great cultural capitals of the world, the efforts of a few to publish Resistance newspapers, for which paper and courage were required in almost equal supply, is as inspiring today as it was at the time. Several Resistance newspapers, as well as German maps to Paris and dire warnings to the citizens are a part of the larger story.

The iconography of the war is powerfully evoked by a movie poster for “Casablanca.” This 1942 “B movie” was released just as the Americans were landing in North Africa, which contributed to its box office success. This is how many Americans first visualized the conflict.

The sweep of The Power of Words and Images in a World at War encompasses the Holocaust (with little known material from the family of Anne Frank); Russia (including German invasion maps); Japan (with patriotic banners and magazines); the entrance of the United States into the war (with a telegram announcing Pearl Harbor; the teletype of Franklin Roosevelt’s “This day will live in infamy” speech, and posters intended to rally a reluctant nation); the Pacific (including Hiroshima); D-Day (a D-Day map; Eisenhower’s letter to his wife the day before the German surrender, “These are trying times. The enemy’s armed forces are disintegrating…How glad I’ll be when this is all over,” and the original newspaper headlines announcing “La guerre est finie”).

Today, World War II continues to influence how many people think about global conflict. Seventy-five years after the war, it still has much to teach us about patriotism and nationalism, triumph and defeat, love and loss. The Power of Words and Images in a World at War shows us, in a striking and immediate way, how the war used prose and pictures both to conjure evil, and to defeat it.

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