From the Desk of Hal Elliott Wert: Poster Talk
The following post was taken from an interview with Hal Elliott Wert, author of George McGovern & the Democratic Insurgents: The Best Campaign and Political Posters of the Last Fifty Years (Nebraska 2015). You can read the full interview here.
Since I was a teenager I have always been interested in poster art and in graphic art more generally and its importance as a component of any political campaign. I was especially enthralled by the turn-of-the-century posters that were a part of the “color lithographic revolution.” The 1896 and 1900 William McKinley and William Jennings Bryan campaigns produced outstanding posters. Of course, the circus, advertising, penny postcards and Wild West posters of that same period achieved prominence and were stunning. But, over the years, it became obvious to me that political posters were distant cousins, little recognized and underappreciated, by the public and historians alike. I thought they deserved to be collected, catalogued, photographed and explained to a wider audience that would clearly see their merits.
My collection is quite strong from 1940 on, and I have a few posters from earlier elections. I greatly admire the earlier posters, but I thought it expedient to build collections that focused on the campaigns of Eugene McCarthy ’68, George McGovern in ’72 and on Obama’s run for the presidency in 2008. These three campaigns produced the most aesthetically exciting posters since the color revolution of the 1890s.
When I wrote Hope: A Collection of Obama Posters and Prints, I included a epilogue that began with an outstanding Currier and Ives hand-colored print from the 1848 campaign of Zachary Taylor and Millard Fillmore and ended with Tony Puryear’s fine 2008 Hillary poster. I was determined to put the Obama posters in a historical context and in the process I thought, you know, no one has put together a book of the great posters from the ’68 and ’72 campaigns.
Shortly after Hope was published I began George McGovern and the Democratic Insurgents and wished to place these posters in a wider framework of the ‘60s and show their influence on future political posters. I had a fairly substantial collection of McCarthy and McGovern posters but I wanted to be as thorough as possible and to find posters that had not been seen before.
I knew from day one that aside from the collection of posters and prints at the McGovern Library that there were no large collections anywhere else. In California there are some small but very good collections. Political posters are often not taken seriously and hugely undervalued for their importance in a campaign and their importance as a part of our country’s history of graphic art. I knew the search would be difficult but also a real challenge and real fun.
I was also working with D.J. Watkins who was maniacally collecting the totally neglected prints and posters by Thomas W. Benton in Aspen, Colorado. D.J. photographed some Benton McGovern posters from my collection and asked me to write the introduction to Thomas W. Benton: Artists/Activist which I was pleased to do. Working with D.J. and with my research assistant Robert Heishman, who had photographed the posters for Hope, made the search for ‘60s prints and posters an exciting one.
In 2011, Robert and I traveled to Mitchell, South Dakota, to photograph posters in the McGovern Library and had the opportunity to spend an afternoon with the senator. He was in an ebullient mood and pleased to learn that Robert had recently finished an MFA at his alma mater Northwestern University. Sitting at the kitchen table he looked over the disc that had all of the campaign posters we had so far collected. I asked him if he would write a foreword for the book and he agreed.
The walls of his home were covered with art work and a few posters, one I particularly remember was a signed Peter Max convention piece. He encouraged us to take down anything we wished to photograph. Robert and I set up our photo equipment and as he told us stories of how he had acquired each painting or poster. Both Robert and I knew we had been privileged to have spent time with the senator and amazed that he so easily let us into his life. It was a remarkable experience. Now, each time Robert and I get together that wonderful afternoon comes up in our conversation.
The other images in the book came from museums, libraries, universities, private
collections, auction houses, antique stores and from daily searches on the internet. Over a period of six years I rounded up much new material and in a significant quantity. Three or four times a year I’d get together with Robert and we’d photograph, edit and catalog the new material. Some collectors mailed me what they had and we photographed it.
One of my favorites is the Alexander Calder “McGovern for McGovernment” and Andy Warhol’s “Vote McGovern” that portrays Nixon schrecklich-like in a chromatic clash of color. It is a candidate for one the greatest political posters ever. But Ben Shahn’s 1964 “Vote Johnson” is extraordinary and I am convinced that Warhol had seen the Shahn print which gave him the idea for “Vote McGovern.”
Even though McGovern lost badly, the posters and prints enthused and solidified his base. However, the deluge of graphic art was like preaching to the choir and did little to change the mind of the average American voter who was fed up with the sixties; the riots, killings, assassinations, violent demonstrations, war, the counterculture and drugs. Many of the posters and prints, to the contrary, were of artistic merit and not only have persisted but influenced poster making in the years that followed. Of course they are important historically as they capture the tenor of the times.