There was a time in Poland’s history, after the Second World War, when the walls of Warsaw and other major cities were plastered from top to bottom in posters advertising all types of event and lines of thought. While elsewhere poster use was dwindling, in Poland it became the main form of communication, and led to the flourishing of a new art form comprising bright colours, simple forms, collage techniques and an arresting style, in sharp contrast with the memory of the bombed-out buildings. This artistic phenomenon became known as the Polish School of Posters.
There was never an actual school, nor a plan of action, nor any overarching style; instead, a complex mix of political, economic and social circumstances, combined with graphic designers with extraordinary artistic sensitivity, led to the creation of work unlike anything else in the history of design.
The turn of the century to the second world war: 1900–1939
Posters had been used to advertise events in Poland for some time.
In the first few decades of the twentieth century, like many other European nations, there was great interest in the burgeoning art and design movements. Given the country’s geographical location, Polish graphic design was immediately influenced by the avant-garde in both central Europe and Russia, but at the same time it also strived to develop its own identity.
Although there were some prominent poster artists, such as Tadeusz Trepkowski and Tadeusz Gronowski, in general we can say that poster art’s main influences came from expressionism, constructivism and art deco.
The post-war period: 1945–1980
Poland suffered heavy losses during the Second World War and endured catastrophic damage to its infrastructure, agriculture and industry.
The war brought the graphic arts and printing to a halt, as it did with many other disciplines. The scarce and rudimentary yet ingenious graphic design of these years was almost entirely lost following the Warsaw Uprising.
Poland ‘re-emerged’ after the conflict as a Communist society: it was no longer private companies commissioning posters, but the state. As with every industry, a trade union was created for graphic designers, artists, writers and directors, which defined the standards and costs for the profession, as well as the criteria for being included.
The first graphic design production requested after the war was aggressive political propaganda. It was in this context that Tadeusz Trepkowski (1919–54) emerged: in contrast to the socialist realism modelled on Soviet propaganda, he instead chose to create posters with a symbolic and metaphorical style and a reductionist approach, aiming for the simplest and most striking forms possible.
Trepkowski died prematurely, but his approach was shared and developed by other designers, including Henryk Tomaszewski (1914–2005), who is now considered the ‘father’ of the Polish School of Posters, both due to the excellent work he produced and his role as a tutor at the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts, where he trained generations of future graphic designers.
The first film posters after the war were not particularly innovative, following the same style as the 1930s. That all changed in 1946, however, when Film Polski, the state body responsible for distributing and promoting films, asked a group of graphic designers, Tomaszewski included, to create several posters. Instead of submitting to the client’s requests, the designers decided to imbue the work with their own taste and skill. Although the officials did not like their style, the designers nevertheless managed to win them over thanks to the ideological motivation underpinning their work: there was no need to employ commercial tactics to attract spectators, as this went against the principles of a Communist society. These initial posters were followed by posters for cultural events, the circus, the theatre and political events, as well as more commissions for the cinema, where a new visual language was emerging ever more strongly.
In the Western world, dominated by the free-market economy, the advertising industry as we know it today was developing, and posters were made following a set of standards and conventions to entice ever greater numbers of people to spend their money. In Poland, however, the opposite trend occurred: graphic designers were given an incredible amount of artistic freedom, giving rise to unique, brightly coloured posters with vibrant forms and sophisticated and subtle contents.
In the 1950s, Polish posters began to be noticed and celebrated abroad too, where they were seen as a breath of fresh air. The Polish government saw their international renown as excellent propaganda for the country, leading to the launch in 1966 of the International Poster Biennale in Warsaw and the founding of the Poster Museum in Wilanów, near Warsaw.
Tomaszewski’s style, which combined folklore with sophisticated artistic sensitivity expressed through paper clippings, collage, screen printing, brush strokes and lettering, to a certain extent came to epitomise the work produced during this period.
Despite sharing the same cultural roots and social context, the various graphic designers who emerged had extremely varied individual styles. The next generation saw artists like Jan Lenica, Wojciech Fangor, Roman Cieślewicz, Jan Młodożeniec, Waldemar Świerzy, Wiktor Górka and Franciszek Starowieyski rise to prominence, predominantly through top-quality poster design.
From Solidarity to a capitalist society: 1980–2020
1980 was a tumultuous year for Poland. Workers’ strikes in Gdańsk led to the formation of the Solidarity movement, which a third of the Polish population eventually joined, and it turned into a political revolution. Solidarity’s logo became an international icon, and posters once again played a key role. In 1989, as people woke up on the day of the vote that would change Poland’s destiny, the walls of the cities were covered with an image of Gary Cooper from the film ‘High Noon’, holding a voting card and wearing the movement’s logo as a badge, with the words “High Noon, 4 June 1989” underneath.
Today the creations from Poland’s golden age of poster design can be admired in museums, and although forms of visual communication have changed beyond recognition, these posters remain a source of inspiration for new generations of Polish designers. It is incredible that such vibrant, refined and varied art should have emerged from the devastation of the war: art that did not develop in spite of the crisis, but rather thanks to the creative freedom the crisis provided, which gave outstanding graphic designers free rein to express themselves to their full potential.