The Art of Genre

Indelible mages from Hollywood’s Golden Age

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

While on a recent Art Walk date night with two of my longtime lady friends, we made it a point to check out Whatcom Museum’s latest exhibit, “Art of the Genre: Posters from Hollywood’s Golden Age.”

Since the show is on display in two locations, we tossed a coin and ended up at the museum’s Old City Hall for the first installation of the expansive exhibit, which was, fittingly, curated by Michael Falter, the Pickford Film Center’s program director.

I’d read in a press release that the show would feature “original-issue artwork of posters from some of the best-loved genres from Hollywood’s studio era (roughly the 1930-1960s) including westerns, film noir and science fiction” and that the “exceptional poster art” was produced, for the most part, by anonymous artists and designers who oftentimes were promoting films they’d never actually seen on the screen.

But those details weren’t at the forefront of my mind as we entered a world populated with colorful, eye-catching images full of mutant creatures (The Alligator People), cowboys and Indians (Pitfall) and deliciously campy subtitles with plenty of exclamation points (“Weird monster escapes—terror seizes city!” from Revenge of the Creature).

While perusing the assorted crab monsters, women with heaving bosoms, stoic men and robots that were intent on taking down Aztec mummies, an elderly woman who was likely around when many of these pictures were made pointed out to her younger companion that “back in the day, making these posters was an art form.”

“I think if movie posters were like this today, a lot more people would go to the movies,” one of my lady friends added.

That same friend gasped in delight when she saw the Pickup on South Street poster at the museum’s Lightcatcher Building, where the second half of the display is located. With a tagline of “How the FBI took a chance on a bar-girl, and won!,” the 1953 film featuring Richard Widmark, Jean Peters, and Thelma Ritter is a prime example of the exhibit’s appeal—it’s interesting to look at, and, like a lot of the posters, reflects underlying images about a certain time in American history.

“Look a little deeper and we can see the sweep of history reflected in the images on screen,” exhibit notes point out. “Social and cultural shifts, political upheavals, industrial (Hollywood) changes, and censorship codes: it’s all there in these posters and films from the studio era.”

You can find out more about each of the genres the exhibit focuses on—and by watching the companion films that are showing through August and September at the Pickford Film Center—but what you should know going in to “Art of the Genre” is that, despite the fact that the posters were created to get people into movie theaters, they’re also incredibly interesting to look at.

“My takeaway from this is that it seems like unintentional art,” my savvy companion noted. “The artists had no idea their work would someday hang in a museum. That said, it’s distinctive, cohesive work.”

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