Paintings From a Picture Palace

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IN 1922 GEORGE EASTMAN, the great photographic industrialist, built an elaborate movie house in his hometown of Rochester, New York. Eastman paid close attention to its every detail, from the massive, imported chandeliers to the seating capacity of the second balcony. Since the mass-produced studio artwork of the time didn’t meet Eastman’s standards, he commissioned a young local artist named Batiste Madalena to herald his picture shows.

Madalena, who at the age of eighty-one still lives in Rochester, came there from Italy as an infant in 1904. He graduated from the local Mechanics Institute in 1924, planning to study art in New York City. Instead he met Eastman and was diverted to movie posters. Madalena received little supervision from his normally finicky patron. “All he told me,” he recently recalled, “was that he didn’t care what I did as long as the people passing the theater could read the posters from the trolley.”

Working from stills provided by the movie companies, Madalena created fourteen hundred posters during his four years with Eastman. Their association ended in 1928, when the theater was leased to the Paramount chain.

Shortly after that takeover, Madalena, by then the owner of a commercial art studio, made an unsettling discovery. He was riding home on his bicycle one rainy night when he cut through the alley behind the Eastman Theater. There he saw a huge pile of his posters, discarded as trash.

He is still angry about it. “I was so goddam sore. Why didn’t they say something? I would have paid for some of them. I took the good ones, dried them out. I took rubber cement and repaired the backs of the cardboard where they had begun to peel. My wife used a warm iron to flatten them out, and then we put heavy books on them.”

 

In the end he managed to save two hundred and twenty-five paintings. They remained in his attic until 1975, when a few went on display in a local bank. My husband, Steven Katten, a documentary film maker in town for a conference, saw the paintings, instantly recognized their merit, and bought the whole collection. Having promised Madalena a show, Steven and I organized a traveling exhibition under the auspices of the Art Museum Association. So, in a nationwide tour that has been extended into 1985, Madalena’s bold and vivid posters are again finding an audience. Some of the best appear in these pages; they make it abundantly clear why George Eastman never interfered with his protégé.