Familiar are the exquisite dips and curlicues of traditional Arabic calligraphy, but what is known of the rich history of modern typography and design? Throughout the mid-20th century, the region, in particular Lebanon, experienced a boom in homegrown graphics, often while social and political unrest simmered in the background. Mostly unnoticed by international audiences, this renaissance signaled a flourishing creative community and its power to both reflect and enact social change—one that still offers valuable lessons for today.
Nowhere was this movement more apparent than in the vivid poster art of the Lebanese Golden Age of cinema, which began in the 1930s and peaked (arguably) in the 60s and 70s. More than simply a style of graphics, these works signified an emerging vibrant and free society, and offered a peek into the rich geopolitical, cultural, and aesthetic factors that powered one of the region’s most iconic eras.
Earlier this year, before COVID -19 shut down most of New York’s cultural outposts, the Center for Book Arts set out to illuminate the fascinating world of modern Middle Eastern printed matter with an ambitious series of seminars dedicated to Arabic type design and graphics, curated by typography expert Dr. Nadine Chahine. In “Between Heritage and Modernity,” Chahine explored the legacy of Arabic type design in contemporary branding, tracing the ways these intricate letterforms have evolved from calligraphy to modern graphic design, shaping regional visual identities and providing lasting cultural touchstones.
At the standout panel, which featured speakers Bahia Shehab, Tarek Atrissi, and Tala Safié, a designer for Eye on Design and an art director for The New York Times, who wrote her thesis on graphic design in Lebanese film culture, Safié introduced Haza al Massa (or “Tonight”), a limited-edition 544-page tome exploring the golden age of Lebanese cinema through posters, press books, zines and film ephemera. More than just a beautiful anthology or artist book, Haza illuminates a side of Arabic culture few in the West have seen, but all would benefit from experiencing.
Lovingly curated by Lebanese archivist Abboudi Abou Jaoude, and designed by Safié during her time at Beirut’s Studio Safar, Haza al Massa narrates Lebanon’s cinematic history through its most striking printed promotions and ads, most of which were culled from Jaoude’s sprawling 20,000-item collection in an overflowing Hamra district studio. While you might not have heard of Yousef Chahine’s “Rings for Sale” or the sweeping musicals of the Rahbani Brothers, some of the era’s most well-known works, you can still enjoy the revolutionary and innovative power of the period through its bold and provocative imagery. These works, along with developments across the arts, helped usher in a sort of cultural “springtime” for the region, creating a source of lasting pride for Lebanese artists and innovators.
A homegrown film community, at one point on par with Bollywood, much of Lebanon’s silver screen successes are owed to the relative creative freedom the country enjoyed in the mid-20th century in comparison to neighboring Syria and Egypt, the latter of which had nationalized its film industry. “Beirut was a major commercial and regional center for most international film distribution companies,” Safié said, explaining that political developments and censorship constraints in the region redirected Arab filmmakers, producers, and cinematographers to Lebanon. Actors would often cross borders to partake in this vibrant scene, bringing with them their vast experience and sophisticated tastes. “This migration of film production to Lebanon ushered in the ‘Golden Age’ era,” she noted, elaborating that this was also true of emerging art, writing, and poetry, as well as “cultural production in general.” Over the last decade or so, previously overlooked printed materials from the time have been re-evaluated and celebrated for their unique visual sensibility and notable cultural importance.
Graphics from the Golden Age are undeniably bold, with blockbuster movies releasing multiple poster designs in striking, solid colors—with outliers boasting the subtle shading effects of chromolithography. Frequently conceptualized and printed in Beirut, Cairo, and Italy by famous industry names such as Studio Marcel, Ragheb, Vassiliou, and Abd-el-Aziz, these posters became a unique means for a regional exchange of skills. Collaborations between Egyptian and Lebanese design establishments often resulted in the mobility of the designers themselves. According to Safié, this trans-national exchange of skills ended up shaping the Arab aesthetics in design and advertising in the 20th century and beyond.
Most films could be divided into five categories: musicals, love/romance films, adventure/science fiction, foreign adaptations, and documentaries. Love and romance were frequently the most popular genres based on attendance records and revenue and often boasted a kitschy aesthetic with a pulpy, illustrative style, centered layout, and informal hand-drawn typography—a stark contrast with the precise Arabic calligraphy of previous generations. Much of this graphic style was informed by the work of Italian cinema legends, including film poster designer Marcello Dudovich, whose vivid color saturation and distinctive art deco style has come to represent mid-century Italian poster design. It was joked that studios sometimes spent more on promotional art than on the films themselves, and designers were fiercely proud of their creations–many claiming authorship over their “maquettes” by signing posters with either their stamp or the name of their studio.
“Although Hollywood had imposed recognizable visual conventions on promotional film assets, these visual codes ended up adapting to less global, more local vernaculars in the Arab world,” said Safié, explaining the poster’s singular importance in the region. While much of the joyousness of the era was cut short when the Lebanese Civil War broke out in 1975, the legacy of the Lebanese “Golden Era” of cinema lives on in the studios, practices, and often even on the bedroom walls of today’s boldest Arabic designers.