'Ballyhoo!': The Old Fame Game

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 16, 2008

One of every three faces in the National Portrait Gallery's "Ballyhoo! Posters as Portraiture" comes from the movies.

There's Charlie Chaplin in a 1918 Danish caricature of the actor in the guise of his beloved Little Tramp character. Here's Marlon Brando, not once but twice: One stares out of an Italian poster for 1954's "On the Waterfront" ("Fronte del Porto"); the other, from a glossy for 1979's "Apocalypse Now." Who's that in the corner? Johnny Depp as Capt. Jack Sparrow in a life-size cardboard stand-up promoting "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl" (2003).

Our appetite for Hollywood ham, it seems, is nothing new. Even when what's for sale is not movie tickets. Veronica Lake, for instance, touts Woodbury cosmetics in a 1945 ad. Bette Davis, Judy Garland and Shirley MacLaine model mink coats in a famous series of ads for Blackglama fur from the 1960s and 1970s ("What becomes a Legend most?").

It isn't always so obvious, though, what's for sale.

Take the poster of Bob Dylan (next to movie stars, musicians are the second-most-popular subject here). The iconic 1966 portrait by pioneering graphic designer Milton Glaser couldn't be simpler. It's just a black silhouette of the singer's highly recognizable profile under a psychedelic cloud of rainbow-colored hair. That and the single word "Dylan."

Thing is, it was originally included as a freebie in the 1967 album "Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits," so what's it selling? In this case and others like it, the poster wasn't made to hawk merchandise, but rather to publicize something less tangible. Say, the owner's hipness. Or, in the words of curator Wendy Wick Reaves's wall text, to serve as "dorm room signals of affiliation with popular causes."

Think Huey Newton.

One glance at the iconic 1968 poster of the Black Panther Party's self-proclaimed "Minister of Defense" -- scowling under a dark beret while holding a rifle and a spear -- and you know where not just Newton, but the owner of the poster, stood.

Other images are more ambiguous. Commissioned by the sporting goods manufacturer Giro, a Dylan-like silhouette of cyclist Lance Armstrong (2002) looks like an ad for bike helmets. Yet, like the bright yellow Livestrong bracelets, this poster was produced to raise money for cancer research. Similarly, a 1943 poster honoring African American sailor Dorie Miller for bravery during the attack on Pearl Harbor could be read one of two ways. On one hand, it plays like a recruitment tool to drum up more black enlistees. On the other, it's a morale builder for people of color already in the service, many of whom felt undervalued for their wartime contributions. Either way, it's selling something.

Very few posters have absolutely nothing to hawk. The oldest work on view, an 1865 wanted poster for Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth and two accomplices, actually offers you money -- the princely sum of $100,000 -- for information leading to the men's arrest. For the most part, though, the show is made up of images more along the lines of a 2002 Annie Leibovitz contribution to the "Got Milk?" campaign, in which a milk-mustached tennis star Pete Sampras grins cutely from underneath a white towel.

Among 61 posters on display, Leibovitz is one of only a handful of recognizable artists' names. Painter Robert Rauschenberg contributes a muddled 1981 collage honoring labor leader Lane Kirkland, but it works as neither poster nor fine art. Other famous artists include Ben Shahn, Richard Avedon and Larry Rivers, whose almost homemade-looking 1972 poster for presidential candidate George McGovern would never pass muster with today's slick campaigns.

But that's because "Ballyhoo!" is less about the art of portraiture -- or even posters -- than it is about the art of promotion.

If it offers any insight into our culture it's chiefly this: Nothing sells like celebrity.

Ballyhoo! Posters as Portraiture Through Feb. 8 at the National Portrait Gallery, Eighth and F streets NW (Metro: Gallery Place/Chinatown) Info:202-633-1000 (TDD: 202-633-5285). http://www.npg.si.edu. Hours: Open daily from 11:30 to 7. Admission: Free.

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