Spring 2002

Designing heroes

Steven Heller
History (text in full)

Every era creates heroic imagery that conforms to its specific needs

Heroic imagery has long adorned canvas and poster for reasons as varied as patriotism and paternalism, valour and ego. To be called a hero – or to be shown as such – is the highest of human distinctions, and heroism is a status to which everyone aspires, if only subconsciously. The true hero is born with, or acquires, real virtues, while the synthetic one is a composite of ideal attributes. In either case, the heroic image has considerable sway over public perception. Nevertheless, a hero is not always actually ‘heroic’ in appearance or stature, so designing heroes that conform to accepted models necessitates the creation of symbolic beings that are bigger and bolder than life.

In heroic art the diminutive Napoleon was depicted as taller; Hitler was shown as being physically stronger than nature had originally intended. The exaggerating, flattering lens is routinely used to elevate rulers and warriors as well as sports and media stars. Michael Deaver, Ronald Reagan’s chief of staff and principal ‘image maker’, once explained that placing the then president in a heroic light relied, quite literally, on effective lighting to smooth out the gnarled parts and give an aura to his countenance.

Film-makers routinely create larger-than-life live-action characters whose heroic personae the public unquestioningly embrace simply because of a few special effects. But the grandest fictional heroes are not made of flesh and blood at all, but paper, ink and myth. Take ‘Superman’, created in 1939 by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, a pair of depression-era American Jews who, having learnt about the Aryan superman, wanted to show that not all supermen were racial supremacists. By imbuing their creation with otherworldly superhuman powers to defeat evil and bullies (not unlike the Nordic myths that underpinned Nazism), they tapped into the universal desire for invincible heroes to uphold ‘Truth, Justice and the American Way’.

It is no mystery why the powerless conjure white knights, demigods or supermen to defeat their foes; similarly it is expected that the powerful will consolidate real strength through heroic manifestation. ‘The chief business of the nation, as a nation,’ wrote H. L. Mencken, the petulant American critic and journalist, ‘is the setting up of heroes, mainly bogus.’ And the job of the illustrator and graphic designer in this particular business is to bolster false heroes with graphic façades.

Whether in the service of democracy or dictatorship, during the twentieth century artists and graphic designers have been responsible for the lion’s share of hero-mongering. They have painted the paintings, drawn the drawings, and designed the icons that impress a leader’s likeness on mass consciousness. The cult of the hero relies on establishing credible myths that sustain heroic legend. In the West heroic figures are the moral equivalent of commercial trade characters, and function on a similar level. A heroic figure must at once prompt recognition, engender response and forge unbreakable bonds. To inspire, it must have a human face.

In 1914, Alfred Leete designed the first of such modern images in his famous recruitment poster for the British Army. The poster shows a finger-pointing image of Lord Kitchener (taken from a magazine cover) between the words ‘Britons’ and ‘wants you’. Kitchener was a real person, but Leete transformed him into a romantic symbol. On the other hand, ‘Uncle Sam’, who appeared in 1917 on recruitment posters created by the American illustrator James Montgomery Flagg, was an imaginary hero, the armed forces’ equivalent of the Campbell’s Soup Kids or Aunt Jemima. Flagg himself was the model for the ‘I Want You’ poster, but he exaggerated his features for heroic affect, rendering a composite of rugged individualists, such as George Washington and Abe Lincoln, who were already ingrained in American myth. In 1917, 1919 and 1920 respectively the Italians, Germans and Russians issued similar posters, showing idealised soldiers who beckon the viewer to follow the leader into war.

Nations use heroic representation to unite their citizens behind an idea or ruler. Democracies make heroes of the common man; dictatorships worship leaders. Both engage in necromancy through representations of fallen heroes, because there is no better way to capture hearts and minds than promoting heroic martyrs. In Nazi Germany ‘the fallen become part of the “eternal German”,’ wrote historian George L. Mosse in Masses and Man (Howard Fertig, 1980), ‘those who preserve their basic nature from all contamination with the passage of time.’ This was seen as ‘heroic sacrifice’, and the idealised images of men and boys giving their lives for the leader were almost as common as the swastika. Those who heroically sacrifice themselves for a nation or an ideal pass on their souls for what is presumed to be a greater good, and are thus afforded the equivalent of sainthood, with the visual tribute that comes with it.

