FT 'Smoking Guns: Illustrating the Sixties' Review

Financial Times 'Smoking Guns' exhibition review

'Smoking Guns' exhibition in the Financial Times reviewed by Edwin Heathcote


Moment when Pop, Pulp and high art collided

Smoking Guns: Illustrating the Sixties, Lever Gallery, London

Edwin Heathcote

From epics such as Ben-Hur and Cleopatra to smaller movies such as La dolce vita and A Fistful of Dollars, Rome’s massive Cinecittà studio was the powerhouse of Italian postwar film production. But one of the more curious effects of its success was the impact its poster artists had on the rather staid world of British illustration — the subject of Smoking Guns: Illustrating the Sixties, an exhibition at London’s Lever Gallery.

The sprawling Cinecittà, found by Mussolini in 1937, produced artistic talents who perfected the eye-catching, sexy and sometimes garish posters of the Italian New Wave. But in the 1960s, as Hollywood-funded epics began to dry up, these artists were eagerly picked up by British publishers and magazine editors, who were keen to spice up their products for a generation that was emerging from postwar rationing into the light of a newly swinging London.

Penguin art director Germano Facetti, who arrived in London in the early 1950s, brought over a bunch of Italian illustrators from 1962 onwards, as did John Constable at Fontana Books. Most spoke very little English initially, yet within weeks of their arrival they were hard at work illustrating women’s weeklies, paperbacks and film posters. Many also instantly became habitués of the London scene with its buzzing new coffee bars, Italian restaurants and basement jazz dives. Renato Fratini, '60 Days to Live'

Their world of urgently commissioned and quickly drawn work was cool but ephemeral. Much of the material was seen as little more than marketing and thrown away once it had served its purpose, just as the books themselves were mostly pulp. But what survives is an astonishing window on a shortlived moment when illustration set the scene and defined a grown-up, seductive world of impossibly elegant women and manly men against sketchy, sexy cosmopolitan backdrops.

It was a period when the simple typography and paper-rationed rigidity of wartime publishing collided with the seediness of US pulp paperbacks and the arrival of cheap colour printing processes. Comic books came together with trashy noir while James Bond rose to fame and made Britain suddenly sexy. It was the meeting of femmes fatales and men with no name. Romances, Westerns, spy and private eye thrillers whirled together in a kaleidoscope of colour that helped define the look of the mid-1960s when Britain emerged out of its monochrome postwar smog. Gianluigi Coppola, ‘Kissing couple, Walking’

This little exhibition provides a window on to that brief moment. And what a view. On the walls are some of the rare surviving originals for covers and illustrated magazines. There are Renato Fratini’s strikingly spare pictures, sparse and elegant because of the space left bare for titles and text (it was Fratini who designed the groundbreaking early Bond film posters). There are Pino Dell’Orco’s fast and furious comic-book stylings, seemingly slapdash but, seen from just a couple of feet away, seamlessly brilliant.

But there are also the strange Pop Art collages of Gianluigi Coppola, heavily redolent of the work of Eduardo Paolozzi or Pauline Boty. The artists coalesced, it transpires, into a hipster cluster, exchanging ideas, hanging out in Italian cafés (one of the artists, Enzo Apicella, designed the first branch of British restaurant chain PizzaExpress with its Art Nouveau-inflected, and still-used, logo). Michael Johnson, ‘Woman, Bullseye, Cities’

Not all the artists here were Italian. There was Michael Johnson, whose filmic collages are halfway between Pop Art and graphic novel and one of whose illustrations here is a stunning stripy tour de force. And there was Walter Wyles, whose style flip-flopped between sleazy pencil-moustachioed cool, knitting-catalogue naff and brilliantly dynamic graphic tension.

This explosion of talent only burnt brightly for a few years. By the late 1960s publishers had turned either to photography for their covers or to more abstract graphics; magazines had become the glossy, full-bleed photo blocks we see today. It is also worth noting that the covers and the illustrations were mostly far better than the contents they marketed, the pulp Westerns, soggy romances and international-man-of-mystery novels.

The shortlived nature of this moment makes these works all the more exotic and it is precisely the speed and urgency with which they were made that gives them such verve. They might not have been treated as art half a century ago but today they look like a vital junction between Pop, high and commercial art, and are perhaps even more redolent of their age than the now overfamiliar work of their high-priced artist contemporaries.