11th October 2011 12:00:00
Book Review: Drew Struzan - Oeuvre
Even if the name Drew Struzan doesn’t ring any bells, his artwork most certainly will. He’s the man responsible for so many familiar images, in my case primarily from my childhood. The Star Wars posters, the Indiana Jones posters, the Back to the Future posters - all instantly recognisable and all the work of Struzan. Though these movie franchises may have, in some cases, been initiated during the seventies or continued into the nineties and then noughties, there is something about Struzan’s style that remains quintessentially eighties to me. Realistic yet somehow cartoon-like too, those designs that accompanied the cinema screenings and subsequent VHSes of the Police Academy movies, Adventures in Babysitting, Masters of the Universe and so on seem to perfectly encapsulate the movie-going of my youth. Did I only watch films for which Struzan had done the poster? Or was it the posters themselves that had captured my attention and rendered these various comedies and fantasies must sees in my young mind?
I mention this as it’s easy to see the nostalgic appeal of Struzan’s work. From a Star Wars standpoint alone his posters are as evocative of the original trilogy as the toy figures or a few bars of John Williams’ score. Likewise so many films with which Steven Spielberg was connected; not just Indiana Jones and Back to the Future, but also The Goonies, E.T., An American Tail, et al. Indeed, surely it was the nostalgic connections which led to Struzan getting the commissions for the early Harry Potter films. Having one of his posters promote a film is the easiest shorthand imaginable to denote pleasures akin to all those eighties kids’ movies. Unsurprisingly Struzan also did a design for J.J. Abrams’ recent Super 8, yet I’m amazed the new Muppet film has as yet done without his talents - the posters from the original Muppet Movie through to Muppet Treasure Island always suggested a continuity of style, tone and quality.
Acknowledging this talent - and recognising this nostalgic appeal - Titan Books last year published The Art of Drew Struzan. Focussing primarily on his film posters, this earlier volume offered up 300 images which took us through his work processes, from initial pencil sketches through to the finished article, and even threw in some previously unpublished concepts as a bonus. In part it was a reminder that Struzan was also the man behind many other classic posters and designs: that famous one for The Thing or the LP cover for Alice Cooper’s Welcome to My Nightmare, a regular in polls to find the greatest album sleeves of all time. But mostly it was an opportunity to have all of the key works in a single place and in a hardback binding. Full colour, one poster per page, instant nostalgia.
A year down the line and Titan are returning to Struzan for what they are describing as “a sumptuous companion volume to the acclaimed The Art of Drew Struzan”. The method is much the same - a sizeable hardback volume (314pp, 310 x 224mm) once again in full colour and beautifully printed - but the remit is slightly larger. Not only does Oeuvre take in the film and albums commissions, it also devotes an equal amount of space to other avenues. Thus the chapter headings take in ‘Publishing’ (books and comic books plus a cover for TV Guide), ‘Commercial Works’ (everything from postage stamps to illustrations designed to accompany magazine articles) and ‘Personal Works’ (which is more self-explanatory) alongside, of course, those entitled ‘Music’ and ‘Movies’. Each section comes with a brief introduction by Struzan and his wife Dylan, which rarely extend beyond a page. In other words those 300-plus pages are devoted almost entirely to the artwork. George Lucas also pops up at the start to provide the foreword, but even he keeps it brisk: a mere five paragraphs adorning a single page.
It should go without saying that Lucas only has the very kindest words to say. He provides his credentials - studying art at school, ambitions of becoming an illustrator in his youth, collector of illustrators as adult - and declares himself “reasonably sophisticated about art” before heaping on the praise and noting Struzan’s integral connection to his Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises. (Speaking of which, I wonder if the recent criticism of the Star Wars Blu-ray packaging essentially came down to it not opting for one of Struzan’s classic designs.) For Lucas it boils down to two elements: artistry and attention to detail. But turn the page and Struzan himself offers up a more succinct summation: “What would make a cool picture?” So which is it - art or something baser and more effusive?