But where do heroic images come from? Portrayals in stone of Greek gods and Roman emperors, as well as Renaissance paintings of kings and princes in robes and armour riding upon their noble steeds, gave rise to one set of enduring images. Official court portraits of seventeenth-, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century monarchs also influenced the modern stereotype.

A hero is one who rises above the ordinary and must therefore appear to be extraordinary. Hence age-old and contemporary visual lexicons of heroism are essentially the same the world over, barring fashionable styles that denote specific periods. The primary method is to use an exaggerated representational style, a form of ‘realism’ that romanticises and even beatifies those depicted. After the warts and blemishes have been removed and the muscles have been fleshed out, what remains is a heroic shell.

Soviet Socialist Realism was, however, more than a shell – it was a shroud. Instituted in the late 1920s in reaction to abstract revolutionary art (deemed suspiciously perplexing to the masses), it became the official language for representing a system based on a self-sacrificing proletariat. Official images – realistic painting or photomontage – showed an elevated stature and forward-looking visage. At the 1939 New York World’s Fair ‘Joe the Worker’, as he was known to Americans – a huge statue of a labourer with muscular, rolled-up-sleeved arm raised to the heavens, holding a red star – stood atop the monolithic Soviet pavilion representing the heroism of the state and its people. Inside hung scores of blemish-free portraits of Marx, Engels and Lenin and, everywhere, the nation’s absolute leader, Stalin.

In the annals of hero depiction, however, Stalin was clearly outdone by Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini and, later, Mao Tse-tung. The ‘Führer Principle’ (or cult of the leader) on which Hitler fashioned his rule demanded the distribution of a ubiquitous image, though it varied from firm to benevolent; from statesman to god. Hitler was omnipresent in multi-storeyed billboards and wallet-sized snapshots. One poster portrays him as a knight replete with armour and flag. His profile was engraved on countless stamps (for which he received a hero’s royalty every time one was used in occupied countries). But he was not the Third Reich’s only hero.

The German poster artist Ludwig Hohlwein, whose Munich style dominated German advertising throughout the late 1920s, 30s and into the 40s, created the most effective Heroic Realism. His depictions of Nazi youth and the ss deployed monumental stances and were lit to accentuate their grandeur. Hohlwein did not engage in negative stereotypes, preferring to mythologise rather than demonise. But he did set a standard against which poster iconography of that time and place must be judged. It is difficult to say definitively that Hohlwein invented National Socialist (or Nazi) Realism, but his work was the paradigm.

In a 1933 issue of Gebrauchsgraphik Hohlwein stated how such art must operate in the service of his nation: ‘Today, art, as a cultural factor, is more than ever called upon to take a leading place in building up and conserving cultural values. It must take its place in the front ranks of the legion, which Europa has gathered to preserve her individuality against the onslaughts from the East. Art is the best possible disturbing agent for ideas and intellectual tendencies. Commercial art is doubly effective in this sense, for it stands at the forefront, giving form and expression to the daily panorama and forcibly dominating even those who would ordinarily remain impervious to artistic influences. May the best among us realise fully the significance of what is at stake and their own responsibility and may they labour creatively and with conviction at the preservation of our cultural civilisation and its restoration to perfectly healthy conditions.’

Nazi Heroic Realism recalled ancient Rome but it also owed a debt to Italian Fascism, which went to Caesar’s well first. Mussolini was everywhere – and not just in his embellished regalia but shirtless, for the world to see. Hitler would not show his chest in public, even if it were magically grafted on to a perfect Aryan body. When it came to propagating the heroic image of the Italian leader throughout society Mussolini had no reservations about being the virile Roman man and, with graphic bravado unequalled by any national figure, his bald visage became the logo for his regime. Even when reduced to its most elemental form, the round, helmeted head, protruding lip and searing eyes formed the quintessential icon – the biggest of ‘Big Brothers’. Which is why, after his capture and execution in April 1945, the image of Mussolini’s beaten body (alongside the bodies of some close associates and his mistress) hanging upside down from the girders of a Milan garage, became a powerful symbol of the fall of his regime.

