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Polish Poster Art

Museum of the city walls
In 1968 the first poster museum in the world was opened in Warsaw. Two years earlier, Poland had held the First International Poster Biennial, which for many years was the most prestigious event of its kind. The proximity of those two events was no coincidence. At that time, Poland was known for being the centre of "wall and board" art. Its distinct character and artistic value meant that the world soon began to speak of the Polish poster school.
The school emerged in the late 1950s, when, after years of Social Realism being all-pervasive in art, Polish artistic life suddenly became much more exciting. Although success is usually dependent on many factors, we can safely say that the Polish poster school has one person to thank - the painter, drawer and graphic artist, Henryk Tomaszewski. He quickly gained the support of young and extremely talented artists who for years dedicated themselves to poster art. The most important artists of the Polish poster school were Jozef Mroszczak, Wojciech Zamecznik, Jan Mlodozeniec, Waldemar Swierzy, Jan Lenica and Franciszek Starowieyski.
Alban Berg - Wozzeck, poster designed by Jan Lenica
Ostatni Etap, The Last Stage - poster designed by Tadeusz Trepkowski A good deal of thought has been given to the school's phenomenon. It seems that its success can be attributed to social, as well as artistic, conditions. The genial political climate in the country at the time was an important factor. Moreover, every possible organisation, especially those in the cultural arena, were vying for posters painted by one of the famous artists. For many years there was no film, opera or theatre premiere, concert, festival or other public event without a poster. "There were years when I was making a poster every week, and even so I often had to decline commissions," Waldemar Swierzy remembers. The Poster Museum has collected a few thousand Polish posters painted between 1956 and 1963 only. The poster soon became an element of mass culture and poster biennials in Warsaw attracted huge crowds. The collectors' movement spread widely. There were galleries that specialised in selling posters, while the popular daily Zycie Warszawy for many years held a famous contest for the best posters of the month and the year, as voted by the readers.
It is no surprise that the socialist authorities used posters as a means of propaganda, commissioning artists to celebrate such occasions as Labour Day, party congresses, anniversaries and ceremonies. Many leading Polish poster designers resisted temptation, but others succumbed and from time to time produced very memorable pieces of art (such as Starowieyski's famous poster representing Lenin).

The success of Polish poster art had strong artistic foundations and was not only due to the advantageous social conditions. The graphic artists who established the Polish poster school were first and foremost excellent artists. It was certainly not a standardised school, its most outstanding representatives adopting different forms of expression: Henryk Tomaszewski was conspicuous by a very discerning use of the mediums of expression, by intellectual abstracts and by refined symbols. The erudite Franciszek Starowieyski liked to shock the spectator.
He did not avoid surrealistic motives, willingly referring to the idioms of the painting of days gone by. Waldemar Swierzy, the master of the spot of colour and bold colour schemes, was close to the Pop Art poetics. Jan Mlodozeniec consciously adhered to Primitivism, efficiently using simple, almost childish lines and spots.

There was much to divide these artists as every one of them had arrived at his own idiom, immediately recognisable, even from a distance. But at the same time there was something very important to link them together, something that made the Polish school something real and distinct.
This can be attributed to the fact that all of them were painting ambitious posters, expecting of the public an understanding of the signs, symbols and allegories. Polish posters were not only pieces of art, but also intellectual labyrinths and games of hide-and-seek. Posters referred not only to emotions, but to intellect as well. Viewers were required to think.

In the 1970s a new generation of young artists entered the area of poster art. These newcomers came from the student movement concentrating on the so-called conceptual poster. They were led by the ambitious artist Rafal Olbinski and the so-called Wroclaw group, including Jan Sawka, Jerzy Czerniawski, Jan Jaromir Aleksiun and Eugeniusz Get-Stankiewicz. Their main characteristics were keenness, a reflective interpretation of reality, sensitivity to social occurrences, nonconformity and dissension.
Biale malzenstwo. Tadeusz Rozewicz. Poster designed by Franciszek Starowieyski
Anywhere You are if You Are. Krzysztof Zanussi film. Poster designed by Franciszek Starowieyski
Anywhere You are if You Are. Krzysztof Zanussi film. Poster designed by Stasys Eidrigevicius
Marathon Man. John Schlesinger film. Poster designed by Wiktor Gorka
Festival of Polish Contemporary Theater. Poster designed by Wiktor Sadowski
In the early 1980s subsequent young artists began achieving success. The one to gain the greatest popularity was Stasys Eidrigevicius, a Lithuanian living in Poland. He introduced his own unique world, bringing dreams and fairy-tales into poster art. Sad figures of half- people, half-puppets with huge, surprised eyes, occupying small wooden houses, covered street fences and notice boards in Polish towns. Wiktor Sadowski was the other young man with a great talent for poster art. His very pictorial posters resembling blurred watercolours were, like Stasys', filled with nostalgia and mystery.

And lastly Andrzej Pagowski, a student of Waldemar Swierzy. To some he is the last representative of the Polish poster school, to others, the first poster artist of the new age. Pagowski concentrated on the poster in the late seventies. There were periods when he painted nearly a hundred posters a year. As opposed to his predecessors, he never had his own, distinct, easily recognisable style. Instead, he drew inspiration freely from the pool of works by the Polish school. In his posters he followed all forms, mixing trends and techniques. He could pass from extreme asceticism to a superabundance of Baroque. He juggled with nostalgia, the grotesque, satire and cruelty.

The same influences that once contributed to the establishment of the Polish poster school later contributed to its decline. In the early nineties the market for posters dwindled rapidly. Lack of money led to theatres, operas and film distributors abandoning posters. In the streets the small-size artistic poster was superseded by impersonal imported placards and hoardings, and an attractive photograph became the norm. As a result, the circle of graphic artists scattered. Many outstanding artists emigrated (Olbinski, Sawka, Fangor, Szaybo, Lenica), while others lost interest in posters, concentrating instead on painting or applied graphics (Get- Stankiewicz, Eidrigevicius, Pagowski, Starowieyski, Aleksiun).
But changes in the world's applied graphics have also contributed to the decline of the Polish poster school. Present-day street advertising does not need artists but businessmen, able to efficiently carry out the wishes of the customer. No one expects an artistic vision; the message does not need to be allegorical and ambiguous, simply effective.

And thus the refined beauty of the poster has been commonly replaced by the "dressed-down design" where, knowingly, fashion is the chosen source of inspiration while bad taste is the vehicle, decomposition is the form of expression and primitiveness is the means of expression. The Art of Poster became "gallery art" and it is less visible on the city walls but more on museum walls, galleries and private collections.
Il Trovatore, Giuseppe Verdi. Opera poster designed by Wieslaw Walkuski

Text by Piotr Sarzynski

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