Beyond Hollywood: Mexican Movie Posters
by Jeff Clark
Starting this month and continuing through May, JMU Libraries offers an elaborate exhibit featuring poster art related to my favorite subject: movies. But these posters, and their movies, were largely unknown to me until two years ago. Many in our academic community, our traditional college-age students especially, would be in the same position. On the other hand, Latino members of our local community may nod in recognition——and think, I hope kindly, “This cinema is part of our cultural past —welcome to discovering it!”
Let me explain.
Back in the late 1960s and early 1970s when I studied filmmaking in school, before the arrival of video camcorders, students were movie aficionados, steeped in a love of contemporary American films, the films of Hollywood’s past, and imported foreign films. Remember: there was no online multimedia saturating our environment back then. Movies were considered the top visual art in the public’s eye. Foreign films still were released in movie theaters—but there was a limit to them. Only the “cream” of foreign filmmaking was available. All of the other international films—the ones most popular with their local audiences, but not taken seriously as “film art”—were absent from the American scene. Thus we aficionados had a skewed sense of movies around the world. And I can’t recall ever seeing many movies from Latin America among those that reached our urban theaters in New York.
Over the years since film school, there’ve been plenty of movies to keep me occupied, without seeking out what wasn’t readily available. Then one day, I happened upon movie posters on eBay that intrigued me because of their art, the tantalizing promise of stories unknown and unavailable. These two posters and their films were from Mexico and Argentina.
Thus began a journey as my curiosity grew, both about poster art and movies from Latin America, thriving in the same Hollywood period that I grew up with and discovered on TV as a boy. These “foreign” movies were hard to find, and seldom with English subtitles. But they could be understood well enough, with little Spanish, to grasp plot mechanics, if not social subtleties of meaning. And one could appreciate and feel that the healthiest two cinemas in Latin America did indeed open a “parallel world” of stars, directors, and every conceivable genre of story—many of them just as well made as Hollywood movies of the same period.
At the same time, there were those glorious posters. It isn’t just that they depicted movies and stars and a language I didn’t know firsthand, but that they were different from the Hollywood poster art of the same period: more colorful, more imaginative, freer in their visual design and style. Here’s Charles Nafus, explaining the difference (in an Austin Chronicle review of a book in this exhibit on poster art):
As the star system [in Hollywood] reached full flower in the 1920s, "portrait posters" emerged featuring a large painted image of the well-known actor or actress in their latest movie. By the Thirties some posters contained large airbrushed photos of the principal stars, simply featured as floating heads or busts. In too many examples the overall design became cluttered, artistic decisions seemingly made by committee or union contracts, mixing original art work depicting the stars in a narrative moment with photos incoherently interrupting the overall design. With numerous exceptions, the American movie poster was moving into a period of less artistic coherence at the same time that Mexican poster art began to flourish.
The most creative Mexican poster art appeared during the 20-year film production period (1936-1956) known as El Cine de oro, The Golden Age of Cinema. Eschewing photographs, the poster artists painted illustrious star portraits and frozen narratives promising grand emotions. These posters descended from Mexico's staggering history of image-making, stretching back millennia to pre-Hispanic temple murals, bas-reliefs, and statues. In the early 16th century Spanish conquistadores introduced canvas paintings of religious images, wealthy notables, and epic events. Through the centuries, artists born in Mexico continued Spanish traditions and styles in their paintings, but in the 20th century Mexican art exploded along with the Revolution. Radical muralists such as Rivera, Orozco, and Siqueiros celebrated the indigenous roots of Mexican culture and attacked the European and American intrusions. As the 19th century became the 20th, Jose Guadalupe Posada lay the foundation for a vibrant graphic artistry through his uniquely Mexican woodcut and zinc illustrations for newspapers and broadsides. Thus, Mexico was awash in bold images at the time the movie poster came into its own.
So with some of the same feelings as Nafus, I began collecting movie posters from this period, not only from Latin America but from Europe as well (Italy, France, Belgium, Sweden). When we needed wall coverings in the Carrier Library media center, nothing made more sense than to show posters of movies—but ones you wouldn’t normally find on display outside of an online archive, or someone’s specialty blog.
For the exhibit in Carrier’s lobby—Spanish Artists in Exile: movie posters from Mexico, 1940s to 1950s—we decided to focus on a theme. Much of the output in the Mexican poster industry came from Spanish artists who had emigrated to Mexico to live and work, after the politically left Second Republic lost the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). Josep Renau, Juan “Juanino” Renau, José Espert, Ernesto Guasp, Francisco Rivero Gil. Despite not being native to Mexico, these artists had some of the same roots, and they both influenced and were influenced in turn by their new environment. They’re a natural grouping around which to design an exhibit with multiple appeals: something for movie buffs, for art and history buffs, and perhaps a bit of nostalgia for those whose social and cultural memories include such posters and movies.
By the arrival of World War II, the Mexican film industry began to flourish (the “Golden Age” or Epoca de Oro.) Under its “Good Neighbor” policy, U.S. support included funding for filmmaking and studio-building, for training talent, even Americans who went to Mexico to live and contribute directly to production and photography of the films themselves. But the movies produced—though imitating Hollywood storytelling values—were distinctively their own. Hollywood tried to corner the Latin American audience, turning it into a market, by making films that would appeal to them--but these were received with indifference. It was Mexican moviemaking that entertained their country, then Latin America, and even Spanish-speaking audiences in the U.S.
The movie posters in this exhibit are accompanied by enough text background to give you a sense of what they’re portraying and why they are interesting to look at. It’s often a little vexing to come across art, even commercial art as movie posters are, without comment beyond “Isn’t this great stuff?!” Too often, this “stuff” is all captured and dumped before you to take in quickly, agree or disagree with a “wow!”, then move on to the next wonder of the moment. Instead, I find it helpful to stop and think why I appreciate art that attracts me. It’s even more helpful when other perceptive opinions on “why” are shared by others. So we’ve included a summary of some staff comments on the qualities displayed in these posters. We hope that that the comments, as well as plot synopses and artist information, will all give you food for thought—more thought than you meant to invest when you passed these colorful gems in the lobby area.
Before this exhibit ends, we plan to mount an online version on the JMU Libraries website. It will sport much more supplementary art by the artists involved, and links to art and background text, than any physical exhibit can. It will also feature film clips from some of the posters’ movies that I’ve been able to locate. While the exhibit is up, the media center will also house 5 of the 10 movies related to these posters: La Adúltera, La Faraona, Los Tres Garcia, Manos Arriba, and Sombra Verde. Whenever we’re open, you can stop by the center and watch a clip or an entire movie. I do that regularly myself, without a good working knowledge of Spanish and often without subtitles to help out. Once you dwell on what’s in our exhibit… you may just want to do the same.
My many thanks to all the hard pleasant labor put in by Jody Hess, Kelly Miller-Martin and Patti Williams of JMU Libraries. Their support made this exhibit possible!