Celebration of the Art of May Day
Growing up in North America, I first learned about May Day from pictures of Soviet military parades in my history books. I knew it was a Soviet national holiday but had no idea why until I learned about the Haymarket massacre and the strikes for the eight-hour day, which significant changed its meaning for me. Particularly in countries where Labour Day acts as a gentler official alternative to the real workers’ day, May Day can seem a bit arcane and distant. Still, since tomorrow is May Day and I’ll be heading down to the local rally––unfortunately more of a parade than a confrontational demonstration––I wanted to celebrate the art of May Day, the various ways that communities all around the world have been getting out the call to workers to join marches, parties, and demonstrations on May 1.
May Day 1895 by Walter Crane
This poster from England in 1895 serves as an excellent example of commemorative art from the labour movement of that era. A women personifying justice holds up a garland of workers’ demands for an end to child labour, for socialism, for shorter working days. It’s a beautiful use of monochromatic art in a style I associate with book illustrations of the time.
Between 1920-40: Soviet Constructivist Poster
The power of this image derives not only from its striking vertical composition and the dynamic way the red flag angles around the giant numeral 1, but also its use of photographic images stamped onto the flag. It also reflects the imperative demands of the early Soviet era: industrialization and the consolidation of proletarian power in the country
Italian Socialist Poster: 1902
Another example of turn-of-the-century poster graphic design, this piece from the Italian Socialist Party (PSI) uses heavy outlines to good effect, though I have my qualms about the impassive facial expressions on the workers here. They look resolute, to be sure, but also quite reserved.
PFLP Poster: 1981
The PFLP probably produced most of my favourite twentieth century political poster art, and this one fits well with their powerful aesthetic. We have the classic iconography of communism––the book, the hammer, and the sickle––placed against an energetic red-white-and-yellow background that highlights the foreground elements. I would seek out more of the PFLP’s work if you enjoy this piece.
Turkish May Day Poster: 2010
May Day rallies were officially prohibited in Turkey between 1977 and 2010––and probably not looked upon well by the Erdogan government to this day––and this poster comes from that latter year. Like many more recent posters for May Day, it borrows the classic aesthetics of internationalism and workers’ struggle while using specifically digital editing hallmarks like the star between the two hands in this piece.
Business Cat Meme Poster: Early-Mid 2010s
Speaking of recent innovations in poster design, this poster’s inversion of the “business cat” meme certainly marks it as the most unique bit of art in this retrospective. It doesn’t stick to the format of the meme, but its rows of feline calls to action are still cute, though its effectiveness is less clear.
IWW May Day Grand Rapids: 2011
Since I wanted to finish this retrospective with some more recent posters from my own social contexts, I couldn’t leave this text-only poster out. Despite not including any images and reminding me of a music festival band list, I think it evokes the feeling of an old newspaper ad section quite well. Its variations in font size, spacing, and thickness sell the concept even if it is extremely simple. I only wish I had been more aware of left happenings in Grand Rapids when I lived there!
May Day Toronto: 2016
And, yes, the march I will be attending tomorrow. Though it first appears cluttered and somewhat scatterbrained, I find that it actually coheres fairly well. It covers the major themes of May Day––police brutality, racism, the environment, indigenous solidarity, migrants’ and international workers’ solidarity, etc. It’s certainly not a traditional rendering of these themes, but that’s perfectly fine and shows that there are a number of ways to address the same issues even when framed by the same holiday.
RCP May Day Initiatives: 2016
Those looking for a more traditional, if still contemporary, look to their May Day celebration posters can find them in the RCP initiatives for May Day. I’m quite fond of both of these images, particularly the sketchy and ink-blotched art style of the bottom one. Since they’re designed more as online banners than physical posters, they also reflect the changing ways in which people hear about and are motivated to go to May Day rallies. Both also emphasize the combative and rebellious nature of the holiday, which I have to say I prefer to the more polite and restrained style of the official work, even if the latter is overall more attractive.
Well, readers, another May Day is upon us. I wish you all the best and that we can all struggle for workers’ and people’s power together.