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Silents’ Golden Posters

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When the Eastman Theater in Rochester, N.Y., hired artist Batiste Madalena to create posters for display in its windows, he was given one simple instruction: His designs had to be visually arresting enough to catch the attention of the occupants of the passing trolley cars.

The year was 1923. The silent film that served as an evening’s main attraction was preceded by an orchestral offering, a dance performance, a bit of live theater and a film short. Most movie houses had in-house artists who produced new posters every week touting the current attractions. The Eastman Theater had seven windows to fill, so Madalena worked at a furious pace; by the time he left the job in 1928, he’d produced 1,400 tempera paintings.

Most of them vanished long ago, but 70 of the 200 surviving Madalena posters can be seen at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in an exhibition that opened Friday.

Based on stills and plot synopses provided by the studios, Madalena’s posters are a kaleidoscope of styles; he had a free-wheeling sense of composition that allowed him to appropriate anything that served his needs as a designer, and his work synthesizes Art Deco and Art Nouveau, as well as elements of the work of Gustav Klimt, Aubrey Beardsley and Alphonse Mucha. He also had a sense of color that could be described as Fauvism taken to a psychedelic extreme.

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“He often made bizarre color choices that are really interesting,” says Anne Coco, the academy’s graphic arts librarian. “For instance, when he did posters for movies with ‘manly themes'--westerns or war stories--he tended to use muted colors like olive green, off-white and peach, that are much less dramatic than the vibrant palette he favored for films about love.”

Madalena’s posters pack a punch that mass-produced movie advertisements lack, in part because he wasn’t constrained by the modern billing requirements that leave most posters cluttered with credits. Ever conscious that he was playing to the trolley-car crowd, he used text only when it was an effective compositional device and heightened the bold look he was after.

Born in Italy in 1902, Madalena emigrated to America with his foster family as an infant, and trained as a fine artist at the Mechanics Institute in Rochester. On graduating from school in Rochester, he won a scholarship to the Art Students League, and he was headed for Manhattan when he was sidetracked by the job offer from George Eastman.

Madalena’s job ended when Eastman left the theater business in 1928, so he opened a commercial art studio in downtown Rochester, where he spent the next 40 years. The posters he’d made belonged to Eastman, and Madalena assumed they’d be preserved. But he soon had an unpleasant surprise.

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“I’d been at the YMCA for a cup of coffee, and on my way home I cut through the alley behind the theater and found my posters thrown out with the trash,” the artist recalled in an interview two years before his death in 1988. “It was raining so they were all slopped around, and I thought, ‘Holy mackerel, why didn’t they tell me? I did all that work and they just threw them away!’ It made me sore.”

Madalena dragged as many of the posters home as he could, and he and his wife dried them with an iron. He then built storage crates for the 200 salvaged works and stuck them in his attic where they remained for 45 years.

In 1973, when the Lincoln Savings Bank of Rochester mounted an exhibition of work by local artists, Madalena’s movie posters again saw the light of day. Documentary filmmaker Steven Katten, who was attending a conference in Rochester, caught a glimpse of the posters, and after returning to L.A. he found he couldn’t get them out of his mind. So he tracked Madalena down and bought more than 200.

Included in the exhibition are works donated to the academy’s Margaret Herrick Library by Judith and Steven Katten, along with donations and loans from Madalena’s two children. Also on view are several sketches and a selection of movie stills Madalena worked from.

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* “Batiste Madalena--Original Movie Poster Paintings From the Silent Era,” on view through Oct. 4 at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, 8949 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills. Tuesdays-Fridays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Saturdays-Sundays, noon-6 p.m. (310) 247-3600.


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