Before the era of globalized entertainment made movie posters look the same in every country, Polish artists were creating their own versions for the internal market. What resulted was a whole school of artists trained in the art of the poster. This article presents a short historical look at how this movement was born and how it developed, form its art-related beginnings at the end of the 19th Century to the golden era of the film posters throughout the 20th Century.
Toward the end of the 19th Century Poland was still absent from the maps. Its territory was split and controlled by Russia, Austria and Prussia. While Warsaw, then under Russian rule, was the biggest economic, trade and industrial center of the non-existent country, Krakow, under the less oppressive Austria, soon established itself as a cradle for artistic, cultural, scientific, political and religious life, becoming the ideal capital of the nation.
Krakow was populated by writers, poets and artists who had travelled Europe and had come in contact with the modernist cultural trends of the time. The poster had just been born in France at the hand of Jules Chéret following the invention of color lithography. Influenced by the achievements of the French masters of this new art form, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec above all, these Polish artists chose the poster as the new medium of expression. They were well respected, connected with the Academy Of Fine Arts and members of the Society of Polish Artists “Sztuka” (Art). The poster thus became acceptable as a form of art.
The first Polish posters appeared in the 1890′s at the hand of outstanding painters like Jozef Mehoffer, Stanislaw Wyspianski, Karol Frycz, Kazimierz Sichulski and Wojciech Weiss. Influenced by the Jugendstil and the Secessionist movements, understandably they painted posters that were art-related, announcing exhibitions, theater and ballet performances. Their work was vastly popular, which led to the first International Exposition of the Poster being held in Krakow in 1898.
Jugendstil, Secession, Japanism and modernist styles like Cubism were mixed with traditional elements of symbolism and national folklore. What set the Polish posters apart from their European counterparts was the emphasis placed on the highly artistic quality of the project, an attitude that will continue to characterize the Polish poster throughout the 20th century.
Jozef Mehoffer – Furniture Lottery for Matejko’s House (1899)
Edward Trojanowski – Print Exhibition (1904)
Jozef Czajkowski – 1st Exhibition of the Polish Company of Applied Art (1902)
Karol Frycz – Rolling papers advertisement (1908)
Wojciech Jastrzebowski – Swoszowice Health resort near Krakow (1907). A fine example of Japanism.
Jozef Mehoffer – Contemporary Art Exhibition (1910)
Kazimierz Sichulski – Contemporary Polish Exhibition of Architecture, Sculpture and Painting (1910)
Jan Bulas – Symphonic Concert (1910). A poster inspired by Expressionism.
Henryk Kunzek – Forward (1910)
Jozef Czajkowski – Interior architecture exhibition (1912)
Jan Rembowski – First Spring Salon (1914)
Jan Wdowiszewski from 1891 to 1904 was the director of the Technical Industrial Museum in Krakow. He was the organizer of the International Poster Exhibition in 1898, for which he wrote two essays, the first of their kind, entirely devoted to the art of the poster. He immediately recognized the power of the poster to act like a mirror for society’s physical and mental way of life. This was especially true of the exhibition posters, which promptly reflected every trend and influence coming from the West. The strong drive to promote the national style, as a means to a true political independence, was also faithfully recorded in the street art.
Stefan Norblin and the Touristic Poster
The period between the two World Wars sees Poland finally reappearing on the maps. The twenty years of independence are marked by a stunning growth in all industries. Tourism, especially, is at its height. Stefan Norblin is appointed to create a series of posters with the intent of promoting Poland as a tourist resort.
First and foremost a painter rooted in the school of realistic representation, Norblin approaches the poster the way he approaches the canvas. He makes use of obvious imagery to secure immediate reading from the viewer. Although characterized by recognizable forms and silhouettes, his works remain stunning for the stark choice of “neon” colors. They are not of an Expressionist nature but they create an irreal atmosphere around familiar objects. This and the minimalist style confer his posters a timeless quality.
