An interview from 1992 with Andrzej Pągowski on his work and the state of film posters in Poland:
Barbara Hollender: Almost every year you win the most prestigious competition for film posters organized in Los Angeles by ‘The Hollywood Reporter’. It is, of course, a great success, but at the same time in our country the poster is dying. What happened to the Polish school of poster – to the marvelous works of Starowieyski, Młodożeniec, Świerzy?
Andrzej Pągowski: Everything has fallen apart in the last three years. ‘Polfilm’ discontinued totally the production of posters. When the monopoly of state distribution came to an end, the printing of posters was taken over by individual private distributors. In an effort to save money, they do not commission work by Polish graphic designers. They rarely introduce Polish films to the screens and they begrudge money for their promotion, whereas for the foreign films they print mindlessly whatever posters come from the west.
Is this not the demand of foreign producers who wish to promote their films in all countries in a similar way?
Pągowski: There is always the possibility of adjusting the advertising materials to the needs of one’s own market. For example, the poster for ‘Dances with Wolves’ was different in different countries. In Poland, ‘Solopan’ commissioned a poster made from me. This was the first poster in a long time for a foreign film which was made by a Pole. Now such commissions are more frequent. I have the impression that the Polish film posters are slowly regaining their position.
You can’t see that on the streets.
Pągowski: Distributors are beginning to understand that the western poster is created in a convention that is tolerated by the western viewer. Here it does not fulfill its role – it perishes, unnoticed. The Poles are not ready to single out that kind of graphic design, because they do not know it. They see it as shoddy, ridiculous and commercial. For years we have become accustomed to intelligent associations and for searching in images for extra meaning.
And what about posters for Polish films in the situation when producers became impoverished, distributors are not particularly interested in the Polish film industry and the state has stopped subsidizing the promotion of art?
Pągowski: Well, it’s true that in the past it was common practice that once the film was in being, the poster was commissioned automatically. Today the situation differs completely. First the film must find money for advertising. Far less posters are being produced and the competition is fierce. The commissioning body has a lot to say about the general design of the poster.
Does that not limit the freedom of the artist?
Pągowski: Polish artists were brought up on a very exclusive school of graphic art which did not impose anything, accepted every creative idea and did not limit the artist in any way.
Due to that approach the great Polish poster was born.
Pągowski: Yes, that was no doubt great art. I would question, though, whether that approach adhered to the requirements of applied graphic art and to the requirements of the cinema, which is a convention.
You were also a student of that school and a pupil of Świerzy and other Polish masters of the poster – people who embodied their own individual style.
Pągowski: Yes, but I was always a rebellious pupil. I tried to combine art with a commercial approach. Perhaps that is why my work is often appraised less favorably by my colleagues, graphic artists who are irritated by the commercial aspect. And perhaps that is why today I have more work than those who have remained true to one style. I try to be flexible, I change conventions and adapt to the requirements of the material. That is probably what the client appreciates. But I see that something is beginning to happen. Most films are being made and there are more orders for posters. I myself am preparing five posters for Polish titles and my colleagues are also beginning to get work. And we are now all creating in a slightly different way.
And what turn of direction are the changes following? After all, we were very proud of the highly artistic posters which won competitions and which the world envied us.
Pągowski: One does not have to resign from artistic ambitions, but the compromises dictated by commercial requirements are essential. I, for example, have changed the lettering in my posters. No one can tell me now that I write illegible letters with a feather brush and no one can read that. Today a poster must be clearly readable, so I do my own letters only when the client agrees to my ‘illegible writing.’ In all remaining cases the studio takes care of that. When I come up with an idea for the poster I must take into account that it is not a museum painting and that written information will be included in my picture. More and more often, though, the client presents his specific requirements. When Krzysztof Zanussi was commissioning his poster for the film ‘The Silent Touch’ he said outright, ‘This is the title. It has to be that size. Max von Sydow stars in the film and his name is to be twice the size of the rest of the actors.’ That is already a western approach. Later, Zanussi also intervened in the graphic aspect of the poster as well. In a minimal way, but still.
