Books illustrate art of communicating via posters

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The Poster, A Worldwide Survey and History, by Alain Weill. Boston: G. K. Hall. 422 pp. $35. The International Film Poster, by Gregory J. Edwards. Salem, N.H.: Salem House. 224 pp. $24.95. The poster is a curious amalgamation of art, commerce, politics, language, and design. Its development parallels the development of papermaking, printing, and various styles of illustration and typography. Its appeal ranges across the various human emotions from the boldest passions to the most delicate suggestions. And because posters combine so many of these elements as well as the immediacy of communication, they are as accurate a portrayal of their times as literature or any of the other arts.

Mr. Weill's lavishly illustrated and authoritatively researched book (661 illustrations and 300 color plates) must stand as the latest and last word on the role of the poster as art and communication. Beautifully printed (in Spain) and nicely written, the book reacquaints us with the power, the humor, the grace, and the historical significance of posters from the 1700s on.

Poster art is most distinguishable because it serves a purpose, whether the posters seek to sell soap (see illustration, next page), rally Russian peasants against a monster of world imperialism, put British workers on their guard against infiltration (see left), or make the French trust their Nazi conquerors.

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Art and typography are bold; they must come across in seconds, when viewed through the haze of urban confusion or as viewers whiz by in vehicles. War posters brook no discussion -- Lord Kitchener and Uncle Sam want you to join up NOW, not get back to them in a few days. Opera posters are certainly the most beautiful, capturing a passionate scene or glorifying the characters.

Viewed historically, posters are most notable for the sophistication of suggestion. Their necessary simplicity leaves great amounts unsaid, but not unexpressed, with a curious, almost devious use of psychology and an earthy, subtle sense of humor.

Film posters, with more typography and stars to clutter things up, rarely approach anything resembling art. But where the stars and contractual type sizes are not mandatory, the postermakers produce memorable effects.

European promotions for American films, for example, ignore the star (``Midnight Cowboy'' in Polish shows the dark outline of a cowboy with garish pink lipstick; the poster for the German release of ``Cabaret'' features a stylized swastika made up of the bent legs of showgirls) and concentrate on the mood and message of the film. Of the American producers, only Otto Preminger uses design to identify his efforts (``The Man With the Golden Arm'' [see illustration at right], ``Anatomy of a Murder'').

But film fans will find ``The International Film Poster'' interesting, nostalgic, and, in some parts, hilarious. Mr. Edwards includes advertisements for early films, when the mere fact that the picture moved was novel enough. Posters for early German and Russian films evoke the stark desperation of the years between the wars, when films were conceived as propaganda and political statements, and each film was an experiment.

Compared with the technically amazing but artistically banal drivel of many modern American filmmakers, they were exciting and compelling.

Jeff Danziger is the Monitor's editorial cartoonist.

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