Franciszek Starowieyski on process

Starowieyski poster exhibition at MoMA (1985)

A brief look at poster artist Franciszek Starowieyski’s process, written by the artist himself, from the first issue of the Polish design journal Projekt:

“I work in a very chaotic way. Most of my illustrations, posters and theatrical settings are conceived in the form of sketches which I make on the pages of an ordinary school drawing pad. They are all there, one design after another, interspersed sometimes with a calligraphic ornament, or a new type of signature, or calculations concerning the clock cogs and designs of its hands, or the ideogram of an objet d’art of which I dream and the summing up of my income showing whether I can afford it. In the middle of all this there may be a design of Eve, either naked or tied with ropes. These pages I value most of all that I do, since here is everything that comes straight from my heart unhampered by any technical necessities or the demands of my customers. However, I shall now try to define the general scheme of my working process.

When I start working on a poster, I first make a list of certain objects, feelings, moods, etc., concerning the given play or film. It is a difficult task since I must select them as if I were preparing a program for a computer. After having collected all the necessary information I go to sleep. Next day I first try to make separate designs of particular objects, symbols or signs. Then I set them all together, tossing away the things which do not appeal to me because of their vividness. I am not afraid of hackneyed symbols or elements, because one can always present them in a fresh manner by means of a new arrangement or design. Most often, after a few days of such work, I cast off everything and, knowing the subject matter fairly well, I make a completely new design as dictated by my feelings and mood. When I work on stage designs, I do not necessarily read the script; I even prefer to have been told the contents. But when I make the poster to a play, I read the script very carefully, often several times.

My working process is long; it usually takes me about two weeks. However, regardless how much effort I put into it, I still do the most work on the very last night before the appointed time, often working until morning or even until the time I must hand in the completed work. Of course, it is not imperative to work that way. I think that it would be different if I could receive payment for my work immediately after delivering it (this is no joke about money; my point is that the anonymity of the payment which I get after the lapse of several weeks does not encourage me to a more efficient way of working).

The process which I have just described illustrates my method of specifying the subject with which I deal. Apart from that I must look for inspiration. This is a continuous process which develops in the following three directions:

1. I search for inspiration in nature—the human body, fallen leaves, bones, draperies, clouds, hair, damp patches, cracks in a surface, half-burnt beams, insects, the earth in dry weather, light and shade effects, etc.

2. One can interpret the works of others in a new way, discovering things which were not intended by the artists. For example, if a 19th-century clerk in black demonstrates the interior of a brand new safe to a lady in lace, his act seems very mysterious. The same is true of a design depicting the killing of a bull by means of a special barbed axe, and supplied with a lot of intricate footnotes and subtitles. Or let us take the design by a Cracow monk from the time of the Counter Reformation who tried to explain the mystery of the Holy Trinity by the picture of an elephant. And what about the pathos of the figure of a man in the 18th-century textbook on anatomy who demonstrates his intestines with the glee of an exhibitionist? I appreciate the forgotten abilities of the human hand like calligraphy, xylography, painting with a sparry brush, or siderography. And how interesting is the difference between graphic symbols and painting in various epochs! In the pile of my schemes and notes I have a piece of paper on which I have been sketching human mouths and eyes from several centuries. These symbols have changed every quarter of a century with the changes in schools of art.

3. I think that the most important thing in art is what comes directly from the artist’s soul—all those elusive images and dreams which one would like to impart somehow to others (I purposely use such terms as “soul” or “inspiration” though they are no longer used in the official language of art critics). However, it is impossible to impart everything. It is much if of all those images there remains a shadow or a direction, or a tendency. But one should distinguish what comes from the voice of the soul, what is done consciously, and what comes automatically from the artist’s subconscious and his hand. The latter should be treated as an adventure in creation.

Now I would like to say a few words about my technique. I work on anything and with everything. I make posters on cardboard wrappings of 50 x 60 cm ORWO film. I get them from Mr. Anczykowski, Jr., the lithographer who has printed most of my posters. I draw costumes on the inside of the passe-partout from my wife’s stage design sketches. Other designs I make either on scraps of coated paper which I get from printers, or on sheets of a very beautiful paper produced in Jeziorna which I won from a chance acquaintance—an artist I met at the ZPAP Club (of the Polish Association of Art). I use Faber dry gouaches in large pellets. I like to wash my drawings. I seldom make several “final” versions of my work. Instead, I work for a long time on improving one version.

I deeply admire the past. In my opinion the aptitude of contemporary man for the fine arts is dying out and it is the task of the avant-garde to preserve as much as possible from the past. New consumers of art are full of good will, but they get lost in the intricacies of modern styles. That is why I look back to the past, admiring the magnificent gesture of Christ designed by Michelangelo, the divine elegance of figures created by El Greco, the absolute perfection of drawings by Meissonier, the incredible mastery of hand of the calligrapher Schwendner, the complicated geometric calculations done by a Madrid dressmaker or by an illiterate carpenter who by means of an ordinary chisel managed to carve faultless ornaments on a Baroque cupboard.

I enjoy my work, I do not feel at a disadvantage while comparing my own imagination with that of Bosch, Arcimboldo or Klinger. But I am struck with dismay and I see my deficiency when I put one of my most refined works, my seemingly masterly display, beside the work of an anonymous engraver, or the intestines of a basilisk in an old atlas, or the popular portrait of a Hessian landlord. I feel then, with a pang of sadness, that I shall never be a real master.”

— (via Projket #1 (1972))