James Victore on Tomaszewski

An essay by designer James Victore on Henryk Tomaszewski, one of the biggest names in poster art, from the 1996 edition of the Graphis poster annual:

“In 1983, Poland was under martial law. The Communists, fearing an uprising led by Lech Walesa and his Solidarity movement, outlawed the victory sign – the ‘V’ hand symbol for the revolution. During the night, a theater poster appeared on the streets of Warsaw. The central image was the victory sign made by two toes. The designer was not a young rebel, nor a would-be politician. He was 69-year-old Henryk Tomaszewski, largely considered to be the father of the Polish poster school.

To talk of modern poster design without paying homage to Henryk Tomaszewski is unthinkable. Not only has he survived the atrocities of Hitler, Nazi occupation, and Stalinism, but as a designer, he has thrived. ‘Politics,’ he says, ‘is like the weather. You have to live with it.’ Recent retrospectives in Amsterdam, Berlin, and Tokyo attest to his continued popularity; at the prestigious Warsaw Poster Biennale he is the only designer to have ever won two gold medals (1970 and 1988) as well as both a gold and silver medal simultaneously (1988). His studio was the training ground for generations of students, including an impressive roster of those who have gone on to achieve international distinction. In the U.S., however, his work is largely unknown or has been ignored completely (witness his omission from the Museum of Modern Art’s 1988 exhibit, ‘The Modern Poster’).

Tomaszewski (tom-a-SHEV-ski) was born in 1914. Against his parents’ wishes he enrolled in the Warsaw Academy of Art to study painting and drawing. Inspired by German caricature from Simplicissimus magazine and by the work of George Grosz and John Heartfield, Tomaszewski created a name for himself as a satirical artist. After graduating in 1939, he won first prize in the interior design competition at the New York World’s Fair. Yet in September of that year, German troops invaded Poland. During the occupation, Tomaszewski stayed in Warsaw eking out a living, and continuing to draw and paint. With liberation in 1944 came Josef Stalin and communism.

Communist authorities needed an outlet for their political credo and believed artists could be used to that end. Posters would no longer promote capitalist consumer goods, but rather sell the spirit of communism. With a poor radio network and TV unheard of, the street poster was an inexpensive and effective tool for propaganda. In 1947, Tomaszewski and a small band of young artists were invited to design film posters for the state-run film distribution agency Centrala Wynajmu Filmow or CWF. Pre-war film posters resembled today’s banal portraits of matinee idols. The artists accepted the commission with the stipulation that their designs be printed as drawn. Uncensored.

The situation was stifling. Supplies were scarce. Limitations, however, stimulated invention: Tomaszewski’s 1947 posters – particularly his designs for Odd Man Out and Black Narcissus – stunned the public. Using bold colors and shapes, he integrated letterforms closely into the design, and more importantly, rather than illustrating actual scenes, he suggested the film’s mood by applying cinematic techniques, such as montage and dramatic camera-angle perspectives. Thus a new type of poster was born – one in which the designer’s own personal interpretation of the film was as important as the director’s. This uncompromising artistic control characterizes the Polish poster school, which thrived from 1952 to 1964. By 1949, Tomaszewski had won no less than five medals at the Vienna National Film Poster Exhibition, which strengthened the designer’s position at home. Within a few years, Polish posters were known throughout Europe.

During the 1950s, Tomaszewski began using a painterly style in combination with simple, collaged elements. Then, for a 1959 exhibit of Henry Moore’s sculptures, Tomaszewski created a sculpture garden from the letters of the sculpture’s name. This design proved a turning point for Tomaszewski’s work. Though the painter/cartoonist was still present, the overall feel of the work was spare.

Tomaszewski’s graphic simplification reached a new peak with a poster for Shakespeare’s Richard II in 1964. In this design the form is simplified to a purple square surrounded by a sea of white, strengthened by a black border. At first it seems mere minimalism, but the image is actually a strong, if abstract depiction of the plays’ content – banishment and ‘the purple testament of bleeding war.’ Color as expression, no decoration.

In 1952 a poster department was created at the Warsaw Academy of Art, headed by Tomaszewski. His teaching wasn’t based on graphic design forumlae; he taught philosophy, often through abstraction. For example, assignments often involved a visual interpretation of aphorisms such as ‘Always the other,’ ‘Life is but a span,’ ‘Interpret,’ or ‘Yesterday/Today/Tomorrow.’ He pressed students to invent new images, encouraging them to surprise their viewers (and themselves) in the process. When the Warsaw Academy began admitting foreign students in the late 1960s, students flocked from all over Europe to study with Tomaszewski. Among them: Pierre Bernard and Gerard Paris-Clavel, Michel Quarez, Alain LeQuernec, and Thierry Sarfis. Other prominent former students include Karel Misek from Czechoslovakia and Radovan Jenko from Slovenia.

Now, semi-retired, Tomaszewski lives on the outskirts of Warsaw. At eighty years old, he radiates strength. Seymour Chwast recalls, ‘He’s a big kid. Play is what it’s all about for him.’ Tomaszewski is still playing, still designing. Ivan Chermayeff says: ‘He is the only artist besides Picasso to retain his childlike sense of creativity throughout his career.’ His designs are shaped by an analysis of content: ‘First I think about the question, then the proper answer, then the best form.’ Though he may spend hours juggling shapes and type, his designs – tiny gems of personal observation, often with stunning, unexpected meaning – seem to have been created in a moment.”

— (via)