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Bez Twarzy, 2001.
Poster to Face Off
by John Woo (1997). 35.5"x27"
© Wieslaw Walkuski 2001


April 26 - May 30, 2002
Fri-Wed: 11:00-4:00 PM

The Polish Museum of America
984 North Milwaukee Avenue
Chicago, Illinois 60622
Tel: 773/ 384-3352

Part I:
An Overview

First, catch the eye -- the heart and mind will then catch on. The test of graphic art is that it have effect, prompt a closer look, and then convey a point. That is no small achievement. When it really works, it lingers: art we remember. "American Films in Polish Posters" offers unforgettable proof. This exhibition is on display at the Polish Museum of America, Chicago, from April 26 through May 30, 2002. There are nearly a hundred posters from the collection of Piotr Dabrowski and Agnieszka Kulon, directors of The Art of Poster Gallery, Warsaw, Poland. The works are selected from over 700 Polish movie posters made to American films. This show is worth a special trip.

"American Films in Polish Posters" presents work from 1947 through 2001. The forty-seven featured artists expanded and applied the vocabularies of graphic design, folk art, historical image, and, especially, numerous Modernisms: Cubism, Constructivism, Expressionism, Futurism, Surrealism, Pop Art. Ironically, tragic wartime losses, of artists, patrons, and institutions; re-examination of continuing art legacies; a subsequent political and societal oppressiveness under Soviet-imposed Marxism... all conspired as much toward great achievements as the restless creativity and sheer talent of the artists. In his essay for the exhibition catalogue, Piotr Dabrowski recalled:

The early post war years were the period of friction between two currents in Polish poster art. On one side, a group of graphic artists of the older (pre-war) generation who wanted to return to the realistic manner of prewar poster art, and on the other side, a group of younger artists, influenced by persons from the only centralized postwar institution dealing with the distribution of films throughout Poland, "Film Polski," began to design posters radically different from those published until then.

A very new and different art world emerged. Polish art historian, Zdzislaw Schubert, described these latter, younger artists:

They had been educated after the war and were unburdened by experiences of the interwar period. They had no professional training in poster design: they had been educated mainly as painters, sometimes architects. This made them tend to translate what they had learned in their studies to their poster work.

Bulwar zachodzacego slonca,
1957. Poster to Sunset Boulevard
by Billy Wilder (1950).
© Waldemar Swierzy 1957
Nocny Kowboy, 1973.
Poster to Midnight Cowboy
by John Schlesinger (1969).
© Waldemar Swierzy 1973

Among the foremost of that early wave were Henryk Tomaszewski, Tadeusz Trepkowski; and Eryk Lipinski, who, as noted in this show's catalogue, demanded complete artistic freedom, declaring: "...any self-respecting graphic artist does not do film posters." Of that generation (rapidly shedding realistic styles), one recognizes individuals now acclaimed in Poland and beyond: Roman Cieslewicz, Jan Lenica, Jan Mlodozeniec, Franciszek Starowieyski, Wlademar Swierzy. To some degree, "American Films in Polish Posters" is hung chronologically. (Many earliest posters are grouped in the left, central panel enclave.) This early wave is represented by first-rate pieces in this show.

Numerous scholars note three major generations of development in postwar Polish poster art, but together with small circles and maverick individuals, all are lumped as a distinctive "School of the Polish Poster." In reality, it was not so much a school, as a diverse flowering which shared common cause and circumstance, aberrant restraints; and yet: respect, wide interest, and peculiar opportunities. It flourished under an ideological system. Consumerism and Capitalism were virulently condemned, and 'sex appeal' virtually banned: By Free World standards... unliveable constraints. (In the years 1949-1957, American films even vanished -- totally -- from Polish screens.) Here, a renaissance of quality was forged by conflict: between each individual's desire to question and explore, and The State's pressure to conform and be used; between the artist's experiments and the demands of communication. "American Films in Polish Posters" offers a historical overview of evolving graphic history; personal styles; an art for the streets, mentored by painting and the artist print. Throughout the Polish Museum of America's exhibit hall there is stimulating color, concept, form and function, the image and the word: "American Films in Polish Posters."