Sale for the poor (1916)
Polska (Poland), 1925
Lwow (Lviv), 1928
Wilno (Vilnius), 1928
Poland – Divine Service at Lowicz (1925)
“Peasants!!! Support the national contemporary exhibition!!!” (1929)
Tadeusz Gronowski: Father of the Polish Poster
After the First World War Poland finally gained independence (1918). With it came a rapid process of industrialization and development of trade. The market was suddently saturated with different products hence the need for powerful advertising. The poster became its medium of choice. The advertising poster of the 1920′s and 1930′s differs from its highly elaborated artistic predecessors in that it utilises a simpler, more direct visual language to communicate with the viewer.
This was a requirement of the market made possible by Cubism, a style that forever freed art from beauty and ugliness, from the necessity to imitate nature. Architects, especially students from Warsaw University, were the most receptive creators of posters during this period. They were not weighed down by the academic ballast as were the painters of the previous generation. They were naturally inclined to apply the rules of geometry to commercial uses. It is among these students that we find the figure of Tadeusz Gronowski.
A gifted student, Gronowski was the first to specialize in poster art. Influenced by European art movements (he was well connected in Paris in the Twenties) he singlehandedly created the art of the Polish poster. Catering to the new necessities with which graphic art was confronted, advertising, he took advantage of the full spectrum of techniques available to the artist at the time to create the most striking advertisements of the period. His work shows a transition to the newest tool, the airbrush, resulting in softer lines and backgrounds. His advertising posters remain a milestone in the development of what came to be known as the School of the Polish poster.
In contrast to Stefan Norblin, Gronowski, himself an accomplished painter, approaches the poster as a medium unto itself. Instead of merely adapting his painterly style to the poster format, he sees in it the opportunity to create something new, indeed a new form of artistic expression. He is one of the first artists to consciously integrate the typography with the illustration and instead of choosing the obvious he offers the viewer a different look into the subject, often displaying a penchant for the light and the humorous which endeared him to the viewers.
The next image portrays one of his earliest works. Even though the text is not incorporated in the image, the composition is clear. The cat and the artist’s faint smile add his trademark touch of humor to the painting.
Artistic Lithography (1920)
A true master of the advertising poster, Gronowski blends the mundane with the artistic in a seamless composition.
S.A. Staporkow (1924). The radiator as architecture on a modern industrial background.
Ceres Lard “To die for…” (1926)
Gronowski founded his own studio in Warsaw and aptly named it Plakat, i.e. Poster.
Poster for his own studio “Plakat” (1925)
The next poster is particularly important in Gronowski’s production. An advertisement for a washing product named Radion, its slogan reads “It washes by itself.” The artwork is minimalistic and to the point: a black cat enters a bucket full of Radion and jumps out all white. A clear message amplified by the stark chromatic contrast and the essential lines.
Radion “It washes by itself” (1926)
The next pieces exemplify the evolution towards integrated designs. The typography is part of the composition.
Literary News (1925)
Oaza Restaurant Dancing (1926)
KAGR – Circle of Advertising Graphic Artists (1936)
Marine Baths in Gdynia (1938). Gronowski’s rendition of the touristic poster.
1st Polish Peace Congress (1950)
The Warsaw Architects
Gronowski’s work was continued into the Thirties by a group of architects educated in Warsaw under professors Zygmunt Kaminski and Edmund Bartlomiejczyk. At the University they learned to master the techniques of applied graphics. Architecture was seen as the Gesamtkunstwerk, the total artwork, the summation of all arts applied to a specific, practical function. Their hands-on approach lent itself beautifully in their transition from architects to graphic artists.
Responsible for this transition were economic reasons but also the will to work for contemporary society, which poster art was capable of immortalizing faithfully. Incidentally, these are the same reasons that today drive budding architects to graphic design: creating applied art with fast job turnarounds and satisfying economic turnover.
