Robert Peak's original painting of Marlon Brando movie poster makes its auction debut
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Robert Peak's original painting of Marlon Brando movie poster makes its auction debut
Robert Peak (American, 1927-1992), Apocalypse Now, movie poster illustration, 1979
Mixed media on paper, 40 x 30 inches. Estimate: $50,000 - $70,000.

DALLAS, TX.- Illustrator Robert Peak is so often cited as "The Father of the Modern Movie Poster" that when you Google the latter, you inevitably get the former.

The ad man and maker of Time magazine covers painted more than 130 film posters in the 1960s, '70s and '80s, and was feted time and again "for injecting vitality and vibrant colors" into those works, as The New York Times noted upon his untimely death in 1992. Even an expurgated list of his work features some of the most recognizable movie art of the last half century, including West Side Story, Camelot, My Fair Lady, Excalibur, Rollerball, Funny Girl, The Spy Who Loved Me, Superman: The Movie, Enter the Dragon and the first five Star Trek films.

"The greatest movie posters ever done were done by Dad," says his son Roberto Santo, himself a renowned sculptor. Santo speaks with the hyperbole of the proud son keen on seeing his father's name restored to its rightful place among the world's most venerated illustrators. But he also is not wrong.

Look no further than Peak's series of posters for 1979's Apocalypse Now, images Peak told Francis Ford Coppola he envisioned as a trilogy for the filmmaker's adaptation of Joseph Conrad's novella Heart of Darkness.

One of those indelible masterworks, a watercolor painting featuring only Marlon Brando as Col. Kurtz, will serve as a centerpiece of Heritage Auctions' Oct. 4 Illustration Art Signature® Auction.

One of Peak's posters for Apocalypse Now shows only the mouth of the Nùng River beneath the blood-red sun and approaching helicopters — the beginning of the trilogy, Santo notes, the ominous prelude. Another image is the popular theatrical-release poster featuring the Navy patrol boat heading up river, toward Kurtz, whose bald, sweat-dripping head swallows center and seemingly consumes the image. Almost unnoticed, tucked away in the right-hand corner, Martin Sheen's Captain Willard stares straight ahead.

Some 20 works of Peak's reside in the permanent collection at the Smithsonian Institution's National Portrait Gallery, among them drawings and paintings of Brando, Mother Teresa, Joni Mitchell, Richard Nixon and The Band — all done for the cover of Time. That theatrical-release Apocalypse Now poster also resides in the Smithsonian's permanent collection.

The third poster in Peak's trilogy, the one headed for auction for the first time, is the simplest yet the most striking of the bunch: Brando alone, water and sweat pouring off a shaved head that looks sculpted of wet clay. It's a snapshot from the film's most potent scene, as Kurtz confronts Willard about his mission and intention. This is where Willard accuses the colonel of having gone "totally insane"; here is where Kurtz damns the captain as little more than "an errand boy sent by grocery clerks to collect a bill."

"This image of Brando coming out of the darkness has become iconic," says Santo. "My father said, 'I want to do it as a painting.' He always felt watercolor for him was the true meaning of painting because you couldn't make any mistakes. Whatever happened, you couldn't paste something on top of it."

Santo brings this quintessential work to auction now to remind the world there was a man behind these landmark images, an artist collected by the Smithsonian and revered by his peers — Peak is in the Society of Illustrators Hall of Fame alongside Norman Rockwell, N.C. Wyeth and Frederic Remington — but almost forgotten by a public that continues to collect his works.

"Selling this piece is, for me, more about the idea of bringing my dad's artwork into the light in the auction world," Santo says. "I always thought it was incredible that they never used to give the poster artist any credit. They gave credit to the guy who drove the car for the assistant hair and makeup guy. But not the artists who defined how the movie would be sold and remembered.

"Directors would film it, have it in the can, and then say, 'How are we going to sell this?' Then they would reach out to my dad, who had a knack for things that looked dramatic and explosive on the canvas. He loved films. He had a passion for films. And they knew it. Coppola knew it, which is why he let him do this trilogy of posters."

Santo says his father was so consumed by this piece he would often be unable to sleep at night; some mornings he would wake up and complain that Brando had rousted him from his slumber. The actor and artist knew each other well enough; Peak had painted Brando for Time, and done the poster for Arthur Penn's The Missouri Breaks starring Brando and Jack Nicholson.

But it's the Apocalypse Now painting-turned-poster that resonates loudest all these years later.

"This particular piece is the epitome of what my father was all about: coming up with an image so startling, so spectacular, it sums up an entire movie. Two and a half hours pulled into one image. My father felt strongly that this was Apocalypse Now. It's the iconic image. My Fair Lady and Camelot were musicals. They weren't 'serious films.' This was a big thing for him. He loved doing it. He used to tell me Brando is creeping into his dreams."

Soon, he will be someone else's reality.

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