Closing Exhibition: Ballyhoo! Posters as Portraiture

View of Ballyhoo exhibition

The National Portrait Gallery's exhibition “Ballyhoo! Posters as Portraiture” is closing soon, so see it while you can—its final day is this Sunday, February 8. The exhibition features sixty posters ranging in date from the late nineteenth century to the present, including subjects as diverse as General John J. Pershing, “Buffalo Bill” Cody, Joe Louis, Judy Garland, Dorothy Dandridge (below right), aviator Jimmy Doolittle, and labor leader Lane Kirkland.

Poster of Dorothy Dandridge in the film "Carmen Jones"
Dorothy Dandridge as Carmen Jones /
Unidentified artist, 1954 / Color
photolithographic poster with halftone /
National Portrait Gallery /
© 20th Century Fox Film Corp.

In this blog post, the NPG’s Warren Perry talks with Wendy Wick Reaves, who reflects on the exhibition. Reaves is the curator of prints and drawings at the National Portrait Gallery.

WWR: Technically for a curator, when the exhibition is up on the walls, our job is done, and we’re really supposed to be putting our attention to the next show. But in fact, you end up doing VIP tours and special-interest tours—you talk to the press, you talk to your docents, you do a couple of public gallery talks—and during all of this you’re getting feedback. And that’s kind of interesting to reflect on towards the end of a run for a show.

For this exhibition, for instance, I found that every visitor brought his or her own experiences and ideas to a poster show. Everyone understands posters—as advertising, as propaganda sometimes, as promotion. And they often know elements of that historical moment that you don’t know. I learned a lot from my visitors’ comments, memories, and perspectives. They corrected my labels, as a matter of fact, and changed my thinking.

Poster of Admiral Bull Halsey, in uniform, holding binoculars
Victory Begins at Home / Admiral William F. Halsey Jr. / Unidentified artist for Industrial Incentive Division, Navy Department, c. 1940 / National Portrait Gallery; gift of Leslie, Judith, and Gabri Schreyer and Alice Schreyer Batko

And it’s been fun. I remember at the press preview, when I was talking about Admiral Bull Halsey (above), who is quoted on the poster with the phrases, “Hit hard, hit fast, hit often,” and one of the reporters snorted out, “Yeah, but he would have said it in much more colorful language.” And in one of my tours, when I was talking about the Pete Sampras milk-moustache poster (below) as the anti-glamour campaign that reflected the familiarity and intimacy we felt about celebrity figures by the 1990s—I made the mistake of saying, “He could be anyone in your family on the way to the shower.” Three slightly older ladies immediately and simultaneously responded, “Not in my family!”

Poster of Pete Sampras Milk advertisement, Sampras shirtless and with milk moutache
Milk / What a Surprise! / Pete Sampras / Annie Leibovitz, 1995 / Color photolithographic poster / National Portrait Gallery; gift of the Chisholm-Larsson Gallery / © 1995 National Fluid Milk Processor Promotion Board / © Annie Leibovitz

Posters are often considered popular culture artifacts. And although that can be hard to define precisely, it basically means to me objects that have a broad appeal, are accessible to a mainstream audience, grow out of a shared vernacular culture, are frequently reinforced by mass media, and are sometimes mass produced and widely available.

And I found that they differ from the fine art objects that we also collect and exhibit. The response and reception is sometimes different, both internally and externally. Some people question whether this material really is art, or history, or culture, or portraiture. So sometimes there are prejudices. Will your show be covered by the press? And if it is, will they treat it like just mass entertainment? Or will they really cover the broader perspective that you’ve tried to outline?

But there are also a lot of compensations about a show that is basically popular culture artifacts. New audiences, certainly, are another great benefit. In my case, I got design students of all kinds—illustrators, advertisers, a world of people laboring in graphic communication. Also, the general audience appeal was multigenerational. The World War II generation reminisced about Halsey. So did their kids, who once owned the iconic Dylan poster. Even their children felt a connection to rock, film, and sports advertising—like the poster of Lance Armstrong—and even appreciated those elements from previous eras.

Everyone I spoke to enjoyed seeing what could be extracted about history, art, design, and cultural trends, from the modest poster. I guess what I found most rewarding, in retrospect, was understanding how popular cultural artifacts give telling glimpses of historical moments—shared generational presumptions; prejudices; ideals of beauty; standards of manliness; attitudes about race, gender, and sexual difference—it’s really like having a little window into a moment in history.

Poster of Rita Hayworth in the film "Trinidad"
Trinidad / Rita Hayworth, Glenn Ford / Anselmo Ballester, 1953 / Color photolithographic halftone poster/ National Portrait Gallery

WP: You are the curator who began assembling this collection. How long have you been assembling this collection for NPG?

WWR: I guess I’ve been collecting posters for about twenty-five years now. We’ve gotten some wonderful gifts along the line. I’ve worked with a number of dealers who were passionate about posters—and really wanted to help build the collection here at the Portrait Gallery—and were very generous with trying to train me and my eye and find the kinds of things we would use here. We are looking for something with a fair amount of wall power. And we’re looking for, of course, the portrait subject as well.

Poster saying "100,000" Reward and picturing John H. Surratt, John Wilkes Booth and David E. Herold
$100,000 Reward / John H. Surratt,
John Wilkes Booth, David E. Herold /
Unidentified artist, 1865 /
Printed broadside with albumen silver prints /
National Portrait Gallery

WP: I know it’s a little like asking a mom if she has a favorite child, but you have to tell us—do you have a favorite in the lot of posters?

WWR: Oh, that is really a difficult question to answer. I guess the answer is that I have a lot of favorites. I’ve always liked the Rita Hayworth poster (above). I think the John Wilkes Booth Civil War broadside (right), advertising for the capture of Booth after Lincoln’s assassination, is one of my favorites. It worked as such a perfect introduction of what poster art is about. It can also be called a Civil War broadside; some people wouldn’t even consider is a poster. But for me, it worked perfectly—that combination of words and typography, with visual images, and that quality of sensationalism that you often get in a poster.

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Listen to the entire discussion with curator Wendy Wick Reaves (8:38)

For more on posters visit the online exhibition for “Ballyhoo! Posters As Portraiture.”