ⓘ Karoly Grosz (illustrator)

Karoly Grosz (illustrator)

ⓘ Karoly Grosz (illustrator)

Karoly Grosz was a Hungarian–American illustrator of Classical Hollywood–era film posters. As art director at Universal Pictures for the bulk of the 1930s, Grosz oversaw the companys advertising campaigns and contributed hundreds of his own illustrations. He is especially recognized for his dramatic, colorful posters for classic horror films.

Groszs best-known posters advertised early Universal Classic Monsters films such as Dracula 1931, Frankenstein 1931, The Mummy 1932, The Invisible Man 1933, and Bride of Frankenstein 1935. Beyond the horror genre, his other notable designs include posters for the epic war film All Quiet on the Western Front 1930 and the screwball comedy My Man Godfrey 1936. Original lithograph copies of his poster art are scarce and highly valued by collectors. Two posters illustrated by Grosz - ads for Frankenstein and The Mummy, respectively - have set the auction record for the worlds most expensive film poster. The latter held the record for nearly 20 years and, at the time of its sale in 1997, it may have been the most expensive art print in any category.

Despite the growth in his artworks valuation and prominence, very little biographical information about Grosz is known. He was born in Hungary, immigrated to the United States, and worked in American film advertising between approximately 1921 and 1938, possibly earlier and later. Only a small portion of his artistic output has been attributed to him, reflecting the standard anonymity of early American film poster artists.


1.1. Life and work Early life and career

Little is known about Groszs life, as is the case with many early poster artists. Details of his biography have remained obscure even after his illustrations became some of the most valuable in film poster collecting. The years and locations of his birth and death are unknown. He was born in Hungary then part of Austria-Hungary and immigrated to the United States sometime before 1921.

Grosz began working in film advertising as early as 1921, when he was listed as a member of the New York-based professional organization Associated Motion Picture Advertisers and an employee of Associated Producers. By 1923, he managed the advertising art departments of both Preferred Pictures and producer Al Lichtmans company.

As a painter, Grosz tended to work with oil and watercolor, and was influenced by a range of movements spanning Expressionism to Art Deco. His posters for the 1923 silent film April Showers were considered novel for the time because the designs emphasized an "idea" or visual theme, rather than literal depictions of scenes that a viewer could expect to see in the film. He was credited the same year with a billboard-size display for silent western The Virginian, the second adaptation of Owen Wisters 1902 novel of the same name.


1.2. Life and work Career at Universal Pictures

Grosz began working at Universal in the mid-1920s. By 1930, he and Philip Cochrane were appointed advertising art directors by the companys first advertising manager and Philips brother, Robert Cochrane. Grosz and Cochrane have been credited with the generally high artistic quality of Universals advertising throughout the 1930s. Images like Groszs teaser poster for Frankenstein introduced the general public to the now-familiar characters from Universals early horror films. Alongside horror-themed artwork, Groszs tenure at Universal was distinguished by "lively, dramatic poster work to match the prestige and earnings" of such films as the World War I epic All Quiet on the Western Front 1930 and the early screwball comedy My Man Godfrey 1936.

Groszs poster designs were exported to international markets, sometimes with modifications or variations. In the United Kingdom, his posters for horror films were deemed so outrageous and lurid that by 1932 the British Board of Film Censors introduced stricter content regulations for advertising displays in public places.

Grosz also made contributions to the look of Universals films themselves. Most notably, his concept art for Frankensteins monster, which suggested a more mechanical or robotic appearance, served as the source for the steel bolts in the monsters neck. A comparatively minor detail, the neck-bolts are now an iconic visual element that is closely associated with the monster, especially Universals version. Although make-up artist Jack Pierce took credit in interviews for the monsters neck-bolts, Argentine-Canadian film critic and historian Alberto Manguel rejected Pierces claim, finding that Groszs concept art came earlier.

Cochrane left Universal in 1937, while Grosz may have continued to work there as late as 1938. Following their departures, Universals poster art of the late 1930s and early 1940s entered a decline marked by a shift from vivid illustrations to mundane photographic reproductions. The quality of Universals poster art improved again after Maurice Kallis was recruited from Paramount Pictures to serve as art director.


2. List of attributed film posters

Grosz is believed to have contributed hundreds of illustrations to Universal between the late 1920s and late 1930s. He is often credited, at least partially, for the majority of Universals posters produced while he was head of the art department - even for posters he may not have necessarily illustrated himself - because his position imputed responsibility for the overall art direction of the distributors ad campaigns. Determining the authorship of vintage film posters is intrinsically difficult, however, due to the generally anonymous nature of the work, especially in the United States. Groszs window card for Murders in the Rue Morgue is a rare example of an American film poster from the period signed by the artist.

The list below includes films with poster illustrations or art direction that has been specifically attributed to Grosz in a secondary source. The gallery below includes individual designs attributed to him.


