VISITORS to the recently concluded 11th Shanghai Biennial at the Power Station of Art were greeted by a rather anachronistic work — a 5-meter-high hand-painted movie poster.
This monumental piece was created by Li Shude, Dai Yongguo and Shi Yongxiang for “Go for Broke,” a movie about laid-off workers. Using an entire wall as their canvas, the piece was later donated to the Shanghai Film Museum.
Over the last two years, Li, Dai and Shi, all retired artists, have had their works displayed at the Putuo District Archives, China Art Museum and the Nanjing Massacre Memorial, helping to keep the once popular art genre alive.
Though the craft of film poster painting has been displaced by new technology, viewers still appreciate the work of Li and his peers.
Li, 63, retired from Caoyang Cinema in 2014. He says the art process generally begins with a composition. He has to not only include all the key elements of a film but also create an original picture in limited space.
Unlike today’s digitally-created film posters, which can be easily copied using Photoshop or similar tools, Li says hand-painted posters require more originality and imagination, much like other forms of art.
“We watched the movie on a computer together and screenshot the scenes that were inspiring. I was responsible for the title and background,” says Li, who painted over 1,000 posters in his 23-year career.
“Many considered poster painting as something purely commercial or an easy thing to do, but that’s not true. Aesthetic value is the top priority,” he stresses.
To create the huge poster at Shanghai Biennale, Li and his fellow artists spent three days standing on chairs, lying on the floor and kneeling as they painted in front of visitors’ eyes.
In their prime, they were required to produce at least one poster per day at locations picked to maximize exposure for the latest film.
“It now takes me longer due to my worsening eyesight,” says Li.
In the golden age of hand-painted posters, several hundred art designers from different movie theaters in Shanghai cycled to the Grand Theater on Nanjing Road W. to watch films before they were released, memorizing as many details as possible in order to create compelling posters. Their final works relied heavily on their understanding of each film.
Posters came directly from artists’ imagination, without any interference from producers or mass-produced ad aesthetics. Artists from different cinemas also created posters with distinctive personal styles, competing fiercely for the attention of film-goers.
“I would pick seats in the front rows because that were the best spots to get a sense of a film, the leading roles, the plot and the style of that film,” Li recalls. “With the feeling of that film still surrounding me, I returned to my tiny studio on the second floor of the cinema to started my work.
“I remember painting a poster for the ‘Lion King,’ a delightful comic drawing with Simba standing on the cliff and Rafiki in the background. It took me many drafts to finally start work.”
Li says there is quite a big difference between posters for domestic movies and Western movies. “Westerners have distinctly outlined faces which can add contradiction to a poster, making it more vivid and intense,” he explains.
While hand-painted posters are no longer a feature of China’s cinema industry, reproductions of classic film posters have become collectors’ items.
“After the first exhibition in 2014, people rediscovered their value and wanted to preserve these memory, but sadly there’s no poster left from that time as people didn’t see value in them,” Li laments. “These posters we are painting now are complete new art pieces based on old films.”
Li and his fellows find inspiration from old films they’ve watched hundreds of times, such as “Rail Road Tigers,” “Guerrilla on the Railway” and “Heroic Sons and Daughters,” all of which center on the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression (1931-45) and the People’s Liberation Army.
“I was told by many others later that these posters were inspiration for them to pursue art careers. There wasn’t any decoration on the street at that time and posters were the most eye-catching things, as well as the only art lesson people would get,” says Li.
“I personally don’t think hand-painted posters will become a mainstream form of art again, as almost none of the young generation today practices the craft anymore,” he adds. “However, it’s good to get more attention from society. Maybe it will never come back, but it won’t be forgotten at the very least.
“Hopefully, in the near future, some action will be taken to preserve and revive this craft,” Li concludes.