SPANISH POSTER ARTISTS AND THE GOLDEN AGE OF MEXICAN CINEMA
© Rogelio Agrasánchez Jr.
The Spanish Civil War displaced a number of renowned intellectuals, painters, and graphic artists. Many of them went to Mexico, exiled, and started working in the blooming national film industry there. Starting in 1939, writers and artists dedicated to the promotion of cinema began to arrive. The brothers Josep and Juanino Renau, painter José Espert (Josep Spert), and the cartoonists Francisco Rivero Gil, Ernesto Guasp and Germán Horacio brought innovative techniques and injected new vigor into the machinery of film propaganda. Through their posters, particularly, these artists strove to give concrete form to a collective dream. The immigrant Spaniards competed with the local artists in the complex task of persuasion by means of the visual image. Undoubtedly, a well-crafted poster was an effective lure for the spectator's eye. As any distributor and exhibitor knew, the path to success for a film began with a splendid poster and a well-knit publicity campaign.
The exiled Spaniards were active in Mexico from 1940 to 1957, a time period coincidental with the Golden Age of national cinema. In terms of numbers alone, they designed approximately 500 posters for Mexican films. Josep Renau alone produced some more than 200; Juanino Renau about 150, and José Espert about 100. Menawhile, the cartoon graphics of Rivero Gil, Ernesto Guasp and Germán Horacio graced about 50 posters. The artistic output of this group of immigrants represents a full third of the poster art consumed by the Mexican film industry in those 18 years, a period that saw the release of 1,474 feature films.
The most famous of those poster artists was Josep Renau Berenguer (1907-1982), from Valencia. A member of the Spanish Communist Party, he had been appointed General Director of the Fine Arts Bureau. Along with creating propaganda for the socialist press, Renau designed movie posters for the Spanish film-producing group CIFESA and for distributors of Soviet films in Barcelona. He arrived in Mexico in 1939 and collaborated with David Alfaro Siqueiros in a mural entitled "Retrato de la burguesía". He also worked along with his wife and painter Dr. Atl in a mural for the Casino de la Selva in Cuernavaca. Renau was a gifted artist, who at the end of his life received praises for his work on photomontage.
In fact, Renau was the first artist in including black and white photographs as elements in his movie posters. An example is the one-sheet for the film La adúltera (1956), which features a superb image of actress Silvia Pinal surrounded by a telephone, an airplane propeller, and the grim countenance of her rival. This poster has the power to attract attention at a glance, in part due to the use of a high-contrast color palette. Renau felt predilection for the pictorial effect inherent in clashing brightness and shade and for the drama suggested in the play of light and reflections, as can be seen in the striking poster for Soledad (1947). The face of diva Libertad Lamarque, seen in extreme close-up, hatched by streaks of light, is reason enough to unchain the imagination of the spectator. The influence of cubism is emphasized in this poster, and is, as well, a leit-motif in many of his works.
Up to the point permitted by censorship, Renau delighted in drawing the most provocative an sensual of women. He had been deeply influenced by surrealism, which had left the artist with a true passion for "the essences of carnality." For this reason, semi-nude female forms appeared on a parade in his posters, each to capture the absorbing gaze of those who paused before them. Examples include the promotional art for movies as La perversa (Elsa Aguirre), Sombra verde (Ariadne Welter), El seductor, and La fuerza del deseo (both with Ana Luisa Peluffo). In the mid-fifties, Josep Renau took full advantage of hte short period in Mexico during which relaxed censorhip laws allowed films to present scenes of partial nudity and to feature stand-still disrobed actresses in "artistic poses."
From a more down-to-earth and commercial realm sprang the poster art of Juanino Renau Berenguer's (1900-1989), who signed his works simply as "Juanino". His capacity to assimilate the Mexican environment and incorporate it in a powerful synthesis of stirring and straightforward images earned this artist a place among the most sought-after and solicited of graphic designers.
Juanino Renau worked for several film companies; among them, the Rodríguez Hermanos firm, producers of the most popular movies starring Pedro Infante. His designs were chosen to promote such films as Los tres García, Nosotros los pobres, Ustedes los ricos, Pepe el Toro, La oveja negra, Los tres huastecos, Dicen que soy mujeriego and many others.
