This intriguing poster is one of a series done to promote the 1939 New York World’s Fair. With its interesting mix of classical and futuristic images, it reflects the interest of the poster designer, John Atherton, in surrealism.
The reclining woman in the center who is wearing robes typically seen on statues of Greek and Roman goddesses is most likely the artist’s depiction of the concept of Liberty, often drawn as a classical goddess. In her right hand, and possibly on her lap, she is supporting a portion of the Earth (cut-open). Jutting out from the Earth are the two famous structures built for the fair and symbolizing the World of Tomorrow: the Trylon (the spire) and the Perisphere (the sphere). The Empire State Building (still new in 1939) may be the structure off to the side. The orange of the background and the blue of the Earth reflect the official colors of the fair.
Lining up and coming from outside the globe (thus presumably foreigners) are visitors en route to the fair. The poster bears this simple message: “New York World’s Fair” (in yellow at the top) and “1939” (in blue at the bottom).
One of the interesting aspects about this poster is what could be construed as its political message. The fair opened at the end of April 1939. The Great Depression was waning, and World War II had not yet begun. When Germany invaded Poland four months later in September 1939, triggering the start of war in Europe, the fair continued but many exhibits were affected, especially those on display in the pavilions of countries under Axis occupation. In the months before the start of the war, vulnerable people were desperately seeking to escape Europe. Perhaps the line of people en route to the fair is the artist’s recognition of the growing refugee population. This would explain why he chose “Lady Liberty” as the symbolic holder of the globe. These people represent those seeking liberty and fleeing fascism.
John Atherton (1900 – 1952), painter and graphic designer, was born in Minnesota but worked most of his life in New York City. As a painter, he often painted landscapes in the emerging surrealism style. As a commercial artist, he designed ads for The Container Corporation, General Motors, Shell Oil Company and other companies. He also painted over forty covers for The Saturday Evening Post. He gained national recognition for this poster design for the world’s fair.
This interesting and compelling poster would be a great addition to every poster collection.