Every period creates heroic imagery in response to specific events and needs. America’s most famous monument to heroism, the us Marine Corps Memorial at Arlington, Virginia, sculpted by Felix de Weldon, was based on a photo of a flag-raising after the bloody battle with Japanese troops for Iwo Jima in 1945. Just two days after Joe Rosenthal’s photo was published, the us Senate called for a national monument modelled on the picture. Thousands of Americans wrote to the president supporting the appeal: a clay replica was sculpted within 72 hours. Although commemorating a real event, the original image had been posed by the photographer to achieve the most dramatic stance, and the monument itself was based on a recreation in the sculptor’s studio. One reason for this image-management was to freeze the most opportune moment. But the monument’s theme, ‘Uncommon valour was a common virtue’, like most heroic sentiment, is best expressed through the absence of gore; while heroes arise from adversity, revealing these adverse conditions does not make for the most effective heroic image. Had the photograph shown the dead and wounded – heroes all – from that awful day’s battle, it would not have become such an indelible icon. The most effective heroic depictions are sanitised.

Whether called Socialist Realism, National Socialist Realism, Heroic Realism or just plain Realism, the design of heroic imagery uses similar components for the same effect. The Chinese certainly have a unique visual culture, but under Mao the official art of Communist China was Socialist Realism. Mao appeared on everything, glowing like a beacon of hope, the father of his nation. At the same time, soldiers, workers, peasants – both men and women – were cleansed of every blemish in posters and banners that heralded the glories of the nation. The influence of Chinese propaganda art also transformed people of all third-world nations – from Cuba to Africa – into heroes of an international people’s revolution.

Palestine, Vietnam, Angola, Mozambique – the third world was ripe for heroic representation. And in the 1960s there was no more recognisable heroic figure than the Argentinian-born Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara, whose Christ-like visage adorned stamps and posters, flags and billboards as the exemplar of popular revolt in countries outside Cuba. Even in the us, Cuba’s avowed enemy, the Che myth was perpetuated by the Left through graphics such as the famous Korda portrait (see Eye no. 40 vol. 10) and American illustrator Paul Davis’s iconic 1968 portrait of Che for the left-wing magazine Evergreen Review.

Davis made his method of heroic depiction into a style that he applied to more benign figures and events. For another cover of Evergreen Review he celebrated presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy in much the same iconic way as he rendered Che. However, in the us, heroic imagery is employed more often in the service of commerce than in politics. Some illustrators have created personal styles on heroic conceits of Nazi and Socialist Realism applied to the idolatry of movie, music and athletic stars. Sometimes this is ironic, but not always. The classic image of Atlas supporting the world on his shoulders has been used to represent everything from soft drinks to continuing education programmes. Heroic depiction is simply too effective to relegate entirely to parody and satire.

Artists and designers filter heroism through their subjective lenses but the photographer captures it through an objective one. While this does not imply the absence of prejudice or predisposition for heroic stereotypes, it means that photographers in the field generally record real heroism in all its nuances. Don McCullin’s pictures from Vietnam, for example, vividly reveal the essence of men under fire – the meeting of bravery and fear. And among the photographs shot by Magnum photographers in the aftermath of the 11 September terrorist attack on the World Trade Center (New York September 11, PowerHouse Books), Steve McCurry records a lonely hero, a New York City fireman, stalwartly climbing a ladder over the devastation of Ground Zero. This is real life.

However cynical one may be about the manipulating power of heroic imagery it is clear that such new heroes – the rescuers – need not be designed or improved upon. The set-pieces of this current wave of heroic imagery have not been re-posed or composed with artificial lights. The photographs of Ground Zero are candid and true. Sure, out of this new hero-imagery old clichés will doubtless emerge, but for now the real images will also prevail. More than 100 years ago, Elbert Hubbard, the founder of the William Morris-inspired Roycrofters Arts and Crafts community wrote: ‘The heroic man does not pose; he leaves that for the man who wishes to be thought heroic.’

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