I recently went to see the Just After the War exhibition at Zachęta Gallery in Warsaw. The exhibition, described as an „attempt to answer the question as to how the complicated social moods and political tensions in post-war Poland found their expression in the visual arts, photographs, film and also architecture and design”, offered a great deal of visual delight. There were some very interesting gouaches by Bronisław Linke, photo-collages by Stefan Rassalski, and beautiful abstract photographs by Fortunata Otrąbalska. But what my eyes were immediately drawn to, were posters.
Those who are familiar with the Polish School of Posters know the degree of influence the School had on the development of graphic design in poster art in many countries across the world. Strong colours, beautiful lettering, linear art, quirky humour, and very clever metaphors made our posters truly stand out.
When we talk about the Polish School of Posters, we are mainly thinking of the period from 1950s throughout the 1980s, but Polish poster had always been our forte, ever since this new mass produced art form started spreading throughout Europe. Between 1870-1890, when artists such as Jules Chéret and Hénri Toulouse-Lautrec were famous in France, Polish artists turned to poster design, inspired by folk art, panneau and stained glass art. Typography, traditionally placed either at the bottom or at the top of the image, became its part. Influenced by Art Nouveau, Fauvism, Bauhaus, Art Deco, motion film, etc., Polish posters were getting increasingly more and more sophisticated and experimental, reaching a very high level of quality in the 1930s, with frivolity and hedonistic accents becoming the landmarks of the period.
Among the most famous Polish, many belong to the art sector: film, theatre, art exhibition. And they really are quite spectacular. In an article for The Guardian about Polish Cinema, Martin Scorsese wrote: „This unique perspective stretches even to the movie posters. I own quite a few myself. They can seem odd to non-Polish viewers. Sometimes you look at them and wonder: what bearing does this image have on this picture? And then you see that there’s a rare place for cinema in the culture itself, because the relationship between the films and their posters is so unique. Most often, they capture the concept of the film itself.”
But the Just After the War exhibition focuses on a different topic present in the poster art in the early 50s: political propaganda. After the war, poster art became a canvas for political agenda. Mariusz Knorowski writes on the Poster Museum website that “The Communist party steered the monopolized system of information (…) and effectively enforced an aesthetic conformism. (…) Art was supposed to be “national in form and socialistic in content”. This meant a return to the mimetic, narrative tradition, which illustrated the “correctness” of the historical process and other ideological dogmas.” Before the socialist realism agenda got abandoned, artists, who had been denied the right for an independent interpretation, had to find a visual way to convey the message without succumbing to vulgarity.
I am familiar with many of those posters, but it always strikes me how visually sophisticated and stunning images were made to represent a malfunctioning and oppressive ideology. Some of the ideas, when we look at the posters now, can easily seem offensive to our sense of freedom, but we can’t deny their beauty and praise their authors. The destructions of the war (80% of Warsaw was in ruins) meant that people had to live in a spectacularly bleak and depressing surroundings, as war-torn cities were slowly rebuilt. The colourful and striking posters challenged that bleakness and brought beauty to the street kiosks, posts, building walls and fences. Their use of symbolism, metaphor and metonymy was clever and brave, as the artists were trying to keep in line with the official guidelines, whilst making their posters more about the beauty of the form than the ideology.