Doesn’t art suffer because of that?
Pągowski: It does, but that is how it is going to be.
Doesn’t that sudden change to a different kind of thinking about poster art lead dangerously to heightened degrees of commercialization and to the loss of a Polish identity in poster art?
Pągowski: That is where the problem lies. It is vital that artists do not immediately adopt the non-artistic approach of the West and that they remember their painting roots and the concept of adding extra meaning, that something which was most beautiful in Polish posters. But I am convinced we are capable of creating a new school of commercial graphic art.
The poster (…) must convince somebody. When you design, do you think of people are are tired and whose glance must be held by your poster?
Pągowski: There was a time when there existed in Polish culture a specific game with censorship, and this produced a specific sense of solidarity between the viewer and the author and there was a sensitivity to the meaning of a symbol and to what could be inferred from in between the lines. Now that game does not exist. Nothing new appeared in its place because the new authorities ignore culture! So society became insensitive and conceited. Before when a passerby went past a difficult poster he would think of its meaning and would make an effort to understand it. Today he passes a verdict, ‘It’s hopeless. I, Kowalski, a Pole, know best what this poster should look like.’ That belief in one’s own ‘I’ is visible everywhere – among ministerial officials who decide in an arrogant way about issues which they are decidedly incompetent about and among common people who experienced a new sense of power but did not learn modesty.
But if you have such a vision of society then how can you design something which is in some way a conversation with people?
Pągowski: I try not to think of that every day because I would go crazy when sitting over my empty sheet of paper. But I am sorry sometimes that my fellow countrymen do not appreciate the art of their own country. What I most envy artists in the West is the fact that societies love their own culture. We have stopped being interested in anything that goes beyond the daily and most basic issues.
Why have the names which established the greatness of Polish poster art disappeared?
Pągowski: It is true that those who are the greatest find it difficult to adapt to the present requirements and to resign from creating in their pure style. Some of my colleagues also arrived at the conclusion that designing posters brings too most paints. Some began painting and others work in the West. I also design quite a lot for the West where our work is truly appreciated. I do not make a living out of designing posters and that is why I can create without the pressure that they must make a profit.
And what about the arrival of the young people in this profession?
Pągowski: At present that does not look well. The students of the Art Academy toady have a different view of life and art. Their first question is about money. They forget that at the beginning of this journey in the field of poster design it takes years to arrive at great abilities and at one’s own style. And that requires some sacrifice. Pure arrogance is not going to bring about the right effect. The situation with young people is the following: on one hand these are frustrated people who cannot withstand the pressure of events, on the other hand there are people of business whose ruthlessness I fear; sixteen-year-olds with a capital of billions who have their own hierarchy of values. But in the middle are all those who believe they will find their way. Those will be the future artists and future recipients of art.
There is still the issues of commissions. What obstructs their growth – other forms of advertising which have become lately so popular?
Pągowski: The first reason is lack of money. Because throughout the world television, radio and the press are the media giants, and yet the companies are prodded with funds to commission a poster. That is why these orders for posters, also for those films, are inseparably connected with the economy of the country, with the financial condition of companies and industries.
Could one be optimistic in this situation?
Pągowski: Of course. I am pleased about the revival of interest in film posters among my clients. I am also pleased about the competition. Because if someone is to function in the area of film poster design then he must be better than I am. But then I will have to fight as well. Perhaps in order to achieve success in advertising we have to give up our cheerless attitudes.
So students should be obliged to take lessons in joyful optimism?
Pągowski: Something of that kind. My poster ‘The State of Fear’ accumulated all possible prizes because of its unspeakable gloom. Americans looked at all these colorful and amusing works but their own artists and suddenly they stood in front of something which hit them so hard. They gave me the prizes, but they would never have commissioned anything of that kind.
— (via Rzeczpospolita #209 (1992) / Pągowski: Illustrating Films)