By Myles Ludwig
The movie poster is a metaphor in design, albeit with a specific purpose: A kind of Coming Attractions on paper.
Coming Soon, the new show at the Norton (it opened Friday and runs through Oct. 19), is a marvelous view of design as metaphor. Some 215 movie posters from the U.S. and other countries have been curated from the 3,000-plus collection of Dwight Cleveland by Matthew Bird of the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) and Norton Assistant Curator J. Rachel Gustafson.
The work represents a capsule history of the form, both style and technique extending from hand-colored glass slides for silent movies to stone-inscribed lithograph, painting and hand-stenciling to the current photo offset.
It is a wonderful show.
It covers work from the early 1900s to the 1980s and is “the largest-ever museum exhibition of classic movie posters from one of the most prominent collections in the world,” the Norton says.
Most of the artists are unknown, but there is a sprinkling of famous names, some of whom I knew personally.
You can enjoy this show on two levels. One, for its panoply of design concept and technique, typography and reproduction and two, for the stirrings of nostalgia for movies of bygone days. I was particularly moved by Disney’s poster for Pinocchio (1940) which was one of the very first movies I saw as a child. It shaped an existential myth which has stayed with me through my life (and has acquired new meaning considering an article last week in the New York Times Magazine on the reanimation of a dead pig’s brain and the ethical problems it presents).
The poster presents the Puppet-Boy in vivid cartoon colors, but with a dimensional perspective that serves to announce the breakthrough in animation the movie represented.
But this show is not about the movies.
Cleveland, a casually dressed, bespectacled Chicago-based enthusiast with a wry smile, has been collecting movie posters for some four decades and still does it, describing what he told me as “the excitement of the hunt” and his specific interest in design and reproduction. The show is a kind of trailer for his book, Cinema on Paper, scheduled for publication by Assouline in October.
I asked him if he owned the rare poster of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) and he said sadly not, describing it as the Holy Grail of movie poster collecting.
“Most film buffs think all the art is on the screen, but I believe the best posters represent the soul of the movie itself,” he said.
Bird, who teaches design and design history at RISD (and had previously curated two shows at the Norton: Wheels & Heels: Big Noise Around Little Toys and Going Places: Transportation Designs from the Jean S. and Frederic A. Sharf Collection), both of which were infused with a pop-cult sensibility, said he and Gustafson had looked through the entire collection to choose the show.
The show has been mounted intelligently. Most images are unframed but protected by a “label rail” that identifies each and provides valuable information. (A word about the renewed Norton: It manages to be simultaneously monumental and intimate. Quite a feat.)
Though they are considered ephemera ( i.e., disposable), they are highly collectible (I have a small collection myself) and were often discarded by theater owners or returned for credit from the film studios. And though they served a commercial purpose, many are true works of art, particularly those from Poland, the former Czechoslovakia and even the heroic images of the former Soviet Union.
There are intercultural references, as well, demonstrated by posters of the same movie from different cultures and stylistic interpretations.
See it now.
Coming Soon: Film Posters from the Dwight M. Cleveland Collection runs through Oct. 29 at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach. Admission: $18, except Friday and Saturday, when admission is free; hours: 10 am to 5 pm Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday; 11 am to 5 pm Sunday; 10 am to 10 pm Fridays. Call 832-5196 or visit www.norton.org for more information.