Black Swan – Reviving the Art of the Promo Poster

investigates how Black Swan’s striking set of promotional posters could perhaps signal a rebirth of the movie poster as a legitimate art form

The marketing team behind Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, tipped to be one of the biggest films of this coming year, wowed audiences this winter as they unveiled the movie’s striking new promotional posters. The posters are some of the most inventive, memorable, and most clearly artistic works of cinema related art that film has seen for a long time. This set of four posters, which will soon be lavishly gracing billboards and bus shelters around the country, were designed by La Boca, a British studio. With their nostalgic feel, they could potentially signal an important watershed moment for the future of film advertising. A future which somewhat ironically harks back to a not so distant past.

The first thing that will no doubt come into many people’s minds when they see these posters is that they give the impression of being from a bygone era. They are distinctly reminiscent of the endeavouring Polish and Czech film posters of the 60’s, 70’s, and early 80’s, which had a distinctly experimental, abstract air to them. These posters were and are works of art in their own rite. They engaged with artistic movements as diverse as surrealism, cubism, symbolism, and art nouveau.

The twenty-first century has seen an almost worldwide degeneration in the artistic flair exhibited in these posters. With the rise of photograph as a more direct and explicit medium through which to advertise, the calibre of artistic value found in movie posters has shifted, and bears much less of a resemblance to ‘art’ as we would traditionally think of it. The striking colour and design of not just the Polish posters, but hand-drawn or painted posters in general, has long been lost to us. It has taken Aronofsky, and the design team at La Boca to revive the movie poster as a medium for art which is just as legitimate as any other.

Many of the painted and hand-drawn posters of the past are now iconic in their design. To simply mention Fellini’s La Dolce Vita is to conjure up the image of that imposing blue canvas, emblazoned with the angular and rugged face of Marcello Mastroianni, as a serpentine wisp of smoke drifts upwards from his suspended cigarette, and he looks over at the ever elegant Anita Ekberg, posing gracefully, almost like a matador, with a red cloak teasingly whipped behind her. This is an image which has become more than just a movie poster used to advertise, but which has become a piece of popular art, gracing the walls of bedrooms, homes and hotel rooms across the world. Even despite its Italian title, it is a film, and an image which has become internationally recognised.

Similarly movies like Metropolis, Jaws, Breakfast at Tiffany’s and so many others had distinct and iconic posters which became works of art in themselves. I wonder if anyone could imagine the poster for one of today’s most successful movies such as, perhaps, The Dark Knight, creating such a strong and lasting effect? This trend towards direct photographic representation demonstrates a clear break from the marketing strategies of the past, where posters were both art and advert. Today this platform for artistic expression is rarely utilised to its potential, as advances in technology coupled with changing marketing strategies, have made the movie poster almost explicitly a medium through which to increase profit, at the expense of losing any concerted artistic expression. Posters today often use the most recognisable images available to convey meaning, and shy away from abstraction for fear of obscuring the image of what is being advertised. The photographic posters of today try to pack almost too many ideas into one image in order to appeal to a mass market – these are posters for the sake of advertising, which seek to bring in as big an audience as possible, and do not serve a function as being an artistic complement to the film itself.

Black Swan
seeks to redeem cinema advertising from the same old sensationalist, airbrushed, manipulated photographs which have become a vernacular in cinema advertising today. Black Swan is taking back this raw creativity, and has implemented a ‘retro’ style to conjure interest in a massive audience. These are posters which are clever, vibrant, iconic, striking, imaginative, and innovative, and have proved more popular than originally thought. Aronofsky, make no mistake about it, is a director who manipulates his screen space with flair and ingenuity. Perhaps, in creating posters which demonstrate a self-conscious interplay with those of European art house cinema, the director seeks to align Black Swan with those classic movies, which have become so well known not solely for what they advertise, but for the advert itself.

The cubist, almost bauhaus-esque style of some of these posters has been used to great effect, as it seeks to separate Black Swan from being labelled just another mainstream ‘thriller’, and raise it above the limitations imposed by the genre. These posters market the movie as ‘art-film’. The enigmatic nature of many of the posters seeks to engage not only the general public, but a distinctly more intellectual audience, who, appreciative of art, would seek to deconstruct the meanings encoded within them. The use of painted posters also encourages engagement from a different demographic audience; the older generations, who recognise the style and legacy of the art-form, who are more familiar with it, and would perhaps be more inclined to feel themselves targeted by the posters.

These stylised posters reach even further than this though, giving a viewer clues as to the nature of the film itself. For instance the motif of entwined identities and destinies seen in the numerous mergings of woman and swan give us clues as to what Black Swan is going to be about. Similarly the intricate patterns (seen particularly in posters one and four), and the complexity of the design give clues as to the nature of the movie. These are works of art which, if engaged with before seeing the film, can impart the basis of an interpretive paradigm through which to view the film itself. After seeing these posters, our interest is not only piqued, but, we are given a taste of the intellectual tools we will need to unravel Black Swan.

Louis Danziger, an American graphic designer, speaking to the Financial Times, has stated that “A work of art, irrespective of métiers, has an aesthetic quality which resonates to those open to its voice. The fact that a work is utilitarian does not exclude it from being ‘art’. In fact one of the qualities that contributes to this timeless aesthetic experience is the perception of it being appropriate to the task it was designed to perform; its sense of rightness is crucial. When a poster has that quality, surely it can be ‘art.’” According to Danziger’s classification, La Boca’s creations are most certainly works of art. The posters are both appropriate (for a film from someone like Aronofsky), they achieve their goal with a startling level of innovation, and most definitely have a resonating aesthetic quality with the force of their tri-chrome contrast, and intelligent duality.

What is groundbreaking about these new posters, is that as adverts, they treat the public as intellectuals, expecting them to interpret and engage with this artwork, instead of simply consuming a straightforward photo-manipulation of suspended heads and grand explosions which requires little effort or thought; whose meaning is straightforward and instantly recognisable. Darren Aronofsky is leading the exodus from the direct, capital driven world of Hollywood advertisement, back into the realm of the intellectual. And that can only be a good thing for film.


  1. Cityscreen in York had postcards of all this amazing artwork going in little piles on their tables – managed to get myself a copy of each one! Can’t wait for this film.

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  2. Aw man! I hope they still have them in January. I will be there in a shot. They are stunning.

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  3. The postcards went like hot cakes and, you’re right, they are stunningly good pieces of artwork. If we get any more, or posters, or something, I’ll have a word with Nouse and try to get a competition going for students to win some.
    BLACK SWAN will be showing at City Screen from Friday 21 January.

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  4. 14 Jan ’11 at 3:13 pm

    Virginia Hartman

    These posters are wonderful. Such a shame that on the advertising pillar near my house in Berlin, it’s merely this poster:

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