A movie poster is fundamentally a piece of advertising memorabilia which may occasionally rise to the status of design object, meriting examination apart from its original, billboard-ian role. The premise of the Museum of Modern Art’s current exhibition Scorsese Collects is twofold: to present 34 posters from the director’s personal collection and to act as a visual companion to the upcoming film program Scorsese Screens. These fraternal-twin exhibitions beg the questions: Is Martin Scorsese an interesting curator? Does he have taste that is unexpected, unusual, or not obviously reflected in his films? The lineup of Scorsese Screens is classically great and therefore mildly disappointing. The selection contains a few too many obvious choices: On the Waterfront, The Red Shoes, Laura, The Earrings of Madame de… , Scarface, 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Searchers, among others. Scorsese Collects (which includes posters from almost all of the films screened, though not completely nor exclusively) features a promisingly disparate array of designs from the US, Europe, and South America.
Old film posters are a point of easy interest; memorabilia is a staple of fandom. Simply because of its roster of beloved films, Scorsese Collects is immediately appealing to film lovers. However, the exhibition has more to offer graphically than just allusions. In a 1954 Italian poster for On the Waterfront featuring a bloody hook, Marlon Brando evokes Freddie Kruger. A French poster from 1932 for The Lost Squadron borrows the sharp geometric figures and the glamorous, technicolor imagery of movement of Futurism. A 1968 American poster for 2001: A Space Odyssey shows a close-up of an eyeball with a fetus-shaped image in the iris; the poster’s tag line reads, “the ultimate trip.” The images in Scorsese Collects demonstrate what is perhaps a truism about commercial design: it synthesizes the essence of a product’s theme, then exaggerates and embellishes it to make a seductive promise to potential consumers.
What the exhibition does not present is any information about the posters’ designers, leaving the selection of works to appear completely dictated by Scorsese’s past purchasing whims. In fact, the show features an impressive roster of international cinema poster designers and illustrators. Italian designer Luigi Martinati’s renditions of John Wayne exhibit a glamorous masculinity that’s equaled in his sensuous depictions of Wayne’s contemporaries, including Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, and Joan Crawford. The 1948 poster for It Always Rains on Sunday by British painter and illustrator James Boswell stands out for its doe-eyed, Giacometti-figured women. Scorsese Collects spans over three floors, and although exhibition space is limited on each level, more wall text about the posters’ designers would offer immeasurably more depth.
The MoMA film program walks a productive line between the esoteric and the popular — a balance that I imagine attracts a necessarily diverse audience. However, Scorsese Collects need not have stayed so committed to being accessible; a little more wall text would not have deterred Scorsese fans from coming to check out his poster collection, and they might have learned something in the process.
Scorsese Collects continues at the Museum of Modern Art (11 W 53rd Street, Midtown, Manhattan) through October 25.