The poster nation of unusual graphic design

by Mio Yamada

Staff Writer

Art often thrives as it wriggles out from under a big heavy rock. This can be said about creativity in Czechoslovakia from the 1960s to ’80s. As the nation broke free of Stalinism, careered toward the Prague Spring and then finally celebrated the end of Communism in 1989, music, art and film began mixing messages of freedom with an absurd sense of wit and slightly pessimistic world view. One of the less-discussed genres that flourished was that of film posters, many of which were commissioned to established contemporary artists.

When it came to posters for 1960s Czechoslovak New Wave cinema — which found ways to criticize Communism using sarcasm, dark humor, experimental dialogue and nonprofessional actors — it made sense for artists to also experiment with graphic design. Vladimir Bidlo’s symbolic collage of luxury foods stuffed inside a helmet therefore seems apt for Milos Forman’s 1967 “The Firemen’s Ball,” the comedic satire that used real firemen as actors and was almost immediately banned in Czechoslovakia.

But it was the application of such vibrant design aesthetics to less unconventional overseas films that is one of the delights of “Czech Posters for Films: From the Collection of Terry Posters,” currently showing at The National Film Center, Tokyo.

Traveling the distance between the original films and the designers’ interpretations can be a surprising and amusing mental trip. If it weren’t for Zdenek Kaplan’s use of whimsical butterflies and birds in his bleached-out mirror image of Audrey Hepburn, you could be forgiven for thinking that George Cukor’s musical “My Fair Lady” is a psychologically heavy portrait of a conflicted woman. Bedrich Dlouhy’s disembodied mouth, baring its teeth on a gray background, too, needs leaps of the imagination to connect it to Akira Kurosawa’s Edo Period drama “Rashomon.”

Many of the designers omitted actors completely or chose to use their images in a distorted and altered fashion. Faces and figures are severely cropped or warped in photomontages and collages. In pursuing artistic freedom rather than relying on literal interpretations or actor cachet, artists also stretched the limits of typography. In several designs, the leading players are dynamic and custom-made fonts. Jennifer Beals isn’t featured in the Czech poster for “Flash Dance” — just the title in three different garish fonts, occupies the entire frame in rainbow-colored glory.

Thanks to the Terry Posters collection, film and art lovers can enjoy a kaleidoscopic peek into this creatively fecund era, as well as perhaps re-appreciate classic cinema through some unusual re-interpretations.

It’s not surprising that Terry Gilliam of Monty Python fame gave his name to the Czech shop that assembled this priceless collection. The animator/director shares the same love of surreal and bizarre aesthetics that makes this exhibition about so much more than commercial design.

“Czech Posters for Films: From the Collection of Terry Posters” at the National Film Center runs till Dec. 1; open 11 am.-6:30 p.m. ¥200. Closed Mon. www.momat.go.jp