Polish Contemporary Posters Worth Keeping in Mind

Polish Contemporary Posters Worth Keeping in Mind

Mariusz Knorowski, Chief-curator of the Poster Museum at Wilanów (the oldest poster museum in the world), delivered the following presentation of 150 contemporary polish posters at the grand opening of the Haight Street Art Center. Check out the slideshow and accompanying essay below:

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The poster has been always recognised in the Polish artistic tradition as source of national pride.  

The Polish poster has also been held in high regard outside of Poland, particularly in those countries that had already established enthusiastic affection for this new artistic practice that had become popular at the turn of the century. 

In its early stages, when the language of art and forms of artistic expression were being shaped, posters executed in Poland and in surrounding countries, were very similar and  comparable in form. That was because of a fashion and oblique style which pressed artists and craftsmen to produce elegant graphic objects indispensable in everyday life. Even prominent academic artists educated in the academic tradition had made many significant contributions to popular and so-called democratic art.  

In fact, the use of traditional pictorial effect, which influenced early prints making them more like pictures or illustrations than conventional satisfactory graphic composition (further considered as a typical poster), were perceived as useful publicity, encouraging pedestrians to use goods available on the market. 

The growing acceptance of posters encouraged many artists to compete within  the urban landscape inhabited by a sophisticated audience. 

During the same period the poster was becoming defined as a independent art form, an interest in folk art patterns expressed in accustomed applied figuration and vivid colouring emerged. In later years this use of native folklore as a source of innovation served as a formation for a Polish national style in the 30’s. The poster was considered as a driving force and was perceived  as a vital factor of artistic progress.  

Graphic art played an important role as it brought together architecture, painting and sculpture with artistic design. Artists were not limited to the creation of unique pieces, they were also able to use mass production to present common symbols and aesthetics of the times into their work. It was precisely this ability to blend both the new and the existing that brought Polish artists to a level of international recognition for their modern stylisation and interpretation of folklore at the Paris exposition of Decorative Art in 1925. 

It’s enough to mention Tadeusz Gronowski and his significant poster „Radion washes by itself” (1926) as an example. Gronowski was the first graphic designer to achieve a reputation as a great artist in the field of applied art. 

In addition to the conservative trends represented by references to folk art, a modernistic orientation open to impulses from the outside also appeared and was best expressed by students at the Warsaw Polytechnic Institute.  

They achieved great success in another important exhibition entitled „Art and Technology in Modern Art”, held in Paris in 1937. Their high awards gave evidence of a recognition of the unique qualities of Polish posters as highly conceptual, with rationality and clarity of composition. 

These two distinct approaches - traditionalism v. modernism - complemented each other and were often combined in a manner which allowed for individual expression without using an excess of one approach or the other. These works achieved an aesthetic compromise between modernism and tradition, and it was this harmonious synthesis that best defined Polish poster art in the period between the wars. 

Towards the end of this period, a distinct „Polish” style manifested itself. Its aesthetics were not described by any one norm. Instead, it was a mosaic of individual ideas and inquiries, using different mediums, which strongly emphasised the individuality of the artists. Works by these artists evoked feelings of fantasy, grotesque imagination, and humour, as well as elegance and style. 

The outbreak of World War II suspended all stylistic development of the Polish poster as an art, rupturing tradition and slowing creative development. Post-war Poland exposed artists to increasing ideological pressure. Commercial advertising, once a mainstay for poster designers, was removed from all aspects of public life since it facilitated what was newly defined as a degenerate form of consumerism, unwanted in the idyllic realm of „social realism”. The natural evolution of poster art was diverted when the function of the poster was changed to total propaganda. It is in that form that the Polish poster continued its thankless duty for nearly half a century during the „era”  of the People’s Republic of Poland. 

Artists who referred to trends in contemporary art were exposed to censure for cosmopolitanism and formalism. Artistic circles were isolated from external influences. Artists were forced to make explicit ideological declarations and their works were used as an instrument of social indoctrination. The „client” was replaced by an anonymous state patronage system, that dictated a so-called cultural policy, which in reality was saturated with ideology.  

Censorship controlled the loyalty of artists, and defined patterns were imposed on the artists in order to make Polish and Russian art look very similar. This was the period of social realism, whose theories were best expressed in the slogan: „art national in form, and socialistic in content”. However, it was difficult to reconcile these theories in practice.  

It was in these extremely unfavourable circumstances that a phenomenon occurred - the emergence of the Polish School of Posters. It should not be compared to the artistic achievements in democratic countries where the rhythm of artistic life is unrestricted. It was the very struggle with historic adversities which resulted in the Polish Poster School as a spontaneous artistic movement with no specified goals, declaration, or manifestos. It was a community of artistic aspirations that could not be realised in the field of the high art. Yet, at the same time, it was the revolt of a generation void of possibilities for self-realisation, threatened by the spectre of a „captive mind”. 

