Terry’s Socks keeping ČSSR-era film posters alive

Prague cinema archivists unveil book and postcard set harking back to a golden age of Czechoslovak movie poster design

Local experience
Guest Writer | 18.02.2011

The Prague store Terryho ponožky (Terry’s Socks), located by the box office at the Světozor art house cinema just off Wenceslas Square, bills itself as a film “haberdashery,” and the tiny space is crammed with DVDs, books, and other movie-related articles.

Many visitors come, however, for the original posters that are on display in the lobby of the “kino.” Indeed, the Terry’s Socks organization has managed to amass some 10,000 movie posters over the last half decade.

Pavel Rajčan, one of the original founders of Světozor’s Žižkov sister cinema Aero, is the prime mover behind the remarkable poster archive, having personally bought many from collectors or unearthed them in antiquarian stores.

Sitting in a large office in the bowels of Světozor that resembles an untidy and colorful depository, Rajčan says Czechoslovakia was a “superpower” of poster design half a century ago.

“Artistic posters of that quality were only made in Czechoslovakia and in Poland,” Rajčan says. “In Western countries there was a wave of Hollywood posters, mainly featuring actors’ faces. Graphic designers in the West could sell and exhibit their work. But in Czechoslovakia they couldn’t work freely, so doing commercial work was important to them – otherwise they couldn’t have fed their families.”

The rather brief “golden era” of Czechoslovak film poster design was linked to a loosening-up after the severe Communist repression of the 1950s. “There was a thaw at the start of the 1960s, when they gave more freedom to artistic unions and groups,” Rajčan says. “There were interesting people working at the Central Film Library, which was the state monopoly film distributor, and they commissioned interesting artists to create posters.”

Take one example of the difference in approach. The original poster for Federico Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita” (1960) is thoroughly conventional, showing Anita Eckberg sashaying in a black dress, with Marcello Mastroiani in the background moodily smoking a cigarette.

Karel Vaca’s design for the 1962 Czechoslovak release is, by contrast, purely abstract. Part of a woman’s face is seen in profile, though the head is almost all white, with red lipstick painted on and a butterfly pinned above where the ear should be. The upper body is made up of what appears to be a piece of carpet, while the film’s name appears, ransom note style, in cut out letters.

This and 23 other striking designs — such as an arresting one for “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” (1967) with a white plate and cutlery on a red background — appear in “Terry’s Postcards” a box-set of postcards based on classic Czechoslovak posters from 1962 to 1973 that has been selling steadily since coming out just before Christmas.

Another recent release from Terry’s Socks is a book titled “Confrontation” (with text in Czech, Polish, and English), comparing Polish and Czechoslovak posters for the same 1960s and early 1970s films. While the former were generally the work of trained painters, the latter were in many cases done by graphic designers.

“A lot of Czechoslovak posters featured collages and photo-montages. Everything was done by hand. They didn’t have computers,” says Rajčan, taking from the wall a rough draft for a poster that literally included pictures and words cut out of a magazine with a pair of scissors.

80 exhibitions in 5 years

The work of leading Czechoslovak designers like Vaca, Karel Teissig, Zdeněk Cigler, Josef Vyleťal, and Milan Gryar (who are considered the “big five”) has been somewhat neglected over the years, and one of the main aims of Terry’s Socks is to keep their legacy alive. To that end, around 80 exhibitions based on the collection have been held in the last five years, including shows in Spain, the US and Japan.

Pavel Rajčan’s colleague, Aero program director Ivo Anderle, says he was unaware of his country’s rich heritage in this field. “For me it was a big discovery that the Czech Republic has something special in the world, and that people around the world are collecting them and are really interested,” Anderle says. “They are part of our heritage that is not very much known by Czech audiences.”

Of the roughly 10,000 posters in the archive, around two-thirds are for sale and none are reprints. The most prized by collectors both in the Czech Republic and abroad are for films that were international successes in their day, Rajčan says . “We’re talking about Fellini, [Michelangelo] Antonioni, [Ingmar] Bergman… The most expensive posters – which go for around Kč 20,000 – are for [Alfred] Hitchcock movies like ‘Psycho,’ ‘The Birds,’ or Fellini’s ‘8½’ and ‘La Dolce Vita.’”

A few years after those classic movies hit cinema screens, the golden age of poster design slowly came to an end. “It’s partly because fewer good films were shown in Czechoslovakia. There was censorship, there was normalization [the re-imposition of hard-line communist rule in the 1970s]. There were a lot more films from the Eastern bloc,” Rajčan says. “Also a lot of leading designers left in 1968, or they simply stopped doing posters.”

As for the curious name of the project and store, it comes from the U.S. film director and former Monty Python member Terry Gilliam, who shot “The Brothers Grimm” in Prague in the mid 2000s and has been a frequent visitor to the city. Gilliam was friendly with the Světozor and Aero operators and donated an item of underwear when he attended the shop’s launch in 2006.

“It was his sock that he was wearing on the day of the opening – he left that day wearing only one sock,” Anderle says, adding that the sock eventually had to be taken down after sitting gathering dust on a panel in the store for some years.

The whole Terry’s Socks archive, with extensive information in English, is online at www.terry-posters.com while the store can be found at Kino Světozor on Prague’s Vodičkova Street.

Ian Willoughby is a Prague-based freelance writer 

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