Batiste Madalena: forgotten master of the movie poster.

Batiste Madalena was an American illustrator who enjoyed just four years in the sun between 1924 and 1928 before disappearing into obscurity, only to have his work rediscovered forty-five years later by a Californian documentary film maker.

In 1924 Italian born Madalena was studying art at the Mechanics Institute, later to become the Rochester Institute of Technology, at a time when a talent scout for the inventor and photographic manufacturer George Eastman was searching for an artist to produce posters to promote the silent movies soon to be shown at his newly built 3,000 seat Eastman Theatre in Rochester, New York. Clearly Eastman was very persuasive because this extraordinarily talented young man abandoned his art classes to work exclusively for the Eastman Theatre, without assistants, creating eight posters a week for four years at $4.50 per poster.

George Eastman disliked the publicity material that was sent from the studios, so Madalena’s brief was to produce these hand-painted posters every week, each one different and measuring 44” x 22” to fit the eight glass covered display cases around the main entrance to the theatre. The posters were to be simple and striking enough to be seen from the trolley cars stopping across the road from the theatre at the major intersection of Main and Gibbs. Batiste said, “The trolley was pretty far away, so the posters had to be big, not fancy and finicky. The point was to get people to cross the street and stop for a while at the Eastman.” He worked from black and white publicity photographs supplied by the movie studios, without sight of the movie itself, producing posters in bold, invented colours with beautifully realised hand-lettered titling. Then in 1928 Mr. Eastman sold his theatre to the Paramount-Publix chain and Madalena was dumped along with his artworks.

It was only by pure chance one evening when he was cycling home in the rain from the YMCA past the rear of the theatre, that Batiste saw all of his original paintings thrown out for the garbage collectors. Devastated and angry he attempted to salvage as many as he could, but being gouache on art board the rain had taken its toll and most of the 1400 pictures were totally destroyed. But he managed to get 225 of the artworks home and he and his wife worked most of the night trying to dry what remained of four years work, which he stored away in his attic for safe keeping.

In 1973 his daughter entered a number of the pictures in a local art show being held in the lobby of the Lincoln Rochester Trust Company on East Main Street, and by chance film maker Steven Katten, during a break in a nearby convention he was attending, happened to wander in and was struck by the superb quality of these pictures. Six years later he and his lawyer wife Judith bought the entire collection along with the copyright. Over the subsequent thirty years they managed to get the work shown in galleries throughout California, then across America and finally, in 2008, twenty years after the artist’s death, getting a solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and Batiste Madalena’s reputation was established. You can view a short YouTube film giving the background to the MOMA exhibition here.

But what might have been?

At art school Madalena was clearly a free thinking student, and an admirer of the graphic design work of such great European modernists as Ludwig Hohlwein (see the 1913 Kaffee Hag poster on the left) and Lucian Bernhard (see the 1914 Bosch spark plugs poster below), who were working in Germany before the First World War. This must have been quite unusual when one considers that his principal tutor at the Mechanics Institute was the very conservative and influential advertising artist J. C. Leyendecker, who set the style for American commercial illustration for decades to come, and was a major influence on the work of Norman Rockwell.

In 1924 Madalena won a scholarship to the very liberal Art Students League of New York, a relatively new establishment reflecting many young artists’ dissatisfaction with the conservative instruction offered by other schools. One of the leading lecturers here at the time was the great American muralist Thomas Hart Benton, and among its students were Barnett Newman, Adolph Gottlieb and later Jackson Pollock. But before he could take his place at the Art Students League the very persuasive approach from George Eastman manifested itself and Madalena turned his back on further study, choosing instead to take up Eastman’s offer.

The posters that Madalena went on to produce for Eastman showed a remarkable understanding of the modernist principles of the European art deco movement, which was itself only just beginning to gel as a unified group in 1925, the year of the huge Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris. This same year Madalena produced a poster for the movie ‘The Thundering Herd’ (shown on the left) which was pure art deco, a style that was cutting edge modern and almost completely unheard of in America. Indeed when the United States were invited by the organisers to contribute a pavilion at the Paris exhibition they declined, Herbert Hoover explaining that this was because there was no modern art in America.

There is, of course, no way of telling what might have happened had he taken up his scholarship at the Art Students League, but consider the contrast in fortunes between Madalena and Edward McKnight Kauffer.

Born Edward Kauffer in Montana he moved to San Francisco at the age of twenty to work in a bookstore and study art at the California School of Design between 1910 and 1912. By some chance a professor at the University of Utah, Joseph McKnight became aware of Kauffer’s work, sponsored him and paid to send him to Paris for further study. (In gratitude Kauffer took his sponsor’s name as a middle name). After two years study Kauffer moved to London where he remained for most of his career producing what have become some of the most famous and well-loved posters of the twentieth century for clients like Shell and the London Underground (see 1930 poster on the right).

On such matters of chance are lives turned. What if? What if Madalena had gone to New York to study art in 1924? What if he’d not cycled past the back of the Eastman theatre on that rainy night in 1928? What if Steven Katten hadn’t wandered into the lobby of the Lincoln Rochester Trust Company in 1973? So we have a small part of Batiste Madalena’s output, and for that we should be thankful. But I for one cannot help thinking of what could have been.