The most noted contributions came from artists from the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts and students of Henryk Tomaszewski and Józef Mroszczak: Jan Lenica, Jan Młodożeniec, Julian Pałka. In addition, others who began earlier or worked in Warsaw in the mid-fifties, should be mentioned: Roman Cieślewicz, Wojciech Fangor, Eryk Lipiński, Franciszek Starowieyski, Wojciech Zamecznik and Waldemar Świerzy. 

This group of artists truly resurrected the value of the film poster, which had previously been disregarded as an art form and considered synonymous with kitsch and reduced to banal stereotypes. The artists gave their work innovative traits, making their posters resemble paintings, with characteristic expressions, roughness of features, expressive gestures and emotional colour. However,  the most important quality of their work was the introduction of an unconventional imagination that previously had not been a part of graphic artists’ working vocabulary.  

Because of this approach, the art work was no longer viewed as a regular composition of orderly forms. Instead, it became an inspirational picture that opened a scope of original associations to the viewer. Metaphors, interpreted on different levels, became its substance. 

One can use a term introduced by Umberto Eco to recognised the poetics of the Polish poster as a typical manifestation of unrestricted creation, that offers the viewer an opportunity for dialogue and the possibility to actively fill an accidentally encountered picture with assumptive content. In this type  of encounter with the true work of art, the viewer’s conceptions, feelings and intuitions became sublimated. 

In order to understand the distinction of the Polish poster and to fully understand its unique nature, it is useful to accept a thesis: although the poster is a form of popular art, it is not a literal representation of the state of affairs (independent of what it represents, whether what is represented is real).  Above all the poster is a conceived image that can induce both looking and thinking. Its form could comprise hidden meanings or allusions, since the artist often might play a refined game, striving to disguise the poster’s real contents while smuggling them to the spectator. The poster might also challenge the viewer’s inquisitiveness, offering aesthetic and intellectual satisfaction for those who explore the art form. In this sense, the poster played an educational role - „it taught one how to look”- while the very act of aesthetic recognition created increased reflection. Regardless of the propaganda that transmitted rumours, the poster spoke its own language and in the midst of the mediocrity of daily life, it intrigued eyes with colour. 

This daring period of the Polish School lasted only a few years, no longer than one decade. Although brief in time, it shaped a mythology that ennobled the poster, marking it for a privileged place in contemporary Polish fine arts. Afterwards, the achievements of this period acted as a point of reference for creative quests of the following generations who were seeking new phenomena in the world of art and who were no longer entrapped by provincialism.  

The ability to maintain a continuity of this tradition can be explained in a number of ways. Certainly, the mythology of the legendary past is important. Polish fine arts have not achieved such spectacular success again, even though many of Poland’s great artists have found international acclaim for their works. There has never again been such an impetuous explosion of talents, although there have been numerous artists of note, including Jan Jaromir Aleksiun, Jerzy Czerniawski, Jan Sawka, and Eugeniusz Get-Stankiewicz. In the mid -seventies these were in the forefront of the graphics arena, proposing the poster as pictorial, with a heightened intellectual dimension. Their oeuvres included elements of both contest and provocation pointed against the official establishment. Despite their grotesqueries, they comprised a generation that affirmed the values of Western civilisation - vastly different from those values which radiated from the East and were completely alien to the traditional Polish temperament and philosophy of life. 

Artistic fashion continued to change. New conceptions flowing from ideas obligatory in the „free world” were developed - especially in the alternative culture existing beyond official patronage. The new conceptions tried to interpret and assimilate  Western sensibilities. 

Although one may find Western patterns in the Polish poster, it is the deeply rooted tradition of the Polish School that is most attractive. This is apparent in the works of many younger artists who have appeared in the last several years. Unfortunately, the time of their debuts coincided with the years of dramatic decomposition of the political system. In the face of historic forces, the artists did not turn towards modern techniques, but returned to conventional paintings - a seemingly archaic method. Examples of this trend can be found in the works of Stasys Eidrigevicius, Mieczysław Górowski, Wiesław Rosocha, Wiktor Sadowski, Wiesław Wałkuski and others. Masters of the original Polish School are still active today, ensuring high standards in the Polish poster art as an art form. 

Unfortunately, Poland’s transformation and its return to the free market have visibly narrowed the poster’s scope. Commercial advertising based on visual stereotypes made a triumphant comeback. The same misfortune occurred with the cinema poster, which today has been replaced with the trashy haberdashery found around the world. These anonymous prints successfully ousted  the artistic poster which today has found asylum in museums and galleries. Luckily, the publishing enterprise has been taken over by private publishers, who have roots among the circles of collectors. They view the poster as an ambitious art form and offer commissions to selected artists whose works will secure financial profit. 

 Let us hope that, despite the paradoxes of grand history, capitalism will not bury what arose during a time when it was turned out of Poland and when its inseparable attribute - advertising - disappeared. The loss of the poster as an art form would not only be the loss for Polish culture, it would be a loss for the entire world. 


-Mariusz  Knorowski, Chief-curator, Poster Museum at Wilanów