Legacy Series XIII: Chen Tzu-fu
The golden age of hand-painted posters
One of Taiwan’s most popular painters could not be further from the image of a classical painter making delicate images of mountains and trees. Chen Tzu-fu belonged to no formal school and was not a member of the literati. Instead, he was self-taught and all his art was commercial. He isn’t even famous for the kinds of paintings normally seen in art galleries – he’s famous for his movie posters.
Chen loved to draw, even as a boy. One day he got in trouble for drawing the proctor during an exam and was sure he would be in trouble, but instead the proctor had him sign the picture and kept it. After leaving school, Chen went to Japan to study and returned after the Second World War, unsure what to do.
A friend helped him find a job repairing silk-screen movie posters. In those days movie posters were expensive and would travel with the film as it was shown in different cinemas. They were easily damaged, and printing them on silk helped make repairs easier.
Then a film turned up without a poster to promote it. On a whim, Chen painted a picture to use. The film was a success, which led to Chen painting more pictures for fun. However, Chen soon needed money, and a cinema company owner surnamed Ko hired him to paint posters for forty films she had imported.
Chen visited shops that painted advertisements on billboards to study how to use the pigments, and spent a year on the forty paintings. By the end of the year, he had become a skilled painter, and filmmakers began to come to him to ask him to paint posters for their films.
Taiwanese movies were very popular in the 1950s and 60s, but there were only about ten poster painters in Taipei. Due to Chen’s growing fame, he soon became very busy. He estimated that he painted posters for nearly 900 of the 1,000 local films released in this period. He was so busy that some companies tried to bribe him to paint their posters first, and others sent people to watch him in his studio.
Chen attributed his popularity to his lack of formal art training, which he thought gave his work a unique character, and his homegrown technical skills. He used lighting carefully to highlight characters’ faces, and concentrated on implying the theme of the movie rather than copying a scene exactly. He was even able to create a poster just by hearing the title and seeing stills of the actors. He claimed to be able to paint a poster in just three hours.
His career peaked in the 1970s, with many wuxia films that appealed to his instinct for strong, simple compositions. The poster for one of these movies, “A Touch of Zen,” was even used overseas to promote the film. He also painted posters for dramas, romances, and horror movies.
Chen retired in 1994 with the rise of digital poster art. With the help of his wife and the Chinese Taipei Film Archive, all of his 5,000 posters have been preserved. In 2006 he received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Golden Horse Awards, and in 2016 the Taiwan Film Institute organized an exhibition of his works at Taoyuan Airport, enabling everyone passing through to enjoy his art.
More information on the enduring poster artist can be found here.