These architects turned graphic artists took Tadeusz Gronowski’s approach forward, combining it with a sense of composition and proportion naturally derived from their architectural background. Not only did they incorporate three-dimensionality in their works, they also adapted their style to the subject of the given poster, for example using a precise linework for posters depicting mechnical parts, humorous figures for posters depicting ballets and festive occasions and striking, dynamic compositions to illustrate sports events. Their work marks the transition of the Polish poster from narrative medium of the 19th century to modern advertising device of the 20th century.
Jan Mucharski – Dorm Week (1927)
Jerzy Hryniewiecki, Andrzej Stypinski – Eastern Trade Fair (1930)
Maciej Nowicki, Stanislawa Sandecka – Everyone Fight Against Tuberculosis (1934)
Maciej Nowicki, Stanislawa Sandecka – 2nd Meeting of Polish Youth from Abroad (1935)
Stefan Osiecki – The Lopek Dancing(1935)
The Propaganda Posters
After World War II Poland found itself under Communist rule. The new government needed to spread the new aesthetics and make the new institutions acceptable to the public. With that goal in mind the Propaganda Poster Studio was established in the city of Lublin.
Wlodzimerz Zakrzewski was a talented landscape painter and active member of the Communist Party who had studied painting in Moscow in 1940 and had designed posters for the Soviet Propaganda. He was therefore the perfect candidate to run the Studio. The military introduced patterns of representation borrowed from the Soviet poster tradition, propaganda graphics connected with the TASS, the Telegraphic Agency of the Soviet Union. Zakrzewski was given a list of catchphrases assigned to the propaganda. His task was to devise graphical rules to create a working method for propaganda posters.
Zakrzewski aimed to introduce a new visual language by basing his colorful images on verified patterns borrowed from the stylizations learned in Russia. He also acted as mentor to a number of what were, in fact, unprofessional poster artists. This experience marks the first time poster art was institutionalized in Poland, giving birth to the proper phenomenon that followed, the “Polish Poster School.”
The Propaganda Poster Workshop in Lublin. Wlodzimierz Zakrzewski sitting left. (1944)
Mieczyslaw Tomkiewicz – Poster designs for the workshop (1945)
Wlodzimierz Zakrzewski – “What the soldier wins by fighting the peasant will plow” (1944)
Wlodzimierz Zakrzewski – “Where Hitler sets foot the earth dies…” (1945)
Wlodzimierz Zakrzewski – The giant and the disgusting reactionary dwarf (1946)
Wlodzimierz Zakrzewski – Party (1955)
The 50′s and the 60′s: The Golden Age
The Fifties and the early Sixties mark the Golden Age of the Polish poster. Like everything else, the film industry was controlled by the state. There were two main institutions responsible for commissioning poster designs: Film Polski (Polish Film) and Centrala Wynajmu Filmow – CWF (Movie Rentals Central). They commissioned not graphic designers but artists and as such each one of them brought an individual voice to the designs.
The School of the Polish Poster is therefore not unified but rather diverse in terms of style. It wasn’t until the Mid-Fifities, though, that the school flourished. The fierce Stalinist rule had been lifted, once again leaving room for artistic expression. The classic works were created in the next ten years. Three important remarks must be made. First, at the time the poster was basically the only allowed form of individual artistic expression.
Second, the state wasn’t concerned much with how the posters looked. Third, the fact that the industry was state-controlled turned out to be a blessing in disguise: working outside the commercial constraints of a capitalist economy, the artists could fully express their potential. They had no other choice but to become professional poster designers and that’s why they devoted themselves so thoroughly to this art.
The Polish film poster is artist-driven, not studio-driven. It is more akin to fine art than commercial art. It is painterly rather than graphic. What sets the Polish poster apart from what we’re used to see in the West is a general disregard for the demands of the big studios. The artists requested and received complete artistic freedom and created powerful imagery inspired by the movies without actually showing them: no star headshots, no movie stills, no necessary direct connection to the title.
They are in this regard similar to the work of Saul Bass, a rare example of a Hollywood artist who enjoyed total freedom from the studios. Next to a typical Hollywood film poster with the giant headshots of the latest movie star and the title set in, you guessed it, Trajan Pro, the Polish film poster still looks fresh and inspiring today.
