Opening tomorrow at the Kemistry Gallery in London is an exhibition that celebrates the stunning, graphics-led film posters of German designer Hans Hillmann, who died in May this year.
The show marks the first UK presentation of Hillmann’s work, which feels surprising considering both the calibre of his posters, and the significance of the films they were designed for: among the 130 posters Hillmann created are works for Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai and Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket, as well as films by Jean-Luc Godard, Ingmar Bergman, Jean Cocteau, Michelangelo Antonioni, Federico Fellini, and Luis Buñuel.
Hillmann designed posters between 1953 and 1974, before moving away from the genre. During this period, he experimented with various styles, including illustration, photography and screenprinting, as well as minimalism. According to Isabel Stevens, a film critic and the curator of the exhibition at Kemistry Gallery, Hillmann engaged closely with the films he worked on, and particularly identified with the directors. “He always watched the films he designed the posters for,” she says, “compared with a lot of designers who just had stills and a synopsis to work with, and spent a lot of time afterwards thinking about how to distil each film into a single image. His posters are not only very arresting but engage deeply with the films that they advertise.
“He only worked for two distributors, Neue Filmkunst and Atlas Films, both of which only released arthouse films,” Stevens continues. “This was a time when many groundbreaking films were produced and Hillmann designed the posters for many of them. I don’t think he ever designed a poster for an uninteresting film. Also, his posters don’t foreground actors in any way – the faces on his designs are rarely recognisable and actors’ names rarely figure prominently, it’s the directors’ names that do instead.”
Hillmann designed the posters for eight of Jean-Luc Godard’s films and his designs can also be seen in the background of his 1967 film 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her. Stevens sees his work with Godard as among the most important posters that Hillmann produced. “The eight posters he designed for Godard’s films are all examples of singular film poster design and really reflect the daring nature of the films themselves,” she says.
“I also really like his design for Luis Buñuel’s The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz, which is about a man who wants to become a serial killer but never actually commits a murder. Hillmann represents the dark, erotic subject matter by drawing an image of a woman’s neck, which he then photographed with his own hand ripping through the design to strangle her. It’s like it comes straight out of the subconscious of the protagonist. He called the poster ‘a murder on paper’. Many of his boldest and eye-catching designs use layers innovatively and draw attention to the medium of the poster by using the motif of ripped paper.”
While known as the German equivalent of Saul Bass, Hillmann has never received the recognition that Bass has in the UK. “One reason could be that he stopped designing posters in the mid-1970s and concentrated on illustration afterwards,” says Stevens. “Another could be that his film posters were only ever used to advertise films in Germany and at the time probably weren’t appreciated like they are now. I think that it’s only in recent years, particularly with the help of the internet, that an interest in foreign film posters has really taken off in the UK, aided by blogs like Adrian Curry’s Movie Poster of the Week. I think the lack of exhibitions and galleries/museums dedicated to film design in the UK also plays a part. In comparison, Germany has many film museums that can show off this type of work.”
The exhibition at Kemistry Gallery runs from August 21 until September 27. It features entirely original posters, on loan from Museum Folkwang in Essen, Germany, which also held a Hillmann exhibition last year (details here). To accompany the exhibition, the Goethe-Institut and Institut Français in London will show a selection of the films that Hillmann designed posters for.
More info on the Kemistry Gallery show is at kemistrygallery.co.uk.