Have you seen “The Freak Book”? It’s an episode in the sixth season of Curb Your Enthusiasm where Larry David buys Ted Danson a coffee table tomb housing a variety of photos ranging from a “human pig” to a person with three penises. He shares it with both his manager and John McEnroe, respectively, causing them to erupt into volcanic fits of laughter before Larry is unceremoniously dismissed by a party-goer asking the bespeckled comedian, “Who are you calling a freak you bald f**k?”
I ask only because it’s what comes to mind whenever a website discovers vintage film art from across the globe and unleashes it on its readership. From the headlines straight down to the comments, it’s hard not to feel like you’re scrolling through a room full of Larry’s sneering and jeering at work because it fails to align with what the culture consider’s normal. Fingers get pointed. Judgements are made. The artists themselves are dismissed as drug-addled perverted weirdos or incompetent foreigners completely oblivious to the content of the film they were asked to advertise. And that’s as far as it goes. Context is almost always absent, allowing the cycle to repeat itself with no one the wiser.
But if you shine a light on the social and political nature of Czechoslovakia after the second World War, you can see, in at least one corner of the world, why film posters looked the way they did. The communist regime at the time allowed for a single film distributor to exist, putting the responsibility of selecting, advertising, and screening films into one state centralized entity. Import costs kept Western advertisements from being used, so Czech painters, illustrators, and designers were commissioned to create posters instead, giving them the freedom to focus on crafting stark, expressive imagery without being chained to the marketing dictates of Madison Ave. But rarely did artists get to see the films they were creating pieces for, being given the title, synopsis, and, at best, what few press clippings were available to draw from. So little was at their disposal that they pulled from other art-forms while simultaneously mixing in their personal interpretation of the material.
Designer Zdeněk Ziegler noted that “if you have a common enemy, you are immediately closer to one another.” Designers working for the Central Film Distribution Center shared similar political ideals opposed to the ruling regime of the time, allowing friendships to foster that led to collective efforts in overcoming creative suppression and strengthening each other’s individual artistic voices. All work was submitted to and approved by an advisory board in charge of censorship, whose standards would wax and wane depending on the political climate of the time. The country’s success in Western design competitions and magazines could afford artists a longer leash, but was just as easily squashed at a moment’s notice if the temperature changed.
No greater creative shift came than the one after 1989 with the slow restoration of democracy and the dissolution of the Central Film Distribution Center. The blossoming free market allowed for American film distributors to set up shop in the wake of the disbanded distributor, bringing with them theatrical art from the States and the advertising methods that been crafted and perfected in the post war years. The artists and designers who had spent so long working to subvert the machinations of communist oppression were forced to shift their focus and take their talents elsewhere, undone by a machine that favored star powered photography over surrealism and cut paper.
What remains of their work isn’t simply a collection of oddities from a bygone era - something to be mocked from the comfort of a desk-chair, but a snapshot of what true creative constraints can yield, and the possibilities of what a change in perspective has to offer.
“Spring Changes” - Olga Poláčková-Vyleťalová
“The Big Sleep” - Zdeněk Vlach
“Blowup” - Milan Grygar
“The Birds” - Josef Vylet'al
“Spartacus” - Zdeněk Ziegler
“Go For It, Baby” - Karel Vaca
“Calamity” - Jaroslav Fiser
“Short Circuit” - Zdeněk Vlach
“The Terminator” - Milan Pecak
“Breakfast at Tiffany’s” - Zdeněk Ziegler