A new generation of designers revives the quintessential Polish art form.
A poster for the Polish release of Citizen Kane 2010, by Homework.
Henryk tomaszewski created a colorful broadside for Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane in 1948, when the film arrived in postwar Poland. More than half a century later, Jerzy Skakun and his partner, Joanna Górska, who together run the design studio Homework, designed a much cleaner, almost minimalist poster for the film’s rerelease in Poland. In the interim, the world of Polish poster design, like the country itself, changed dramatically.
The Citizen Kane poster is one of 20 Homework created for a project, sponsored by the Polish Film Institute, that is distributing classic films to art-house theaters around the country. Homework interpreted posters for films like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Last Tango in Paris that were originally done by masters such as Tomaszewski. Skakun and Górska are among the most prolific of a new generation of designers grappling with the legacy of the Polish Poster School, a group of artists that included Tomaszewski, Józef Mroszczak, and Jan Lenica. In the postwar years, they were commissioned by the Communist state to create advertisements for the film and theater industries. Though subject to censorship, they developed a unique visual language of metaphor, humor, and subversion, in marked contrast to Socialist Realism. As long as they steered clear of overtly political topics, they had an impressive degree of freedom. Tomaszewski and others often interpreted Hollywood films with more subtlety and inventiveness than their American counterparts.
Their posters also brought them into contact with the world beyond the Iron Curtain through international competitions like the Warsaw International Poster Biennale, which has been held at the Wilanów Poster Museum since 1968. It has become a crucial institution for preserving and promoting Polish poster art, which declined in importance after the fall of Communism, as official commissions dwindled and stock ads from Hollywood flooded the market. In the last several years, however, the country’s young designers have taken up the art form as their own.
While their predecessors often had to camouflage social commentary in satire, younger designers can tackle social issues head-on. For instance, Anita Wasik’s posters protesting Guantánamo Bay straightforwardly depict birds sitting on barbed wire. Most of her designs are personal, not commissions. “A baker makes bread, a shoemaker makes shoes, and I make posters,” she says. Wasik is drawn to the formal requirements of poster design—“simplicity on one hand and effectiveness on the other,” she says. “It is like writing a poem with a very few words.”
Ryszard Kajzer sees posters in similarly literary terms—he calls it “a one-page challenge”—and often incorporates wordplay into his work, as in an advertisement for the 2004 biennale at Wilanów. “Everywhere on buildings and walls in Warsaw, there are signs: Zakaz Plakatowania—‘Posting Forbidden,’” he explains. “With the change of the letter Z to N, the word zakaz (‘prohibition’) changes its meaning to nakaz (‘permission’). The poster screams: ‘Posting Permitted!’”
In the 1950s, Polish posters shared an unmistakable style, whereas today, the designer Edgar Bak says, they have a common approach. “I think there is something special about the Polish way of thinking,” he says, “and it’s clearly seen in illustrations and posters and their sense of humor—not always literal humor, based on anecdote. Sometimes it’s hidden in the way you juxtapose elements. Sometimes it comes out as a more poetic approach, in opposition to design, which is more complex and mathematical.” Maja Wolna, a contemporary, says the Polish poster is about “treating a concrete challenge as a pretext to an intelligent, absurd, and individual answer.”
While the visual tradition of the Polish Poster School developed in relative isolation, contemporary Polish designers operate fully in the global design world. But even with that access, the legacy of the Polish Poster School has been preserved in Polish arts education. “The essence of the Polish poster is a very simple concept, a message that is communicated in the simplest formal way using irony and humor,” says Jan Bajtlik, a graphic design student at the Academy of Fine Arts, in Warsaw. “Times have changed dramatically, but good Polish graphic design still has some spirit or intellectual concept from the old times, even though we design in a new way.”
The current generation’s graphic designers cut their teeth at the Polish art academies. Wasik, for instance, graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts, in Gdańsk, where she currently teaches. She often holds poster workshops with her students. “There is no better way to develop a skill [as important as] brevity, which is also useful in designing book covers, ads, or print illustrations,” she says. Current professors were often taught by the old masters of the Polish Poster School. (Bajtlik studies with Lech Majewski, himself a student of Tomaszewski.) Bajtlik says that today’s students keep an intellectual connection to their predecessors even as they have infinitely more options open to them. “Many professors pass on a way of thinking specific to the Polish poster tradition,” he says. “Old Polish posters are still relevant because the best ideas are universal. But today we have to find our own new, original poster language.”
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