One of the most powerful images created by Juanino Renau is the poster for Huracán Ramírez (1952), the film that started the genre of masked wrestlers, or luchadores enmascarados. The dynamic artwork for this poster, showing a huge mask about to burst from the poster, is perfectly suited to promote this action film. The use of striking color on a black background contributes to the sensational and mysterious effect. Juanino Renau well understood that the poster's message might be directed toward an audience that was in large part illiterate. Thus, in the majority of his designs the image serves to emphasize emotions and psychological states that could be easily conveyed to the masses.
Another Valencian artist who specialized in the creation of film posters was the painter José Espert (Josep Spert; 1906-1950). Possessing of a solid artistic background, Espert had contributed to the efforts of Republicans with forceful propaganda during the years of the Spanish Civil War. In Mexico, he worked for several film companies. He designed the posters for 60% of the movies produced by Filmex, including those for La casa chica (Dolores del Río), Enrédate y verás (Emilia Guiú), Maclovia and Doña Diabla (Both starring María Félix), to name only a handful. For other producers, he excelled in creating posters for the cabaretera genre, including those for the films La bien pagada (María Antonieta Pons), Hipócrita (Leticia Palma), Cortesana, and Amor de la calle (both with Mercedes Barba).
Espert was also capable of reflecting the authentic Mexican folklore in his artwork, as it was portrayed by the cinema of the Golden Age. Starting with a design for ¡Ay Jalisco...no te rajes!" (with Jorge Negrete), and continuing with a series of posters for ¡Viva mi desgracia! (with Pedro Infante), Hasta que perdió Jalisco (with Jorge Negrete), El muchacho alegre and Se la llevó el Remington (the last two with Luis Aguilar), Espert created a body of work glorifying the Mexican charro. The artist's intuition was always right on the mark, rewarding the devoted moviegoers with an excellent preview of what each film promised. José Espert ceased to provide his beautiful images to the film industry in 1950, the year of his death. He had dedicated a full decade to the designing of cinematic posters, many of which have become the classic cornerstones of today's collections.
In the area of caricature are found three Spanish artists of great renown: Francisco Rivero Gil, Ernesto Guasp and Germán Horacio. From the Spanish province of Santander, Rivero Gil was well known for his political cartoons when he arrived in Mexico. His works were published in the magazine Mañana and in all the important daily newspapers of Mexico City, as well as in relevant U.S. publications. The number of film posters created by Rivero Gil was not large. But their quality outweighed their limited number, endowing us with a series of splendid illustrations. His characteristic style consisted of undulating lines, which spread out to highlight the roundness of his figures, giving a sense of equilibrium to the composition of the work. Good humor and the nonsensical reign in all of his posters, as proven in the images for ¡Esquina bajan! and Hay lugar para...dos (both with comedian Fernando Soto Mantequilla), No me defiendas compadre, El genial detective Peter Pérez (with Antonio Espino Clavillazo), and Las nenas del 7 (with Manuel Palacios Manolín and Estanislao Schillinsky). Each example mentioned is worthy of appearing in the annals of world cinema posterography.
Ernesto Guasp (1901-1983), emigrated to Mexico in 1939. He had been also a noted political caricaturist in his native Spain. In Mexico, he became an illustrator for the newsreels Noticiario Cinematográfico Mexicano, which was directed by fellow Spaniard Carlos Velo for the company E.M.A. In 1947, Guasp received the José Guadalupe Posada prize, as honorary award established by the Mexican Association of Journalists (Asociación Mexicana de Periodistas). Founder ad director of the magazines Teleguía, El Torito and Oiga, his cartoons also appeared in the naughty magazine Ja-já and the newspaper Novedades. Ernesto Guasp designed just a few poster for the Mexican cinema. In each of these, he left his stylish mark, which was rather abstract with cubist influences. This characteristics were not easily appreciated by movie producers, who were used to more classic designs. Examples of Guasp's art include the posters for Anacleto se divorcia (with Carlos Orellana), El chismoso de la ventana, El organillero (both with Antonio Espino Clavillazo), and Manos arriba (with Adalberto Martínez Resortes). In these paper images, Guasp succeded in distilling the humorous essence of the most popular comics of the day. Guasp was also an excellent illustrator in the classic style as proven by his few non-caricature movie posters designs.
Germán Horacio, father of renowned actor Germán Robles, was the author of some outstanding posters in a particular naïve style. Two examples of his work are the posters for La calle de los amores and El diario de mi madre.
Over all, these Spanish artists were an important part of the Mexican film industry. Their lavish works accomplished their main task of luring spectators into movie theatres, giving them, at the same time, a glimpse into the world of visual arts.
© Rogelio Agrasánchez Jr.
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