Krzysztof Toeplitz on Polish Posters

“The poster is the child of publicity and politics. Commercial publicity and political propaganda lie at the source of the new public relations methods reflected by the loud, obvious and impelling slogans and symbols which are designed to mobilize public opinion to act in a given direction. The genealogy of poster art had ostensibly determined the character that would ultimately be assumed by this form of art in countries and among populations where both commerce and politics are competitive. For these same reasons, twenty years ago in Poland, the artists who designed posters were faced by a situation and tasks after the liberation which they had never encountered before. From that moment the art of the poster was to become a tool of social policy, an instrument that served to consolidate public opinion behind specific national tasks, a medium that helped to promote not only specific social reaction but also to affect emotional attitudes, world views and thinking, in the broadest sense of the words.

When speaking of Polish posters this aspect ought to be constantly borne in mind. It is not possible to gain an understanding of the contents as well as of the art forms of Polish posters, a substantial proportion of which are real works of ant, without taking account of the specific conditions in which they are created and of the specific goals these posters serve.

If we were to be allowed one adjective to describe its nature, we would say that the Polish poster is didactic. The role of the poster is to educate society. Its functions cover a wide area, from the simplest, such as recommending observation of safety rules and hygiene at work, cautioning against road accidents and suggesting a balanced diet, to more complex and virtually abstract ideas, such as engendering hate of war and a sense of solidarity between people or the sense of civic responsibility in the population of a country. The didactic role undoubtedly determined to a large degree the type of symbols that are used by Polish poster artists, most notable among which are Tadeusz Trepkowski, Jozef Mroszcak, Jan Lenica, Henryk Tomaszewski and Zbigniew Kaja. More significant still is the fact that the pedagogic stance of Polish posters has found its extension in the art form.

Looking back from the perspective of the last twenty years at the cultural evolution of the Polish people, first among the positive accomplishments would be the progress made in introducing and familiarizing the average person with the language of modern art. The naive and embarrassing questions that the “man in the street” used to ask about art that took recourse to deformation and non-figurative composition, are now getting fewer. The language of the symbol, of deformation or metaphor is becoming widely understood and accepted not only by the experts but by the broad masses. ‘There is no doubt that credit for this ought to be ascribed to posters, the biggest, the most widely spread and continuous display of modern arts, with showrooms not only in the streets of the big cities but also on ordinary village fences. That has come about because Polish poster artists came to recognize the educational tasks in the broadest sense. They did not choose the easy way of flattering the most banal tastes, but on the contrary extended their didactic mission to the area of art appreciation and of the shaping of popular taste. The “Polish school of the poster” may be applied almost literally because for years the development of this art form ‘has been connected with the studios of the leading poster artists at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw. In the course of its history, the ‘Polish School” was faced with constantly new problems and dilemmas.

It seems that the present demands, connected with progressive urbanization, that the growing road traffic that affects the manner in which the works of poster art are viewed, that the wide diversity of media that act upon the visual sense derived from the development of film and television that are typical of our age, all these factors ought to compel the artists to explore new forms that could be adopted by the poster art. It may be that the broad range of fields in which the poster deals ought to be distinguished, that there ought to be a division between the street posters, the newspaper insert, and the mobile poster that takes recourse to the film and television media, It may be that the manner in which the poster is exhibited in the street, the frequency with which the pedestrian sees a poster, the size and force with which it strikes the eye ought to be designed in the same manner as the lines and color are composed on the surface of the poster. One thing is certain, however, that whatever the evolution of the “Polish school of the poster” it cannot lose what is its most precious quality: its parallel function as a school of civic attitudes and as a school of good taste.”

— Krzysztof Teodor Toeplitz