The Politics of Polish Poster Art under Communism

By Piotr Pillardy

Polish Poster Art, as it has evolved into its modern form, got its start in the 1950s, after the end of World War II. During the war, the Nazis had implemented many policies of cultural extermination and suppression to effectively destroy Polish culture. Later, during the Yalta Conference of 1945, one of the agreements that were made between the leaders of the Allied Forces was that the Soviets would gain control of the Poland after the end of the war. This would greatly impact the development of Polish art going into the post-war era. After the Nazi occupying forces left Poland after the war, the Soviet forces became the new occupiers of Poland and would implement their own policies of cultural suppression and control.

One of these forms of cultural extermination was the state supported and endorsed Soviet Social Realist artistic style, which would serve to help promote and celebrate the ideological underpinnings of Communism and marginalize Polish artistic expression. This style consisted of academic paintings which was figural, representation, and contained strictly controlled messages that adhered to a promotion of Communism. After the death of Joseph Stalin in 1952, the slightly more liberal regime of Władysław Gomułka in 1956 led to looser restrictions on the type of art and poster art that could be made.

During this time, Polish poster art evolved, seeing an increase in non-academic art being incorporated into compositions such as abstracted, geometric, and minimalistic forms that were contemporaneous with the developments of similar art forms in the U.S. and Western Europe, as well as referencing other artistic movements such as Surrealism. Additionally, two schools became synonymous with the academic training of Polish poster artists: The Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts and the Warsaw Polytechnic Institute. Each school influenced the ways in which artists would realize their compositions, with the Academy of Fine Arts students favoring more of a painterly approach in their graphic arts while the artists trained at the Polytechnic Institute went with a more geometric approach.

Additionally, under Communism, there was a centralized film distribution authority which eliminated the need for competition between filmmakers for making more of a profit from their films. This greatly contributed to this blossoming of creativity during this period since posters did not have to sell a certain product but could become more centered on the actual aesthetics of the poster as well as being recognized as the work of a particular artist. The belief was that, if the film had already been approved by the censor, that the poster would most likely not be censor, allowing the poster artists slightly more freedom in what they were able to depict in their works.

The power and appeal of the posters within Communist Poland was what they symbolized for people when they would see them on them hung up along the street. Because all of the posters needed to be approved by a censor, in most case, the posters were not overtly political. In some cases, the symbolic language imbued within the posters that criticized the Communist government could be understood on a level that most Poles would understand but was not forthright enough to merit being censored or erased. With their vastly different aesthetic sensibilities, these posters would offer a focus on subjectivity through personal interpretation. The sole fact that they were on the street and were so different from previous artistic styles endorsed by the Communist state represented a type of aesthetic revolt that was legible to most people walking down the street and a call to think for themselves.

The Johnson Museum has many of these posters within its permanent collection, such as those by Henryk Tomaszewski, Waldemar Świerzy, Jan Lenica, Andrzej Pagowski, and Francszek Starowiejski. All of these artists were able to use the medium of poster to explore different artistic concepts through posters that to a few individuals seemed to only advertise a film or theatrical production, but through their aesthetics and often veiled symbolism, represented a revolt in their own right. The collection of the Johnson Museum highlights many developments in Polish poster art from the 1950s through the late 80s which greatly encapsulate the political climate of the post-war era. Building off of this artistic legacy, Polish poster art has continued to be a culturally relevant mode of artistic expression into the 21st century and is still highly regarded within the realm of contemporary Polish art.

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