Art historian, Alan M. Fern, in his book Word and Image (MOMA:1968), praised the postwar Polish poster:

...the quality of imagery, draughtsmanship, simplicity, and free association of visual motifs is unique; Polish designers have explored the possibilities of freely designed letters and informal calligraphy more thoroughly than anyone else.

Fern felt that much Polish poster art seemed "more closely related to Savignac than to the Bauhaus," asserting that many of these artists turned from "the niceties of geometric organization, or suiting their designs to machine production." He concluded that:

... their art comes out of a vital tradition of book illustration and painting, rather than from industrial design or architecture. It can also be related to the growth of the film art in recent years, and to a lively teaching in the many art schools in Poland.

Earlier, for historical reasons, many Polish artists had been deeply involved in the Russian avant-garde. Others at the same time monitored Munich and Parisian art centers. However, for most, the 'current realities' after World War II offered possibilities for -- demanded -- a break with art idioms that were becoming mainstream and doctrinaire. Equally, the protocols of profit were contraband by State decree.

Steven Heller, editor of the American Institute of Graphic Design's AIGA Journal of Graphic Design, summarized all that meant:

Americans understood, of course, that these images mostly for cultural events did not have to sell to specific demographically identified consumer groups, or please the chairmen of major corporations, or appeal to the special interests. But they did have to transcend (and fool) a regime that was suspicious of individual expression. In this way, Polish poster artists overcame some remarkable challenges and American designers looked enviously and admiringly to the Polish poster.

For decades, despite an exceptional few such as Push Pin Studios, Paul Rand, and Herb Lubalin, American graphic art and design remained conventional and narrowly utilitarian. Yet, as Heller further observed, the Polish art poster ultimately had a profound, invigorating influence in the United States:

It wasn't until 1970, with the launch of The New York Times Op-Ed Page, that a Polish poster vocabulary seeped into American design and illustration. The Times wanted to innovate a new illustration style -- a more cerebral, symbolic, metaphoric approach -- and rather than create something from whole cloth, it borrowed and reinterpreted for newspapers what the Polish artists had done for posters. Surrealism and fantasy were used as a means to comment on political and social issues without being literal -- and without hitting the audience over the head.

Kabaret, 1973
Poster to Cabaret
by Bob Fosse (1972). 33"x23"
© Wiktor Gorka 1973
Klute, 1973
Poster to Klute
by Jan A. Pakula (1971). 32"x22"
© Jan Mlodozeniec 1973

The 1950s and 1960s represented a peak for Polish poster art, although it continued to innovate and produce surprising images well into the 1980s. Zdzislaw Schubert saw that period as the height of painterly poster art, but observed a parallel appearance of excellent work as a reaction against it, and in such work he underscored "...a preference for modest handling of color, a resignation from the use of color masses for their brightness values, the use of blocked arrangements of lettering from printer's fonts." Schubert devoted particular praise to Bronislaw Zelek, represented in this exhibition by Ptaki (1965) for Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds (1963), and Zabic Drozda (1965) for Robert Mulligan's To Kill a Mockingbird (1962). Zelek's Zbieg z Alcatraz (1970) for John Boorman's Point Blank (1967) confirms the potency of that contemporary. A terse visual asceticism and strong compositional use of typography distinguishes work by Leszek Holdanowicz and in this showing his Incydent (1970) for Larry Peerce's 1970 film is immediate, striking. Another artist exemplifying such newer trends was Marian Freudenreich. His Ameryka, Ameryka (1965), for Elia Kazan's 1963 film, is on display here. Freudenreich's Msciciel (1975) (Polish for avenger), a poster for Clint Eastwood's High Plains Drifter (1973), is equally engaging.

New approaches and greater strengths appeared in the mid-Sixties -- despite the influx of foreign Pop and Neo-Secession (revival Art Nouveau) trends, although at the time these appeared a seductive threat, a crisis. Zdzislaw Schubert asserted:

Many artists could not adapt to the new situation. They either continued an already ossified formula or they unreflectively adopted motifs drawn from pop art or, more precisely, from re-workings of comic-book style. Our poster art was threatened with the loss of its native identity, crucial to its world standing. Only the strongest individuals managed to survive this critical moment, weaving together new impulses with their previous experiences and tradition.

