Since its inception, film has been a marriage of art and commerce. With the rise of moviegoing came the need to attract audiences—and thus the movie poster was born. Beginning July 12, the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach will explore this commercial art form in “Coming Soon: Film Posters from the Dwight M. Cleveland Collection.”
Cleveland, a Chicago real estate developer, has spent decades building his catalogue, a hobby spurred by his love of art as opposed to a passion for movies. He’s always been drawn to the aesthetic qualities of these posters and the hunt for acquisitions. Sometimes those are born out of happy accidents—as when he was alerted to a treasure trove of posters used as insulation in a home in Indiana—or are the result of intense internet sleuthing.
This exhibition is the first deep dive into his collection and the first significant museum show dedicated to classic film posters. It features 215 examples and is broken into sections based on printing techniques, poster size, foreign films, subgenres such as Western and Sci-Fi, and a chronological overview from the turn of the century to the 1980s.
PBI recently caught up with Cleveland and exhibition co-curator Matthew Bird to discuss “Coming Soon” and the art of the movie poster.
PBI: What do you feel is the narrative of this exhibit?
Bird: The overall narrative is the entire history of movie posters—what they were created for and how that changed over time because of how movies developed, how society developed, and how the ability to reproduce images changed. There’s an anteroom, a gallery inside the main one, that shows all the different sizes and printing techniques—the shift from lithography, silk screen, and other printing methods—so that when people go into the show, they already have an idea of what’s going on. Around the outside perimeter of the room, it goes from the earliest silent films through all the major themes. The back wall is all posters from other countries, and then we have some freestanding walls that highlight separate chapters like Westerns or foreign films.
What are some differences between American and foreign versions of classic movie posters?
Cleveland: In foreign countries, the films were sometimes released after their release in the United States, so the artists had the benefit of actually watching the film before they did the posters. And so, the foreign posters sometimes are more evocative of the film itself because they actually saw it, whereas American artists, they could have read the script or they could have gone onto the set and talked to people, but they’re really not going to know what is going on in the film.
Do you think that made for better posters?
Cleveland: I do. And when you see posters from some of these foreign countries, especially the Eastern European ones, you really see how the vernacular of art is different than it is in the United States. And they’re famous artists.
Bird: I think we know more named artists from Poland and Italy and from countries [other than America] because in those cultures the artists were creating artwork to celebrate the movie, and here it was a commercial venture only.
Cleveland: If you look at the history of poster art, it was born in France with Jules Chéret and then Toulouse-Lautrec and all those guys in the late 1800s, and so they were already creating really beautiful stuff. I think that consumers were accustomed to seeing beautiful posters in kiosks around Paris, so their expectation was at a much higher level than in the United States. Our evolution of posters was basically wanted posters. That was what Americans were coming up from in terms of what they were expecting visually.
Bird: The precedent that I’ve been looking at for movie posters is vaudeville posters, which were only at the theater outside to tell you what was happening inside. They used all the techniques of lithography, but there was no aspiration to be fine art—it was just serviceable. So, neither of our precedents set us up to have beautiful posters.
Are there any well-known artists of classic American movie posters?
Bird: They’re mostly anonymous, but there were some people who came from the illustration world who were already well-known who would be brought in to do a poster. There were also a lot of people who started out in movie posters who then went on to become very famous. Al Hirschfeld, who did a lot of Broadway actors for The New York Times, did a lot of movie posters throughout his career. Alberto Vargas did a lot of pin-up girl illustrations and worked all the way through the late 1970s creating a number of posters.
What time does the exhibit go until?
Bird: Up to Dirty Dancing in the late 1980s. That’s my fault. Everyone kept saying, “Why don’t we have more recent posters?” But the narrative of what movie posters did as they developed came to this sort of natural end. The Kill Bill poster could have been in, but I couldn’t find anywhere to put it where it wasn’t just, “And there’s the Kill Bill poster.” So, blame me.
Cleveland: Matt had a lot less to choose from though. The first 15 years of collecting, I didn’t own anything after 1940. It was only after that I started appreciating the artwork and buying some of those foreign posters and stuff.
How did the rise of computer technology impact the artistic qualities of film posters?
Bird: The movies changed. The movies became about special effects. The poster couldn’t show you the star of the movie anymore; it had to show you the experience of the special effect. As we got better print photographs, a mere photograph wasn’t so interesting. So, yes, it definitely changed, but I don’t think computers changed the posters so much as they changed the movies and the moviegoers. And the other thing that really changed them was in the early days, posters would just have to work on movie theaters or billboards, but then they started having to work on rental boxes, then DVDs, and now on Netflix. If you think what an artist can do with 64 pixels versus a larger poster, that’s what’s changed them more than anything. At the time, cross-platforming, making sure this would work horizontally or vertically, artists could just make another version. Now they make a version that works everywhere, so of course it’s generic and pathetic and sad, but it’s also doing so much more.
*This interview has been edited and condensed.