When you think of the film posters of today – plastered with credits and dull shots of smiling superstars – it’s hard to imagine anything so beautiful that you’d actually want to hang it on your wall. But, from the late 1950s until 1989, Czechoslovakia was producing posters of this calibre. And since 2006, a series of exhibitions titled The Golden Era of Czechoslovak Film Posters has been giving the public the opportunity to learn more about an age when the advertisements were art.
“Big cities today are bursting at the seams with posters, and they all look the same,” says Pavel Rajčan, who curates the exhibition through Aerofilms, which manages the art house cinemas Aero and Světozor. “What we wanted to show in this exhibition was that these graphic artists were almost making original artwork. They’re all different. And they’re all beautiful in their own right.”
The exhibition series last month featured work from the era’s most prolific artist in the genre, Karel Vaca. Producing close to 300 film posters between 1959 and 1989, Vaca won numerous awards and is best known for his designs for The Cry, Adelheid, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and, most notably, Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. The latter shows the striking profile of a woman with a blue butterfly on her predominately white head, her red lips and ornate costume contrasting beautifully against the grey-green background.
As well as Vaca, the series has previously displayed the work of Olga Poláčková, whose design for the film A Gentle Creature is perhaps the most famous poster by a Czech artist. It has also showcased the talents of Milan Grygar and Zdeněk Zeigler, who – along with Vaca, Josef Vyleťal and Karel Teissig – are considered the most important artists of the golden era, both for the influence of their work and the sheer number of their creations. What distinguishes the posters of this period is not just that the Czechoslovaks, like the Poles, were creating their own designs, but that they were still doing everything by hand. Unlike Western Europe, which was home to several film distribution companies, including studios from the West that made their own posters, Czechoslovakia had only one film distributor, and its posters came from commissioned artists, rather than a team of in-house designers. “Everything was handmade,” Rajčan said. “Computers didn’t exist. It may look like the type is machine-printed, but it’s hand-drawn,”
The high point of the period came in the late 1950s and lasted almost until the end of the 1960s as Czechoslovak artists left even the Poles behind, invoking an impressive array of modern graphic techniques including collage, photomontage, cutouts and creative typography. Characterised by relatively little censorship and an influx of movies arriving from the west, the years up until 1968 allowed for more creative freedom and play.
Of course, it was the artists themselves who defined the era with their inimitable styles. As well as their flair for graphic art, it was their distinctive backgrounds – working as sculptors, painters or architects – that made their posters so exceptional.
Zdeněk Zeigler was a typographer as well as a designer, and his posters reflected his passion for typefaces. His 1973 poster for Fellini’s Roma showed the film’s title in large letters, all stacked on top of one another and coloured yellow with the exception of the “o” – which was a glaring orange, red, yellow and pink bullseye. In contrast, the posters of surrealist artist Josef Vyleťal tended to incorporate paintings with a fantastical dreamlike quality. For the German film The Pedestrian, Vlyeťal interweaved cutouts and paint to create an eerie window view of the head of a blindfolded man floating above the ground. Both of these artists were also keenly aware of the changes imposed on film poster design after 1968 based on the normalisation programme. Vyleťal, who created the poster for Easy Rider, was made to obscure the American flag he drew on actor Dennis Hopper’s back. Zeigler was called in by the secret police to answer questions about the inspiration for the hundred-dollar bill shown in his poster for the American film 100 Rifles.
The emigration of a number of Czechoslovak poster artists after ‘68 also had a marked impact on the quality and quantity of local works. Among the émigrés was Zdeněk Kaplan, whose work is the subject of the next exhibition cycle, scheduled for September. Still living in Italy today, Kaplan is famous for his posters for My Fair Lady and The Seven Year Itch, which channel the spirit of Czechoslovak collage. Like Poláčková, Grygar and Zeigler, he plans to attend the exhibition opening.
“Because he emigrated, he created only 30 posters between 1964 and 1971,” Rajčan said. “But they were all extraordinary.”
It was in 1989, when Hollywood came to town, that high-quality local poster art really started to decline. With so many new releases arriving with ready-made advertising, designers created only a handful of original and important posters according to Rajčan.
Outside of Prague, the exhibition has already appeared in cities including Chicago and Madrid. In August, Rajčan will take the Milan Grygar exhibition to Tokyo.