A Brief History
Poster art in Poland has chronicled the nation's social, political and cultural life for more than a century. During the interwar period (1919-1939), influences from around the world could be seen in Polish poster art. Although there were important individual artists during this period, including Tadeusz Trepkowski and Tadeusz Gronowski, the posters are characterized by a more diverse range of international styles, including Expressionism, Constructivism, Functionalism and Art Deco. This announcement poster, created in 1934 by Tadeusz Trepkowski, shows a strong art deco influence, reminiscent of work by the French artist AM Cassandre.
Following WWII, poster art changed dramatically in Poland. Throughout the Stalinist era, from 1948 through the mid 1950s, Social Realist posters were a dominant presence. Art from this period was to be national in form and socialist in content, with iconic figures to inspire the public. In this 1948 political poster by Konstanty Sopoćko, two workers shake hands in a heroic stance. Stalin's ideologies were disseminated through many visual means, but the most memorable are political propaganda posters.
Polish School of Posters
The late 1940s witnessed another shift in the life of the Polish poster. It was at this time that a small group of artists, including Henryk Tomaszewski, Józef Mroszczak and Eryk Lipiński, set out on a new path of artistic invention. When asked in 1946 by the Polish Film Department to design posters, they agreed- but with the stipulation that the work be based on their own artistic terms, not the typical advertising clichés of the past. This new direction saw a subtle use of metaphor, unusual juxtaposition of forms, and elements of abstraction combined in innovative ways. Films and other cultural events (opera, theater, circus), soon became the impetus for much of the great poster work that was done during the 50s and 60s, a period that became known as the Polish School of Poster. An example of this can be seen in the 1965 film poster "The Birds" by Bronisław Zelek. Hitchcock's title is translated into a moving abstraction of black and white typography spelling out the word for bird. Another example of abstraction is the 1961 film poster "SOS Titanic" by Wojciech Zamecznik. There is no ship depicted, but rather a series of lines alluding to water and a break in one of the lines showing the idea of destruction. The gray, rubbled streets of Warsaw were transformed with miles of colorful posters plastered onto construction fences. As Henryk Tomaszewski put it; "The street was the poster gallery."
The years after Stalin's death in 1953 brought about a more lenient political-social climate in Poland. Although every poster was still passed through a censorship board, this did not discourage artists from further developing their individual styles. Artists such as Jan Lenica, Wojciech Fangor, Roman Cieślewicz, Jan Młodożeniec, Waldemar Świerzy, Wiktor Górka and Franciszek Starowieyski were at the forefront of creating much of the great poster work of that time.
The heyday of the Polish School led by Tomaszewski was over by 1965, but a younger generation of artists worked alongside the great masters. Many of them had studied with him at the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts. Thus, even after the formal end of the Polish School of Poster Art, it was nonetheless instrumental in fostering a tradition that continued well into the 1980s.
There is no simple answer as to why such a distinct artistic poster phenomenon occurred in Poland. Perhaps a series of coincidences- a group of talented artists with energy and vision, coupled with a monitored system in which the arts, and in particular poster art, was deemed important, is the simplest explanation. Whatever the reason, this climate became a unique landscape for the creation of extraordinary work.
The 1980's were a tumultuous time in Poland. Worker's strikes in Gdańsk lead to the formation of the Solidarity movement. In 1980, Lech Wałęsa was elected chairman of this reform movement. The red and white Solidarity logo became an international icon that literally wrapped itself around the city, creating a visual momentum that lead to a political revolution. Once again, posters played a pivotal role in defining the future. In 1989, the day before the country was to vote on the political future of Poland, a poster featuring an image of Gary Cooper from the film "High Noon" was plastered on kiosks and walls around the country. This landmark image of the famous actor strolling towards the viewer depicted him carrying not a gun, but a voting ballot, and wearing a solidarity logo above his sheriff's badge that read: "It's high noon, June 4, 1989." As Frank Fox, former professor of Eastern European History stated: "Indeed, an American Western was an apt symbol for a political duel that marked the beginning of the end of Communism in Eastern Europe. Gary Cooper would have approved."
Poster life after Communism
Almost overnight, capitalism arrived in Poland and the effects have been devastating for the genre of poster art. Today, garish billboards adorn the streets and globalized imagery and influences permeate Polish society, altering what was once a more isolated and distinct visual tradition. Where once there were 1,000 posters commissioned each year by the Polish government, there are now less than 100. Hollywood "star" posters have replaced the interpretive film poster. While filming in the summer of 2002, we could not escape the pre-packaged publicity images of Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones promoting "Men In Black II."
The Polish government no longer finances most cultural events; theatres cannot afford to publish artistic posters, and the idea of a film as an excuse to make a poster has vanished. Ironically, although the climate of Communism was a good ground for creating posters, the freedom of a free market society has resulted in a more restrictive climate for the creation of powerful posters. The art form is forever changed. A few concerned collectors and publishers, such as Krzysztof Dydo and Edmund Lewandowski, are attempting to keep the art form alive by commissioning and publishing new works, but their efforts alone will not overcome the situation. It is hoped that an outside appreciation of pre-1980s poster design history in Poland will ultimately help to encourage the government and private interests to commission more posters from Polish artists.
The Polish poster has now found a new home on the Internet. Posters have become valuable collector's items, and international buyers and dealers bid on line for works that were once free for all to experience. Their strength still resonates for us today, for they have become precious documents of a remarkable time in the history of a country, one that has experienced great change and hardships. It may be that Poland's open, free-market society has paradoxically closed the door to an important artistic element of the Polish landscape- the unique and powerful street poster.
100 Years of Polish Poster Art, from the collection of Poster Museum in Wilanów, Department of National Museum in Warsaw. 1993.
Masters of Polish Poster Art, Krzysztof Dydo, 1995.
Muzeum Ulicy, posters from the collection of the Poster Museum at Wilanów, a division of the National Museum in Warsaw, 1996.
Polish Film Poster/100th Anniversary of the Cinema in Poland 1896-1996, Krzysztof Dydo, 1996.
Polish Theater Poster, 1899-1999, Krzysztof Dydo, 2000.
Western Amerykanski, Polish Art and the Western, Kevin Mulroy, editor, University of Washington Press, 1999.