Curator's Journal: Wendy Wick Reaves on "Ballyhoo! Posters and Portraiture"

Edward Penfield self portrait, reading "Poster Calendar 1897" and showing artist drawing, with cat observing
Poster Calendar 1897 / Edward Penfield, self-portrait, 1896 / Color lithograph / National Portrait Gallery

Why does a museum that usually exhibits art choose to exhibit posters? How do you characterize a poster anyway? Is it high culture when done by a fine artist and low culture when it reproduces a photographic face? Is it an historical document, an inexpensive decorative item, a symbol, or an ephemeral piece of commerce?

The National Portrait Gallery's new exhibition “Ballyhoo! Posters as Portraiture” has given me the opportunity to muse about these questions. But I can’t say I’ve decided on an easy way to explain the poster and its impact.

Sometimes a pictorial poster is a decorative masterpiece—something I can’t walk by without a jolt of aesthetic pleasure. Another might strike me as extremely clever advertising: you can feel the persuasive tug of words and image working in tandem. Occasionally, a poster is more like a punch in the stomach that takes you aback and makes you think. Posters can also be collectible icons for your wall, promoting your favorite cause or rock band. Indeed, there is no one tidy category for these pieces. But collectively, these “pictures of persuasion,” as we might call them, offer a wealth of art, history, design, and popular culture for us to understand.

Poster of Bette Midler, saying "See Bette at the Palace, December 3-22."
Bette Midler/ Richard Amsel, 1973 / Color photolithographic poster / National Portrait Gallery; gift of Jack Rennert / © Richard Amsel

The poster is a familiar part of our world, and we intuitively understand its role as propaganda, promotion, announcement, or advertisement. But in this exhibition, we’ve added another set of questions to ponder. How can we think about the poster as a form of popular portraiture? So often a poster does feature a famous face. And when it does, it is conveying information about that individual, while at the same time announcing the arrival of a circus, hawking a product, building wartime morale, or promoting a movie or political movement. What are those messages about the celebrity figure? Does the poster reinforce his or her public image? Undermine it? Subtly transform it? How does each poster express a specific moment in the life of the person depicted?

In my role as a curator at the National Portrait Gallery, I have enjoyed the opportunity to collect these posters as portraits of prominent Americans. They are bold and fun; each one, in my view, captures a moment of history and tells a story about its famous subject.

I find that I am always learning something new about the subtle complexities of this popular art form. It isn’t enough to learn the history of poster art. One must weave in the history of celebrity promotion and the history of advertising. Only then can we really understand the poster and ask the biographical questions.

I hope, when you visit our exhibition—in the museum or on the Web site—that you’ll share my attraction to these images as art, history, and portraiture.

- Wendy Wick Reaves


Photo of "Ballyhoo" exhibition