Magazine article The Spectator

Saul Bass

Magazine article The Spectator

Saul Bass

Article excerpt

Exhibitions 1

Cutting edge

Saul Bass

Design Museum, Shad Thames, SE1, until 10 October

On the first floor of the bright Thamesside Design Museum is an exhibition devoted to the work of Saul Bass (1920-96). You may be forgiven for not knowing his name, though you will probably be familiar with his work, for it was Bass who was instrumental in turning film-titles into an art form. Before him film-titles were simply lists of names of cast and crew. Bass, literally, animated them, employing his consummate skills as a graphic designer to make visually exciting the necessary informational prelude to the film's action. When he arrived at his first sensation - a stylised paper cut-out of a heroin addict's arm for the titles of Otto Preminger's 1955 film The Man with the Golden Arm - he had years of experience as a commercial designer behind him. He was ready to become an artist.

Born in the Bronx, the second child of Jewish émigrés from the Ukraine, Bass showed early creative aptitude, designing posters at high school before winning a scholarship to the Art Students League in Manhattan. As a young man he worked in the New York offices of Warner Brothers and Twentieth-Century Fox, and then for a couple of advertising agencies while studying at Brooklyn College under the Bauhaus-influenced designer Gyorgy Kepes, a friend and colleague of Laszlo Moholy-Nagy. Something of the inventiveness and economy we associate with that great school of design can be discerned in Bass's mature work. In 1946 he moved to Los Angeles, and in 1952 he set up his own studio. Among his first clients was the director Otto Preminger who, Bass claimed, 'kicked me off on my film career'.

Preminger commissioned Bass to design the advertising for his 1954 film Carmen Jones, a black version of Bizet's opera. The symbol that Bass created for it was a flame superimposed on a rose. Preminger suggested making it move, and Bass animated the image to striking effect. This was his first title sequence, and it was to win him a screen credit - the first graphic designer to be so honoured by the Directors' Guild of America. However, his long-standing collaboration with Preminger was not exactly a bed of roses. As he recalled in a 1994 interview with Peter Jones (shown on a monitor in the gallery), they had terrible fights, and he was always walking out. 'Otto taught me how to fight,' Bass averred. This man is challenging me, forcing me to play above my head.' The results of that running battle were spectacular.

Yet the first impression of the Saul Bass exhibition is not auspicious: the title sequence for The Man with the Golden Arm is projected large in the show's anteroom, and it's out of focus. Although it's graphically arresting, it's also irritatingly imprecise, the text in particular being all juddery and fuzzy. Can the Design Museum (of all places) do no better than this?

It seems not. When you continue round the exhibition, whenever a title sequence is played on anything like the scale it should be, the imagery is slightly blurred. When it is shown small-scale on one of the dozen or more monitors scattered through the galleries, it is properly crisp. Presumably this is because it's been transferred to video from film and does not reproduce on the big screen. In which case we would be better off without it. Particularly infuriating (not to say embarrassing) is the fuzzy intro to Walk on the Wild Side (1962, Edward Dmytryk), the sinister stalking feline reduced to a vague shadow, and the frame of the film unbelievably too large for the screen it's projected upon. …

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