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Exhibition Review: ‘Dedicated to All Defenders of Human Freedoms’

Readers will quite probably never have heard of Paul Peter Piech, but may well have seen some of the political posters he produced from the 1950s onwards. An exhibition ‘Dedicated to All Defenders of Human Freedoms: The Art of Paul Peter Piech’ at the People’s History Museum in Manchester contains plenty of examples of his work, together with commentary on his career.

Piech (1920–96) was the son of Ukrainian immigrants to New York; he was stationed in Britain with the US Air Force in the Second World War, and returned here in 1947. He worked in commercial graphic design, and also produced a large number of linocuts as posters to advertise meetings, marches and political causes. He was never a member of a political party but his work essentially supported left-wing positions.

For instance, he produced one poster which showed the stars on the US flag transformed into swastikas. Others opposed war, cruise missiles and torture. One poster was commissioned by Amnesty against torture but was rejected by their head office as liable to offend some supporters: it shows a person being burnt with a cigarette and looks fairly innocuous now. A series of powerful posters on the theme ‘Racism is a Prison’ covers the US in the 1920s, Auschwitz, Soweto, Bosnia and so on. Other posters deal with the Miners Strike, with particular reference to South Wales.

In 1979 Piech became unpopular among some after he had worked on an exhibition in Iraq, sponsored by Saddam Hussein’s government. So he was not always a ‘defender of human freedoms’.

The exhibition contains a number of striking and memorable posters. A few are let down, though, by containing too much writing in an angular hard-to-follow script which hardly invites the onlooker to stand and read through them.     

PB