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.
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.
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,
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.
Text by Piotr Sarzynski