Ptaki, 1965
Poster to The Birds
by Alfred Hitchcock (1963). 33"x23"
© Bronislaw Zelek 1965

The 1970s witnessed the full maturity of Polish mastery in this artform. Polish art historian, Krzysztof Dydo, names among this poster art's middle generation: Jerzy Czerniawski and Eugeniusz Get Stankiewicz. These artists, who came to the fore during the Seventies, often typify the modern Polish poster for many throughout the world today. At this time, a new life came to this artform; much of it driven by highly gifted art academy professors such as Mieczyslaw Gorowski, Lech Majewski, Grzegorz Marszalek, Marian Nowinski, Wladyslaw Pluta, and Mieczyslaw Wasilewski. There are particularly fine pieces by Marszalek and Wasilewski included in "American Films in Polish Posters" at the Polish Museum of America exhibition.

Krzysztof Dydo lists among the Polish art poster's youngest wave several, well-noted in the United States: Stasys Eigrigevicius, Roman Kalarus, Tadeusz Piechura, Wieslaw Rosocha, Wiktor Sadowski, Leszek Zebrowski, and Wieslaw Walkuski. Four Walkuski posters are in this exhibition: (Bez Twarzy (Face Off) begins this review). Wiktor Sadowski's 1985 poster for Woody Allen's Zelig (1983) seems almost a symbol for this generation -- a concrete, deceptively figurative image, a painterly Surrealism, turns disturbingly toward a philosophic or metaphysical debate with our words for actualities. If observers of the Polish art scene had misgivings that the politically turbulent years from 1980 to 1995 would weaken the artists' inspirations and focus, it cannot seem likely. Even the lure of work abroad, or a new, aggressive consumer society at home, may not subvert the future of Polish poster art. A viewer only hopes that commercial films, particularly from the U.S., offer enough substance and depth. There are signs that current posters can sustain, perhaps even advance, the work as represented here in "American Films in Polish Posters."

"American Films in Polish Posters" ... at the Polish Museum of America, Chicago, from April 26 through May 30, 2002 ... Posters from the collection of Piotr Dabrowski and Agnieszka Kulon/The Art of Poster Gallery.

A 32-page color catalogue for this exhibition contains 93 entries (less than those on exhibition), and 45 full-color illustrations, with a very informative essay by Piotr Dabrowski. The catalogue was sponsored by the Consulate General of the Republic of Poland in Chicago, and at ten dollars a copy, it is an excellent resource and a bargain. The posters are from The Art of Poster Gallery, ulica Przasnyska 14 m. 1, 01-756 Warsaw, Poland. (U.S.A. Tel./Fax: 773 252-6604). Their website is: http://theartofposter.com

Finis Part I:

--G. Jurek Polanski

Jurek Polanski has previously written and art edited for Strong Coffee in Chicago. He's also well known and respected among the Chicago museums and galleries. Jurek is currently a Visual Arts Correspondent for ArtScope.net.

Editorial Note: Books mentioned in www.artscope.net are often in print and may be purchased through this site's Amazon.com link. Alan M. Fern is quoted from Word and Image: Posters from the Collection of The Museum of Modern Art (The Museum of Modern Art/distributed by New York Graphic Society Ltd:1968). An excellent 239-page, well-illustrated reference (in Polish, English, and German) is Krzysztof Dydo's Masters of Polish Poster Art (Mistzrowie Polskiej Sztuki Plakatu) (Bielsko-Biala:Buffi:1995). Art historian, Zdzislaw Schubert, and Steven Heller are quoted from essays in this book. Heller is senior art director of The New York Times Book Review, editor of the AIGA Journal of Graphic Design, and has authored or edited over thirty books on graphic design. A twenty-page catalogue with color illustrations, Masters of the Polish Poster, was published by the Chicago Department of Cultural affairs for an exhibition at the Chicago Cultural Center in June, 1996. Of further interest is Contemporary Polish Posters in Full Color by Joseph S. Czestochowski (Dover:1979). A further wide selection of Polish posters, arranged alphabetically by artist as well as by theme, may be viewed at http://www.mrposter.com/aindex.html. Also of interest is http://www.contemporaryposters.com.

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