Drawing Rambo - Renato Casaro movie posters
Updated: Jan 10
A visitor walking along the streets of Treviso 2021/2022 may be slightly puzzled by a repetitive presence of a poster that at the same time feels familiar and somehow different. What the visitor sees is a 1990, Renato Casaro's poster for Dances with Wolves, now reused to advertise a special exhibition presenting the lifetime work of the most prominent Italian movie poster designer of the postwar period. A visitor shall be forgiven for not immediately recognizing the main character for Kevin Costner. It’s just that somehow Lieutenant Dunbar, putting a red and white Sioux war paint on his face, suddenly became more fashionable - with an unmistakable hint of Italian. It is a very good sketch, the likeness and the nature of the character have been artfully reproduced, and yet, magically, an American movie star became somebody we almost can remember passing under porticoes of Treviso or seeing him at a small café over one of its many canals. Stranger from an exotic story became “one of us”.
That magical transformation is an effect of the art of Renato Casaro, who, like so many of the movie heroes he drew, seems to possess his own superpower, one enabling him to make a popular culture even more popular. Watched in the Città Alta of Treviso every character from Casaro’s posters seems Italian. Kevin Costner in Dances with Wolves, Chuck Connors in Geronimo… Even Sean Connery in The Name of the Rose unexpectedly resembles a skinnier version of Umberto Eco himself.
A little boy during the war, Casaro grew up during the difficult years of postwar Italy. A teenager surrounded by corruption, political chaos, shortages and a struggle to rebuild the economy, he found his own sanctuary in the cheap plush of local cinema theaters. Unfortunately, movies don’t last long and a boy cannot watch every one. Sometimes he cannot afford the tickets, sometimes they won’t let him in. But, fortunately there are always posters and billboards, translating the whole, almost mystical experience into a singular drawing that can be watched anytime and all the time - forever carrying the essence of the screen… Today the cinematic billboards mostly went out of use, although they still make a strong presence in Bollywood culture. Those large scale, hand-painted panels, put up next to or above the cinema entrances attracted local audiences presenting supersized, brash, and exaggerated versions of movie posters - which were sometimes quite exaggerated and brash on their own. Cesare found his own place in the fantastic world of movie posters, starting with asking the staff to give him the extra ones so he could later learn how to make them by painstakingly copying one after another. After developing his workshop, he made a deal with the owner of Cinema Garibaldi in Treviso - he would paint the billboards based on posters, and for that he will be allowed to watch movies for free.
What happened later was only natural. At the age of 18, Renato Casaro, a self-taught, young designer, joined Augusto Favalli’s graphic design studio. Studio Favalli, at the time a leading creator of posters for the Cinecittà, was located in the heart of Rome, on Via Margutta, halfway between Piazza del Popolo and Spanish Steps. Prestigious as it was, for Casaro it was a kind of artistic internship that let him master all the nuances of his chosen art and understand the mechanics of the market.
Three years later, only 21 years old, he opened his own studio in Rome becoming the youngest professional movie poster artist in Italy. His first commission was a poster for Romeo and Juliet, a 1955 Soviet Mosfilm ballet movie, directed by Lev Arnshtam and choreographed by Leonid Lavrovsky. The same year, Romeo and Juliet entered the 1955 Cannes Film Festival, won the Best Lyrical Film award and was nominated for the Palme d'Or. The rest was history…
Over the next few decades Renato Casaro, un ragazzo trevigiano, became one of the most prominent movie poster artists in Italy, and the one who really made it in Hollywood.
It would be a bit of a cliché to say that he possessed a unique skill to transfer the soul of a film, through his drawings, into a poster. In truth, what he does is much more subtle. He gives form to his own feelings evoked by a movie, while at the same time attuning his own perception to those of millions of other viewers in Italy, and in the world. What he draws is a material form of a shared imagination, a communal, social view of a movie.
It is not about critics, it is not about researchers, it is what everyday people going to the movies on Saturday night can see and feel. Maybe that is why his best and most memorable works were created for movies that played into the collective sentiments. Spaghetti Westerns, Conan the Barbarian, Rambo, Once Upon a Time in America… The list is long.
