Thinking Made Visible
One of the giants of twentieth-century design and film-making. Saul Bass (1920-1996) was a visual communicator par excellence, who produced a diverse and powerful body of work. His highly evocative images full of intense clarity and subtle ambiguities, are among the most compelling of the post-war years.
The ambidextrous Bass had a piercingly keen eye (Martin Scorsese once called it a jeweler’s eye), and an ability to freely sketch the myriad ideas that poured from his fertile mind. When art and design students asked him how they should prepare for future careers, he always told them to learn to draw. A voracious reader with a probing intellect, his endless curiosity, ingenuity, boundless enthusiasm for the task at hand, discipline, warmth, sense of humor, and sensitivity toward human emotions, all lay at heart of his success.
Admired for his ability to balance content and form, Bass believed that in any successful design, content was paramount. In the 1990s he stated, “I’ve always looked for the simple idea,” and went on to say that he and his wife, Elaine (who worked with him on film titles and short films from 1960), continued to do so. “We have a very reductive point of view when it comes to visual matters,” he commented. We see the challenge in getting things down to something totally simple, and yet doing something with it, which provokes… If it’s simple simple, it’s boring. We try for the idea that is so simple that it will make you think – and rethink.“
Today he is best known for his iconic film posters, and more than fifty title sequences for Hollywood films, each featuring an image or symbol that served as a metaphor for the film itself. Because he always sought to create a design relevant to the commission at hand, there is no definitive “Bass” aesthetic; though his work shows a strong drive towards reductionism, distillation, and economy, features central to Modernism, it also reveals a concern with fragmentation, layering, ambiguity, and metaphor, qualities evident in the 1950s but more associated with post-Modernism. His bold designs are matched by bold and expressive color palettes, and the posters incorporate finely honed lettering and typography.
His reputation in film sometimes overshadows his enormous and equally prolific work across a wide range of disciplines, from all manner of advertising and packaging, to logos and graphic identity programs for some of the leading corporations and institutions of the day, such as United Arlines, Quaker Oats, the Girl Scouts, Warner Brothers, and Minolta. The ideal corporate symbol, he believed, “is the one that is pushed to its utmost limits in terms of abstraction and ambiguity, yet is still readable,” pointing out that they are usually “metaphors of one kind or another… [and] in a certain sense, thinking made visible.” This applies to the film posters featured here as well.
A FILM BY OTTO PREMINGER
This is a film about an aspiring jazz drummer who has cleaned up from addiction while in prison and returns to his old neighbourhood on Chicago’s North Side. Then, through a series of misfortunes, we watch as he slides back into his drug habit. Bass’ challenge was to find a symbol that capture the horrors of addiction without sensationalism. The black, distorted, jagged arm suggests disfunction and petrification, while the uneven yet elegant amber/gold lettering suggests the talent and potential of the main character, playing on the word “gold,” as slang for heroin. The blocks of solid colour and their abstract formation evoke the language of modern art and jazz, echoing the contemporary theme of the film. Bass named the film’s three stars in uneven lettering at the top of the poster. By including their names but not their images, Bass’ design flew in the face of film industry conventions
A FILM BY OTTO PREMINGER
Saint Joan chronicles the life of Joan of Arc, a young woman who led French troops against the English during the Hundred Years War. Coming up against the might of both a foreign state and the Roman Catholic Church, she was burned at the stake in 1431 after charges of heresy and wearing soldier’s clothes. Bass’ symbol for the film, a fragment of a black, charred body in armor, conveys her strength while at the same time, forces us to acknowledge how she died. Bass’ Joan, like the main character in the film, is broken but not defeated. In his powerful design, the part of the sword that she still holds in her hand forms the shape of the Christian cross, thus foreshadowing her martyrdom, while the colorful background mosaic, reminiscent of the stained-glass windows found in medieval cathedrals, hints at her later sainthood.
A FILM BY BILLY WILDER
This romantic comedy follows a rich but aging playboy who attempts to seduce a young ingénue. The title of the film is deliberately ambiguous, suggesting both love in the “afternoon of one’s life and the idea of making love in the afternoon. The poster further plays with ambiguity by using the simple device of a blind that has been pulled down part way. Bass’ poster teases the viewer into becoming a voyeur, curious to discover what might be going on behind the blind that comes close to covering “Love in the Afternoon.” The pale background and bright colors suggest lightness and gaiety, while a Cupid’s arrow shot through the two letter “0s” in “Afternoon” spells romance. The decidedly uneven lettering in the title hints that this may not be a typical love story, as does the playful, dancing typography of Billy Wilder’s name.
A FILM BY OTTO PREMINGER
Bonjour Tristesse (which translates as Hello Sadness) is a film adapted from Françoise Sagan’s popular novel of the same name. The story centers around a pampered, motherless, young woman vacationing with her father on the French Riviera. The film traces the girl’s raw emotions of love, jealousy, and loss, as she leaves childhood for adolescence, falling in love at the same time as her father also embarks on a new romance. Bass’ reductive but highly evocative symbol, a haiku-like eye and a tear, is created from a few simple brush strokes. The two large eyes (each containing or reflecting a heart), tiny mouth, and huge tear, together with paint that fails to fully adhere, hint at the poignancy and delicacy of the emotions. Above all, the poster signals that the film is about a woman, love, and sadness.
A FILM BY WILLIAM WYLEM
Set in the second half of the nineteenth century, this is a film about a well-traveled Easterner who journeys to the Western United States by stagecoach. Representing a different type of masculinity and a different moral code from the cattle ranchers and cowboys, he tries to make peace between two families at war over water rights without resorting to violence, only to be called a coward. Bass’ advertisement plays with differences in scale that represent both the dramatic distances in the American West and vast differences in culture. The symbol for the film is a powerful yellow sun, filtered through the dust thrown up by the horses’ hooves in this arid land. The riders āppear tiny in comparison to the vast background, while text at the top creates a cloud-like effect across the solid orange sky symbolising the heat and expanse of “The Big Country.”