Ballyhoo: Posters as Portraiture, click for homepage



What could be less subtle than the pictorial poster, blaring out its message with large scale, loud colors, and bold graphics? As the circus term “ballyhoo” suggests, boisterous hucksterism underlies the poster’s message and its roguish appeal. We are used to decoding the poster as advertising or propaganda. But what if we consider the poster as a form of popular portraiture? How does the presence of a recognizable figure operate on our consciousness? The information conveyed about the famous subject is secondary to the principal message: selling war bonds, advertising a product, announcing a concert, or publicizing a film. Viewers may absorb the portrait image with little awareness of how it functions in establishing or solidifying fame.

By interweaving the three themes of poster art, celebrity promotion, and advertising, this exhibition from the National Portrait Gallery’s collections examines how a famous face can enhance a poster, and, conversely, how posters have defined reputations of prominent Americans. These images remind us of the ubiquitous presence of visual messages outside the world of fine art. Widely disseminated forms of popular portraiture—like the poster—remain a profound influence in our culture.

View an audio slideshow about the exhibition, narrated by Curator Wendy Wick Reaves. And read about some of her thoughts on the exhibition, on NPG's blog Face to Face.

For more on posters, purchase Ballyhoo! Posters As Portraiture by Wendy Wick Reaves. Copies are for sale at the National Portrait Gallery's museum shop (202.633.5450) or through the University of Washington Press. 160 pp./$19.95.

Teachers, use this Web site to help teach your students. Download this lesson plan (pdf), designed for students in grades 5 - 12, in American history and visual arts classes.


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