Film poster art from Poland has a unique cache around the world. There was a reason it was so refreshingly out of the ordinary...
In 1987 Polish graphic artist Wiktor Sadowski designed a poster to advertise the exhibition of Pakistani craft at the Museum of Asia and Pacific in Warsaw (see below). Pakistan is represented in this poster by a mysterious pastel geisha-Buddha hybrid — one can only speculate why. But this surreal interpretation was par for the course for Polish poster designers living under communist rule, who paradoxically enjoyed a freedom of imagination and expression unmatched by most graphic art designers around the world.
This is the reason Polish posters — for films, theatre and exhibitions — are considered to have their own artistic identity, have a significant cult following around the world and have become hot collectors’ items.
Suppose a film could be told in a single still. In these stills, the famous Polish film posters sought to capture the ambience of motion pictures rather than market their action or stars. They were not graphic trailers yet they stood on their own as artistic commentaries, often as interpretations of a film. A notable example is Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane from the late 1940s, at the beginning of what we call the ‘Polish school of poster art.’ It was designed by one of the school’s finest representatives, Henryk Tomaszewski. He transferred into graphics the close-up type of shot — a technique which Orson Welles reintroduced to cinematography — so that the poster also gives the very feeling of Wellesian nervous fast cutting: two stills straight from the editing table, straight from the scene where newspapers are printed with Kane’s front page portrait. It is a metaphor of fame which has been copied from Welles in every second Hollywood production.
In the 1950s, socialist realism had already consumed Poland. Forms of artistic expression were overcome by a tawdry and monotonous vision of art serving the ideology. This did not happen entirely without the consent of Polish artists; in fact, many of them — and not just the mediocre ones — went with the flow of political events. Those who refused would face the hardship of having their works banned or censored and they were often forced to take up random, inferior, non-artistic jobs.
Film poster art did not comply with the aesthetical poverty of socialist realism. Standard posters of the era were a propaganda tool for either bashing the imperialist West and all class enemies, or for praising heroes who produced more bricks than others, ladies who excelled in tractor-riding, and esteemed comrades who were rarely capable of constructing a correct compound sentence in their mother tongue. Film posters could not fit into those categories — they had to relate to the films. Somehow this obvious distinction created a haven for a group of artists whose posters were essentially paintings or graphics to which films served as inspiration and excuse.
While the dominant ideological realm sought to cripple individuality, film poster art, on the contrary, gave it unbridled space to flourish. The poster artists can be immediately recognised from their works: Jan Lenica, Franciszek Starowieyski, Wiktor Sadowski, Stasys Eidrigeviius, to name only a few, are perfectly distinct in style and technique. Jan Lenica was the first one who, in the late 1950s, introduced his very own and outstanding touch to poster art. He experimented with collage and line engraving — it was always cutting lines, as in the poster for Roman Polaski’s first feature-length film, Knife in the Water.
Franciszek Starowieyski is even more striking with heavily sexualised, curvy, almost palpable shapes. His posters, such as the one for Luis Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, are often labelled as surreal. They provoke a symbolic interpretation, although the symbols might not have been used expressly or were not intended. Don’t we get the same feeling from Buñuel?
Peter Weir’s works were covered by Wiktor Sadowski. His most famous poster for Picnic at Hanging Rock beautifully keeps the mystery and obscurity of the visuals. Similarly, in other films where mood of narration was more significant than the storyline, poster artists could play the game of metaphor as much as the directors did. See the works of Stasys Eidrigeviius: his poster of Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Mirror alludes to dream sequences in the film. In the poster, a bird connects two sides of a mirror; in the film, a young lonely boy releases a bird, which returns to him when he is an older ailing man.
The Polish school of film posters has become an artistic phenomenon. It was indeed something different. Jan Lenica recalled years ago: “It was original for we were cut off from the world, it did not resemble anything, we did not see much, we acted on our own.”
We are no longer cut off and we are free to look beyond the political borders for any kind of inspiration. Since the 1990s, when the Polish market opened for the international flow of everything, films and posters have been arriving straight from the distributors who dictate how they wish to advertise their products. But advertisement was not the aim of the great film poster designers. Now that many of them are gone, their works continue to dazzle, here and beyond the borders. And they continue to be not mere advertisements but stories, artistic commentaries, whole films told and reviewed through a single still.