Of course the combination of the more personal works alongside the Police Academy designs makes this question a little easier to answer. The latter are fundamentally functional, there to serve a purpose which is basically to get bums on seats. Struzan has a knack of summing the movies he’s helping promote in a simple but effective manner. Oeuvre’s reproductions do without any titles or credits making the compositional elements all the more apparent: central character(s) occupying our main attention via central or overt placement within the frame, but then surrounding by the supporting cast and certain key aspects of the tale. It’s in use for a Meatballs sequel just as it is for Merchant-Ivory’s Heat and Dust. To take The Muppet Movie as an example here we find Miss Piggy and Kermit appearing largest in a pose which brings to mind Gone with the Wind (thus setting up the love story angle, albeit one in quote marks) and below them we find the rest of the Muppets squeezed into a rickety automobile that enforces the road movie structure and reassures us that all our favourites will be present. It really is that simple. See also Police Academy 4, Johnny Dangerously, The Frisco Kid, Return to Oz and so on. Sometimes the entire frame is occupied with all kinds of business (as in two designs for the 1983 Brooke Shields flop Sahara) othertimes it relies solely on the actors present as with California Suite and its need to do little more than reveal Michael Caine, Jane Fonda, Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor, Maggie Smith, et al. Admittedly this samey approach is such that it can be impossible to tell whether Struzan is being self-referential or not (Duck Tales: The Movie and its Indiana Jones-alike qualities) or potentially give the wrong impression. The two posters for The Name of the Rose, for example, suggest quite the caper.
Much of Struzan’s work outside of the movie posters has nonetheless been film-related or at least maintains a connection with his most widely-seen pieces. It creates an interesting effect whereby we get to view his distinctive style from a slightly different angle. A tribute poster for the 1932 version of Frankenstein, for example, stands out simply because of the time warp from what now seems like a quintessentially eighties look onto a movie made fifty years previous. (This time warp idea works both ways, or at least it does for me, and it seems somewhat strange to realise that Struzan also did the designs for The Shawshank Redemption, say, or Hellboy; maybe I just hadn’t looked hard enough.) Similarly there’s something intriguing about seeing an album cover in the Struzan mode, as we do with Angel and Airwaves’ 2007 album I-Empire, or those LPs that came before the famous film posters and look nowadays more simple but no less effective, especially the one for Mary Travers’ Circles from 1974.
Reinforcing this film connection is the fact that much of the ‘Publishing’ chapter relates to Star Wars and Lucas. Various book covers and comic covers - even that TV Guide cover - do much the same as the movie posters albeit within a slightly different frame. Lucas himself meanwhile, as seen in a pair of commissions for a volume on Lucasfilm, becomes the star of his own show: this time he’s the central character with the leads from THX 1138 and Willow or the car from American Graffiti becoming the supporting cast. When we get to the ‘Commercial Works’ much the same is also true. Lucas and his works illustrated for DVD covers and Pepsi Cola tie-ins. But in amongst this bunch sneak in altogether quite different commissions: a couple of commemorative plates for Princess Diana; a limited edition print celebrating 100 Years of Powered Flight; trading cards trading in on the success of The Lord of the Rings. Interestingly some of these allow a bit of sentimentality and a slightly cheesy quality to enter the fray. But then maybe that’s down to the products themselves - collector’s plates are hardly the classiest of objects are they?
Thankfully such qualities don’t persist when it comes to the more personal works. Struzan notes that these are the pieces were he explores and experiments, though arguably he never strays too far from his particular approach. Here we find nudes and wildlife, portraits of historical figures (Einstein, Lincoln) and young children. The nudes are by far the most wayward, opting for abstraction but nonetheless retaining their painter’s familiar use of texture. The portraits, on the hand, keep the facial qualities of those present on the posters to a degree that Lincoln is rendered no differently from Kurt Russell, say, or Lou Ferrigno. Indeed, it’s this connect that makes the personal works feel like a sidebar to the commissions rather than the other way around. (Tellingly the ‘Personal Works’ chapter includes a collection of Indiana Joneses - Lucas and the movies are never far away.) They don’t feel any more or less serious than the pieces that are promoting a piece of fantasy and as such it makes it difficult to ascertain as to whether they should be treated as more significant or not. Ultimately it comes down to that question I brought up a few paragraphs back: is it art or is it cool? A bit of both, but mostly the latter - although arguably it’s the coolness and not so much the artistry that will cause Oeuvre to shift a few copies.
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Cowboys and Aliens © Copyright Universal Studios 2011
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade TM © 1998 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved
StarWars Revenge of the Jedi tm © 1983 LucasArts. All rights Reserved.
StarWars Episode IV. A New Hope. tm © 1996 LucasArts. All rights Reserved.
StarWars Episode V. The Empire Strikes Back. tm © 1996 LucasArts. All rights Reserved.
The Walking Dead © AMC 2010
E.T.: The Extra Terristial © Universal City Studios, inc. 1983