It’s Alive! Classic Horror & Sci-Fi Art from the Kirk Hammett Collection at the Peabody Essex Museum

Rock On, 2017. R. Kikuo Johnson. www.rkikuojohnson.com

The Peabody Essex Museum’s latest exhibition, It’s Alive! Classic Horror & Sci-Fi Art from the Kirk Hammett Collection, relates classic 20th-century movie posters and props as objects of fear and forms of creative expression that continue to inspire artists today. The 135-piece collection that makes up the exhibition belongs to Kirk Hammett, who is best known for his role as the lead guitarist in Metallica. While Hammett has been collecting horror art since he was just six years old, It’s Alive! is the first major exhibition of his collection.

The entire exhibit appeals to our interest in fear and the unknown. When designing advertisements for horror films, artists needed to combine their eyes for detail with captivating storytelling in a way that would make audiences want to see more. A walk through the exhibit will reaffirm the strange relationship that we all have with fear, as a feeling that obviously alarms us but still makes us want to continue watching a film or in this case viewing the film’s artwork or listening to music.

Roland Coudon, Frankenstein, about 1931, produced by Universal Pictures, printed by Etabts Delattre, France, lithograph, 63 x 94 in. (160 x 238.8 cm). Courtesy of the Kirk Hammett Horror and Sci-Fi Memorabilia Collection and Universal Studios Licensing, LLC.

Many of the posters from Hammett’s collection were originally created by the hundreds or thousands, though unfortunately little care was taken to preserve them when it was time to replace them with new advertisements. As a result, some of the pieces in the collection are now either the only ones or one of just a handful of the pieces known to exist today.

Some of these posters may be noticeably unlike their respective films, which became a fairly regular occurrence in the mid-20th century. During this time, film studios would often design posters first to see how much interest there would be in the general concept for the piece before actually planning or shooting any of it. As a result, many posters ended up advertising films that were entirely different than what was actually produced.

Themes of the exhibit showcase the different themes within the horror realm and how they can be understood from posters alone. Most familiar are the themes focusing on aspects of The Undead (as in Dracula, The Mummy, or Frankenstein), Classic Tales, and Other Realms, which focuses on subjects like Aliens and The Deep. The exhibit goes on to include motifs on Women and Power in horror, and the use of eyes in horror artwork, Mad Science, Zombies, and even Horror Spoofs.

Nosferatu, about 1931, produced by Prana Film, Germany, printed in Spain, lithograph, 42 1/4 x 29 1/8 in. (107.3 x 74 cm). Courtesy of the Kirk Hammett Horror and Sci-Fi Memorabilia Collection.

Hammett’s music and the inspiration he derives from horror art is laced throughout the exhibition with a display featuring six of his horror art-themed guitars. Daniel Finamore, PEM’s Russell W. Knight Curator of Maritime Art and History, who led the research and design of the exhibit relates Hammett’s work to the characters in these classic films: “Like the monsters in his posters, Hammett knows what being a cult icon is about. Just as fans of his music follow him, he unabashedly throws himself into the cult fandom through his voracious collecting activity.”

“It’s Alive! Classic Horror & Sci-Fi Art from the Kirk Hammett Collection is on display at the Peabody Essex Museum until November 26, 2017. The exhibition celebration will take place on Saturday, September 23, and will feature a heavy metal yoga class, horror writing workshop, guitar art demonstrations, a film screening of Frankenstein, and more.

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