For each movie, through a series of sketches and more complex drawings, Casaro constructs a profound and personal interpretation. His early posters are based on the movie itself and press release promotional photography.
Later, he accompanied the crew during filming, observing, sketching and sometimes creating concept art for the scenes. And yet, with all these ingredients available, the key factor had to be his own formidable communicative intuition. It allows him to invent pictures where sharp contrast of light and shadow convey the primal messages and the simplistic relations of the movies: good and evil, love, loss, death, loyalty, betrayal, revenge…
In a similar way, the sharp, vibrant colors of his posters underline strong emotions and judgments, circumnavigating the logical mind and going straight into the realm of basic instincts, proving that construction of subliminal messages for a large social group does not necessarily require some kind of uber-sophisticated technology.
In medical science the term "ideation" describes a vivid visualization of ideas related to important topics - death, loss, loneliness etc. Psychiatry uses it usually in a negative context, but the term itself has a more universal potential. What are comic stories and popular movies but materialized ideations of moral choices?
The simplistic resolutions they advocate play well into socially recognized primal answers to primal conflicts, contemptuously bypassing the detailed, logical examination. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. A common misuse of the Ockham razor’s principle - it is simple so it must be right, right? Not necessarily.
In 1914, George Perry Graham, a politician and a journalist, arguing against death penalty told the Canadian Parliament those words:
If in this present age we were to go back to the old time of 'an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,' there would be very few hon. gentlemen in this House who would not, metaphorically speaking, be blind and Toothless.*
But that kind of logical reflection, while true, goes against natural instinct and is already more abstract and complicated than what the Code of Hammurabi says.
If an idea has been attractively presented, it attracts. If it is presented as primitive or stupid, it become associated with primitiveness or stupidity. Popular movies present popular sentiments in an attractive fashion. Renato Casaro became a master of meta-presentation of popular sentiments, encompassing the whole message of the movie in a singular work of art. And there is nothing wrong with that, as long as the audience doesn’t lose perspective and won’t mix life and screen.
Maybe that is why among Casaro’s many works we find the tongue-in-cheek, meme-like rendition of the famous Michelangelo's Creation of Adam from the Sistine Chapel where he bluntly replaced God the Father with a group of Hollywood stars carrying in their arms the Goddess herself - Marylin Monroe.
The other pastiches soon followed - Leonardo’s Last Supper, Rafael’s The School of Athens, and others. Too bad the curators of the Treviso exhibition, striving to present the most dignified side of the Maestro del manifesto, decided to omit the ironic part of his art, maybe because of regarding it as “too frivolous”? An unnecessary defense, when Casaro's best works, like the humble studio sketch for “Once Upon a Time in America” speak for themselves.
A simple, black and white sketch, where the light itself draws a silhouette of a car driving in heavy rain through the looming, dark gorge-like street walled with the blunt mass of high rise buildings. Casaro, like nobody else, found out what really attracts us to Sergio Leone’ movies. It is not about a violence or about all these overly simplistic solutions to moral dilemmas. The ultimate visual power of both the movie and its poster created by Casaro comes from the nostalgic pathos of impermanence, a particular aesthetic value not so very different from the “mono no aware” concept of traditional Japanese art. Maybe that is why, when Bertolucci saw for the first time Casaro's poster for the Little Buddha he said: "It is magnificent, it almost seems to smell like incense..."
Meanwhile in Treviso, Sylvester Stallone casts gloomy looks over the Soviet assault helicopter and Lee Van Clef shoots his way out of the trouble while Kevin Costner knowingly winks at the viewer. The border between art and kitsch is a fluid one and not easy to define. Is it art? Is it kitsch? Does it really matter? After all, as Herta Müller noticed: At the ‘zero point' of existence, kitsch is the last tip of normality.
During his artistic career, Renato Casaro created thousands of drawings, paintings and prints. Roberto Festi, Eugenio Manzato and Maurizio Baroni searched through all his works to put together this stunning exhibition.