Imagine walking into an exhibit filled with comic book-like posters. They are not quite the Pop-Art of the famous Andy Warhol, they are much more typographic. The Ballyhoo Poster Exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery features celebrities of the past and present. It can be difficult not to jump into the question of whether or not it’s art and to look beyond the first impression. It’s easier to break the work apart into its compositional features including purpose, type elements and of course, the context.
Within the posters you can see the possibility of art and consumerism merging. This product-driven advertising is the source of this form of art. Designers have the task of keeping with the trends and creating art while still doing their job to sell the movie. The trends of the culture are evident in the posters. The works are consistent with the media induced decade in which they became popular. Some posters in the exhibit are new, featuring characters like Johnny Depp from Pirates of the Caribbean and others are older with characters like Marlon Brando from Apocalypse Now. The changes in the posters show an increase of character popularity. The designers begin to shifting their gears from selling movies to selling actors. Within most of the early posters you can see a storyline and a grouping of scenes from a movie within a single poster. The newer work like the work with Johnny Depp is simply a life-size billboard of the actor in character. Is this media induced work considered art? Furthermore are the designers considered artists? This work should be considered art, more specifically pop-art. If these pieces had more of a decorative purpose there wouldn’t be an issue of, is it art or not. Since we are in a “buy-buy-buy” society, artists are sometimes faced with the problem of commercial utility. Their art may not be perceived as art at all. Instead it is ignored and seen as advertising, as if advertising can’t be art. By featuring these poster designs at the National Portrait Gallery, it seems as if these designers are getting the recognition they deserve.
As well as bringing to the forefront a timeline of designer inspiration, the Ballyhoo exhibit also shows a great timeline of design changes, from dramatic images being the focus integrating into extreme fonts dominating the posters. The early method of art shown in the Ballyhoo exhibit was characteristically heightened by the use of fonts and typefaces. Some of the older posters are a prime example. There can be up to ten different typestyles on one poster! The poster Trinidad features six including the main headline, the sub-headers and the actor credits – yet somehow the portraits dominate the majority of the viewer’s attention. The portrait of the woman in the foreground with a male figure lurking in the background is only complimented by the powerful yellow headline which sits at the bottom of the image. While this overzealous use of fonts could be observed as excessive, the regular dominance of the type is a key element to this design style. With most of the older posters, including this one, you’ll also find a consistent color pallet – bright colors and the regular use of black in the background. Often the subject matter is centered with one portrait as the main focus cornered by fun, comical display fonts. Some of the earlier posters from the 60’s carry this trend of fun display fonts but add an extra element of graphic illustrations. From 1967, Butterfly Blues Band features a bright purple and black combination of colors. On each of the edges is an organic pattern of swirls and circle shapes. Stretching from the bottom to about three quarters of the way up the page is a section of text in a distorted wavy block topped by a small black and white portrait photograph of the band. Posters like this one show a transition and an integration into a new trend of poster design.
It is well planned that preceding the Ballyhoo exhibit was an exhibit of political cartoons. So before you begin to look at the poster displays you already have a sense of comedic art and you aren’t taking what you are seeing too seriously. Consumer driven posters can hold the same comic relief. Art doesn’t have to be serious. So whether or not you are questioning society’s view on art as a whole or you’re viewing these posters as a history of graphic design, after seeing the Ballyhoo exhibit you should agree that pop-art such as this is in fact, art.