Without further analyzing a history that is best told in pictures let’s take a look at some of the many classic works created by the likes of Wiktor Gorka, Eryk Lipinski, Marek Mosinski, Jan Lenica, Jerzy Flisak and others.
1966 – “Kaidan”, Japan 1964. Directed by Masaki Kobayashi.
1967 – “Cat Ballou”, US 1965. Directed by Elliot Silverstein.
1968 – “The Professionals”, US 1966. Directed by Richard Brooks.
1969 – “Deadlier Than the Male”, UK 1966. Directed by Ralph Thomas.
1958 – “Three Men in the Snow”, Austria 1955. Directed by Kurt Hoffmann.
1958 – “Pane, amore e..”, Italy 1955. Directed by Dino Risi.
1959 – “Rancho Texas”, Poland 1959. Directed by Wadim Berestowski. The first Polish western!
1959 – “Roman Holiday”, US 1953. Directed by William Wyler.
1962 – “The Hitman”, Italy 1960. Directed by Damiano Damiani.
1965 – “Mr Hobbs Takes a Vacation”, US 1962. Directed by Henry Koster.
1967 – “Zwariowana Noc”, Poland 1967. Directed by Zbigniew Kuzminski.
1968 – “The Firemen’s Ball”, Czechoslovakia 1967. Directed by Milos Forman.
1957 – “Kanal”, Poland 1956. Directed by Andrzej Wajda.
1957 – “Il Bidone”, Italy 1955. Directed by Federico Fellini.
1958 – “The Deadly Invention”, Czechoslovakia 1958. Directed by Karel Zeman.
1962 – “Knife in the Water”, Poland. Directed by Roman Polanski.
1962 – “L’Avventura”, Italy – France 1960. Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni.
1965 – “The Visit”, Germany 1964. Directed by Bernhard Wicki.
1948 – “Uliczna Graniczna”, Poland. Directed by Aleksander Ford.
1955 – “One Sunday Morning”, Poland 1953. Directed by Andrzej Munk.
1958 – “Le Notti di Cabiria”, Italy 1957. Directed by Federico Fellini.
1961 – “Me and the Colonel”, US 1958. Directed by Peter Glenville.
1966 – “Le Soldatesse”, Italy/Yugoslavia/West Germany 1965. Directed by Valerio Zurlini.
1968 – “Les Tontons flingueurs”, France 1963. Directed by Georges Lautner.
1968 – “King Kong Escapes”, Japan 1967. Directed by Inoshiro Honda.
1972 – “Infanzia, vocazione e primo esperienze di Giacomo Casanova, veneziano”, Italy 1969. Directed by Luigi Comencini
Hubert Hilscher, 1957 – “The Man with the Golden Key”, France 1956. Directed by Leo Joannon.
Leszek Holdanowicz, 1966 – “Bariera”, Poland. Directed by Jerzy Skolimowski.
Waldemar Swierzy, 1957 – “Sunset Boulevard”, US 1950. Directed by Billy Wilder.
Wojciech Wenzel, 1959 – “Shane”, US 1953. Directed by George Stevens.
Maciej Hibner, 1962 – “Pickpocket”, France 1959. Directed by Robert Bresson.
Maciej Hibner, 1963 – “Two Way Stretch”, US 1960. Directed by Robert Day.
Bronislaw Zelek, 1965 – “The Birds”, US 1963. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock.
Franciszek Starowieyski, 1967 – “A Woman Is a Woman”, France 1961. Directed by Jean-Luc Godard.
Bohdan Butenko, 1968 – “One Million Years B.C.”, UK 1966. Directed by Don Chaffey.
The 70′s and the 80′s: Decadence and Death
The School had its peak in the Mid-Sixties and during the following decade declined, much like art and advertising in the rest of the world. A few examples of posters from the Seventies follow.
1973 – “2001 : A Space Odyssey”, US 1968. Directed by Stanley Kubrick.
