The Poster in Poland

“The Polish poster is one of the most interesting and at the same time most complex phenomena encountered in the contemporary art of the country. It can only be properly understood if we realize that its development is taking place in a society in which commercial advertising and competition are practically non-existent. Although the last few years have seen a growth of interest in the well-being of the individual and in the modern technologies typical of a consumer society, the basic character of Polish life is still determined by the pursuance of a state economic policy, including a planning programme directed towards the fulfillment of existing needs rather than towards the stimulation of new appetites and demands.

Seen against this background, the poster – historically a further development of the commercial advertisement – evidently holds an unusual and, paradoxically enough, very promising position in Poland. Its evolution here began not before the Second World War, as a result of the mechanisms of a competitive society, but in the years following the end of the war, in the social and economic conditions just described.

Consequently the poster took on a new function, connected not with competition but with service. If the Polish poster has one distinguishing mark, it is probably its conception as a service to society, within the framework of which individual experimentation can go forward.

Naturally, the main field for this type of activity is not the market-place but artistic and cultural life conceived as part of a larger social education. The art of the poster in Poland is dominated by intellectual and formal trends derived from the films, plays, music and other cultural manifestations which the posters advertise. Political and social themes take second place, with commercial interests – at their best – coming a poor third.

But the subject-matter is not the only decisive factor. The real originality of the Polish poster lies in its approach. Its purpose is not only to encourage the public to attend cultural performances, but also to supply a creative interpretation of the dramatic works or musical compositions concerned. Polish film, theatre and concert posters are meant to be looked at after as well as before the performance, since they not only invite the active emotional and intellectual participation of the audience but also add a graphic commentary. The artist is in fact trying to lay bare the hidden essence of the work, to place it in its stylistic and historical context, to create around it an atmosphere of intellectual adventure.

This philosophy of the poster, which seems to be common to most Polish artists today despite the differences of their styles, has certain consequences in the graphic domain. Critics of the Polish poster used to say that it was much nearer to the painting than its counterparts in other countries. Rich and subtle in its colours, expansive rather than restricted to simple graphic symbols, making little use of photography, it stands somewhere between painting and graphics. The masters of the Polish poster include professional cartoonists, book illustrators, graphic designers and painters. The absence of a clear dividing line between painting and poster art, and the peaceful co-existence of the generations of artists in this domain, make the poster much more an integral part of the contemporary art scene in Poland than it is in other lands.

This said, one question remains to be asked: Is this typically Polish branch of artistic expression condemned to vanish from a world of mass television and film advertising, in which cars already move too fast to allow a long glance at the hoardings? Or has the Polish poster a chance of survival?

Appearances do not seem, on first inspection, to hold out very much hope of such survival. The modern city is certainly becoming a less and less satisfactory gallery for posters that are delicate and subtle in their treatment and call for some degree of contemplative concentration. A poster which loses its persuasive power – even if it is a Polish poster and therefore only loosely subject to advertising laws – must finally die or at least be transmuted into a different form of art.

Yet new and unexpected possibilities today begin to loom on our horizon. For one thing, there is the growing tendency to collect posters and to make them a decorative element of our interiors. It might well be that as posters fade gradually from the streets they will find a new and original context under our roofs.

Secondly, the future of our cities is as yet unresolved. It is not impossible that forthcoming developments will sweep the cars from our streets, or at least from our city centres. These centres will thereby regain their traditional function of being the ‘living-rooms’ of our cities, dominated by the pedestrian and thus attuned to much slower traffic rhythms, and consequently constituting an ideal poster environment.

Whether such trends will be strong enough to preserve posters of the kind now being produced in Poland is an open question, and one that only the future can answer.”

— Krysztof T. Toeplitz (The Poster in Poland, Graphis No. 169, 1973/74)