Last year was the warmest year on record. Graphic artists in the environmental movement tried to warn us. Their posters aimed to directly scare people with pictures of ecological catastrophe or of glorified nature, clean air and water, sunshine and fresh greenery. Some offered earworm-esque slogans and unforgettable visuals. No matter the approach – bright, witty, dark, blunt, even sexy – they were looking for images and phrases that could literally change minds enough to save the world. .
The exhibition, on view at the Poster House in Manhattan through February 25, shows these visual and rhetorical styles and how they reflect the changing strategies of an evolving movement. In addition to the 33 posters, there are also dozens of stamps and Vivienne Westwood socks on display.
Environmentalism began to gain voice in the 1970s, with roots in the counterculture and protests against the Vietnam War. Robert Rauschenberg designed the official poster for the first Earth Day in 1970. In a deadpan appeal to patriotism, tragic scenes of a spoiled ecosystem are depicted in a bald eagle frame. The first piece in the show is Hans Erni’s 1961 Call for Clean Water, which depicts a gruesome skull in a glass. Artists argued that the choice was between peace and poison.
This is the environmental movement as a marketing issue. First, you need to let people know about your product. Then you have to convince them that they need it. Perhaps a healthy planet seems like a self-evident good. A 1970 poster by Milton Glaser reads, “Give Earth a Chance.” The large blue marble we all live in is depicted floating in the living room. As Earth Day and global conferences tick by with posters, it starts to feel like raising awareness isn’t enough. The tone of the poster becomes acidic. A grim 2008 illustration by Yen-Chang Chen and Hung-Yu Chen depicts a baby polar bear floating above its mother’s corpse.
Some examples from the 1980s, such as pro-tree posters by Eric Carle of “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” fame, feature optimism and a call to rally around children and animals. A 1992 print by Rauschenberg for the United Nations Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro depicts a toddler napping in a stroller. It reads, “I am committed to making the Earth a safe and welcoming home for present and future generations.”
They also began to suspect that there were counter-forces at work, what Vance Packard, a journalist critical of consumerism, referred to in his 1957 book as “hidden persuaders”, who offered money to drowning people. There is a possibility of selling the floor.
All the materials on display are born from sincere beliefs. Or is it? On the back wall is a poster of the famous “Crying Indian” TV spot, with a tear rolling down Iron Eyes Cody’s weathered cheek. A label on the wall says what you may and may not know: that this “Native American” is actually an Italian-American actor. The group behind the ad, Keep America Beautiful, is a consortium of beverage companies.
This context sheds a different light on the text. The poster says, “People start polluting.” “People can stop it.” The campaign sought to shift the blame onto trash bugs and away from brands’ single-use packaging. Similarly, the idea of “carbon footprint”, which concerns individual consumers rather than the fossil fuels sold, was the invention of a spin doctor hired by BP in 2004 from the giant Ogilvy & Mather. .
Environmentalist artists are gradually getting smarter. The show features an example of the so-called culture jamming mode, developed by activists in the 90s. (Think Adbusters magazine or Yes Men.)
British designer Barnbrook’s perfect parody of a Volkswagen ad is one of several that have been sneaked into Paris bus stops ahead of the COP21 climate change conference. There’s the usual car, and above it is the familiar font of Volkswagen. However, the text says, “I’m sorry that you got caught,” referring to the car manufacturer’s emissions cheating scandal and criticizing the company’s sans-serif apology that was published in the newspaper a few days ago. The idea is not to draw people’s hearts to green causes, but to harden their hearts against greenwashing.
But advertising agencies are also creative. The most morally ambiguous poster is a double-page spread released in 2017 in which a wealthy woman poses with a megaphone on a luxury speedboat, while a fishing boat just behind her drags in a whale and bleeds the ocean. It depicts the situation. The copy reads, “For those who are environmentally conscious.” “And it’s $72,000.” Viciously dispatching green-tinted luxury goods? No, this is an ad for a hybrid electric Lexus created by Ogilvy & Mather.
Perhaps some modern poster makers have realized that they cannot spend more than they can spend on corporate PR, and so they abandon their out-of-the-blue thinking and acerbic wit in order to promote a particular policy. There are some too. Gavin Snyder’s 2019 earth-toned design is vibrant with a giant spherical fountain built in Flushing’s Meadows and Corona’s Park for the 1964 World’s Fair. I’m drawing a scene. It simply says “Green New Deal.” In 2023, Jan’s Martin Berger poster urging divestment from fossil fuels adopted the nostalgic style of the WPA printmaker. In this show’s sketches, the atmosphere of the environmental movement gradually loses its joy.
We Tried to Warn You! Environmental Crisis Poster, 1970-2020 On view through February 25th at the Poster House, 119 West 23rd Street, Manhattan. 917-722-2439; posterhouse.org.