1973 – “Cabaret”, US 1972. Directed by Bob Fosse.
1976 – “We Were So in Love”, Italy 1974. Directed by Ettore Scola.
1977 – “Marathon Man”, US 1976. Directed by John Schlesinger.
1971 – “Playtime”, France 1967. Directed by Jacques Tati.
1972 – “Sacco e Vanzetti”, Italy 1971. Directed by Giuliano Montaldo.
1973 – “El Dorado”, US 1967. Directed by Howard Hawks.
1973 – “Morgiana”, Czechoslovakia 1972. Directed by Juraj Herz.
1978 – “Brutti, sporchi e cattivi”, Italy 1976. Directed by Ettore Scola.
1970 – “Nie ma powrotu Johnny”, North Vietnam/Poland. Directed by Kaveh Pur Rahnama.
1970 – “Az Ido Ablakai”, Hungary 1969. Directed by Tamas Fejer.
1972 – “Sea in the fire”, Soviet Union 1971. Directed by Leon Saakow.
1975 – “The Day of the Jackal”, UK 1973. Directed by Fred Zinnemann.
The Eighties were marked by society’s strong opposition to the increasingly oppressive Communist rule, exemplified by the Solidarnosc movement. Poster art quietly dwindled through the decade. After 1989, when film distribution was privatized, it died.
Nowadays alternative film posters are created by numerous artists as exercise and showcase of their abilities. Such posters are typically printed in small runs and viewed and sold exclusively in art galleries.
Posters are very important in the Polish culture. During the Communist regime they were probably the only colorful things one would see in the streets.
A small but dedicated market for Polish posters has emerged over the years. Driven by more than just nostalgia, its aim is the preservation of what is both testament of a cultural heritage largely unknown outside its borders and an immense source of inspiration for today’s young artists. These collectibles are not available in huge numbers but, due to their being relatively unknown, don’t command high prices yet.
Here’s a list of online sources to browse and even buy Polish posters. The stores are not listed for advertising purposes but rather because they provide picture galleries with details for each item.
- Wilanow Poster Museum
The first Poster Museum in the world, opened in 1968 as a branch of the National Museum in Warsaw.
- Krakow Poster Gallery
A small gallery located in downtown Krakow. Despite its size it has an impressive collection of originals and reprints.
- The Art of Poster
Poster gallery located in Warsaw.
- Poster Gallery at Antykwariat Rara Avis
Poster gallery from a recent auction. It features some well known and rare pieces.
- Classic Polish Film Posters
Probably the biggest online collection of film posters. The gallery is well organized and includes very detailed information about each artwork. Invaluable resource. Most of the images and film data in the article come from this site.
- Polish Poster Shop
A very thorough catalog with many artists.
- Cine-Images Gallery – Movie Posters
A decent collection of posters, mostly from the ’70s.
- Film posters typeset in Trajan
For comparison purposes. A collection of movie posters in the Hollywood studio tradition: big star headshots, predictable composition and typography. This type of poster has replaced the artistic output of the past decades.
- Rene Wanner’s Poster Page
This gallery contains various collections og graphic design artists, among them are also Polish artists and designers.
A few bibliographical references.
- Piotr Rudzinski, curator “Pierwsze polwiecze polskiego plakatu 1900-1950″ (2009) A collection of essays by various authors about the development of the Polish poster. The emphasis is on the first half of the 20th Century. The essays are veru well researched and read like master’s degree papers. Includes many of the posters presented in this article.
- Anna Agnieszka Szablowska “Tadeusz Gronowski – sztuka plakatu i reklamy” (2005) A monography of the master. Includes 189 eproduction of his works.
- Krzysztof and Agnieszka Dydo “PL21, The Polish Poster of the 21st Century” (2008) A book about the contemporary poster scene. Created by the owners of the Krakow Poster Gallery.
About the author
Andrea Austoni is an Italian freelance designer currently living in Krakow, Poland. He specializes in icon design and illustration. He runs Cute Little Factory, his personal portfolio and blog.