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The end of the 19th century coincided with the beginning of an age of rampant mass production in all industries, placing a heavy commercial load on Europe – with the poster industry working at full throttle to produce a lot of everything in a very short time. Poster designers in Paris profited from this immensely. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Alphonse Mucha rose to the heights of fame when their creations popped up around the city in large quantities. However, similar artists in Poland were given little artistic acclaim. Yes, their works hung on city walls, encouraged people to see a play or a film and, unrestrained by the conventions of painting, made free creative use of form and content. But it was only in 1922 that the art of poster making entered the curriculum at Warsaw’s Academy of the Arts.
It is widely considered that the so-called Polish School of Posters came into being in the 1950s, when the communist stronghold in Poland blossomed. The name is somewhat misleading, as it implies a certain union between various artists; in actuality, there existed many artistic groups, loosely connected only by the medium and its subtleties, which now bear the same name. Moreover, it would be difficult to state whether the medium served to support or criticise the authorities. Since all printing facilities were under the regime’s strict control, many poster artists ended up working for government institutions and, consequently, designed propaganda. With this in mind it is no wonder that at the time, poster artists were considered to benefit from good salaries and exceptional privileges.
The Polish authorities, thus, fully appreciated the potential power of this simple graphic medium. After all, the most widely known symbol of communism, the hammer and sickle, used only two graphic elements – symbolic of the proletariat and peasantry – and a single colour. Lenin himself watched over its creation during the Russian Revolution in 1917. But what Poland’s government did not fully grasp was the immense potential for artful symbolism held by the poster, and thus its subversive power. Artists such as Józef Mroszczak or Jan Lenica may have cooperated directly with the ‘enemy’, but their multilayered symbolism begs for further interpretations. This was the case with, for example, Pagowski’s poster announcing a performance of Macbeth. By wrapping a human face with a brick wall, he illustrated the play’s subject matter, and pointed out the restrictions of intellectual freedom imposed by the communist regime.
Posters carried yet another level of social significance: they were extremely subjective visions, and through their individuality, they created personal dialogues with passers-by. As such, they often changed meanings in the eyes of the public: in 1964, Lenica designed a poster advertising Alban Berg’s opera Wozzeck, but the performance was banned in the end. In December 1981, the poster reappeared all over Warsaw, a day before martial law was announced in Poland. The despairing, screaming, red lips then became a symbol of the Polish longing for peace and freedom.
But in order to arrive at such a richness of intellectual, political or metaphysical meanings, the poster itself should be complex; and the Polish School of Posters never ran out of creativity. Often surreal in nature, these pieces of art seduce the spectator with the question marks they pose – the colours are usually vivid and confident, the subject matter treated with a tint of dark humour and the composition itself is intellectually dense, but still accessible and appealing to the naked eye. The whole trick is to capture all the possible interpretations; to see what the authorities saw when they granted permission for the poster to be printed; to know what the young anti-communists felt when they passed it by on the street; to understand what the author had in mind – at least partially.
The Polish School of Posters truly flourished between 1956 and 1981. Then, as was the case with many other artistic movements, it faltered upon the introduction of martial law – a move, through which the government intended to crush all political opposition.
The last great Polish poster appeared all over Warsaw on the morning of 4 June 1989. Featuring a black-and-white Gary Cooper and a blood red ‘Solidarność’ headline, it urged Poles to take part in the election that was to replace communism with democracy.
Today we may think of the posters that stare at us from street walls as shallow, commercial creations. But a visit to the Poster Museum at Wilanów (Warsaw), which houses over 55,000 posters, might fill you with a breath of fresh air.