3. Retrospective appraisal

Groszs illustrations are now praised for their artistic quality and prized by collectors, but this was not the case until a half-century after the fact. In their own time, lithograph film posters were ephemeral objects to be distributed to movie theaters and disposed at the end of a films run. Well-preserved original copies are scarce - for example, there were only two known copies of Groszs one-sheet poster for The Mummy until 2001, when a third was found in a garage in Arizona.

According to film historians Stephen Rebello and Richard C. Allen, Groszs colorful, dramatic illustrations "brought. a certain charm and almost naive perfection" to "the highly sensationalistic elements of directors Tod Brownings and James Whales classics - hideous creatures, half-clad heroines, unsealed tombs, mad doctors." In their estimation, Groszs work in the horror genre was equaled only by William Roses poster art for the 1940s B movies produced by Val Lewton for RKO Pictures, such as Cat People 1942. British film historian Sim Branaghan wrote that Groszs "wild imaginings" had an outsize influence on poster design in the UK from the 1950s onward, especially for the burgeoning market in exploitation films, as film censorship in the United Kingdom diminished and films with mature themes targeting adult audiences became more mainstream.

Tony Nourmand and Graham Marsh wrote that Groszs posters were highly original and often "as legendary as the films themselves." Although his artistic style usually conformed to the relatively conservative standards of commercial art, they cited his teaser posters for Frankenstein and The Invisible Man as major exceptions that remain "striking," "avant-garde," and "ultra-modern" even by contemporary standards. In 2013, Nourmand included the Frankenstein teaser in a book listing his choices for the 100 "essential" movie posters. The American Film Institute included at least six posters illustrated by Grosz in its 2003 list of "100 Years. 100 American Movie Poster Classics": The Mummy no. 4, The Invisible Man no. 29, the teaser for Frankenstein no. 40, the teaser for The Invisible Man no. 69, Murders in the Rue Morgue no. 85, and Draculas Daughter no. 88. Premiere magazine ranked The Mummy poster at no. 15 in its 2007 list of the 25 best movie posters.

Kirk Hammett - the lead guitarist for Metallica and a prolific collector of horror memorabilia - named Grosz his favorite poster artist:

His lines are very seductive and theres a glamor and an elegance he manages to capture. In some of those movie posters, even though theyre scary horror movies, theres still a factor of beauty and elegance that draws me in even deeper. I think its because of the fact its not just horror. Its not just darkness and evil. There are also elements of beauty and hope in Groszs illustrations. To me, he was a master.

Hammett likened the Frankenstein teaser poster to an "Andy Warhol portrait gone evil" and, "in essence, an amazing example of pop art, 30 years before that term and movement even existed." Since 1995, he has owned a custom ESP KH-2 electric guitar painted with a design from Groszs Mummy three-sheet.

Groszs artwork has been exhibited in art museums. A one-sheet poster for The Mummy was featured in the 1999 exhibition "The American Century: Art and Culture 1900–2000" at the Whitney Museum of American Art. A traveling exhibition of horror memorabilia from Hammetts collection, with several pieces by Grosz, debuted in 2017 at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts before continuing to the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto and the Columbia Museum of Art in Columbia, South Carolina.


3.1. Retrospective appraisal Valuation

The high-end art market generally excluded film memorabilia until the late 1980s. Since that time, original copies of Groszs poster designs have been highly valued at auction. As of 2012, six of the worlds ten most expensive film posters had been produced for Universal horror films under his art direction. He is also the best-represented artist on a much longer list maintained by the website LearnAboutMoviePosters LAMP, which is periodically updated to include every known sale of a film poster for $20.000 or higher.

Two posters illustrated by Grosz have set the record for most expensive film poster at auction. In an October 1993 auction, a Frankenstein poster sold at auction for $198.000 equivalent to $350.000 in 2019, doubling the pre-sale estimation and nearly tripling the previous record price. In March 1997, Sothebys sold an original copy of the one-sheet for The Mummy for $453.000 equivalent to $721.000 in 2019. The sale exceeded not only Groszs own previous record, but also the highest price then achieved for an Art Nouveau poster by French painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec; as a result, The Mummy became not only the most-expensive poster in film advertising, but possibly in all of fine art. While Groszs name had been largely unknown before The Mummy sale, even among high-end collectors, other examples of his poster art dramatically increased in value shortly afterward.

The auction record held by The Mummy was broken in 2014 by a poster for the 1927 film London After Midnight. An original Dracula lithograph set the record again in 2017 with a sales price of $525.800; while the illustrator was unidentified, Grosz was responsible for the art direction of the films poster campaign as a whole. In 2018, another copy of The Mummy poster was expected to reclaim the record with an estimated sales value as high as $1.5 million. It failed to sell, however, with no bid meeting the $950.000 minimum by the October 31 deadline.