“The Evolution of Cities in Polish Poster Art,” a project by Natalia Kopytnik

The following is excerpted with permission from Natalia Kopytnik’s digital project “The Evolution of Cities in Polish Poster Art,” completed for REES 577: Socialist and Post-Socialist Cities. Natalia Kopytnik, MAERES ’16, writes that she has always been interested in art as a political tool. Examining decades of Polish posters shows that even though some art forms were born of unfavorable historical circumstances, the poster’s role in politics, society, and design could evolve into something greater than mere government propaganda; it could even become a source of national pride.

Introduction

The Polish poster phenomenon might be hard to understand to outsiders. It matured in unfavorable historical circumstances when artistic creation was often treated as an instrument for furthering political agendas. Unlike other disciplines, the poster succumbed to the restless ebb and flow of history. The poster was active in the creation of history, it influenced the course of events, and often fell victim to its own manipulation.

Examining the life, death and resurrection of Polish cities (concurrent to Polish history) Polish poster art provides a summary of the country’s aesthetic preferences, artistic tendencies, and political temperaments. Posters are like a portrait; they show a frozen reflection of the nation’s state of consciousness and mentality, attitudes to tradition and universal cultural heritage.
Multilayered in meaning, full of allusions, insinuations, and able to speak about grotesque and funny things, posters provoked serious reflection on both serious and trivial topics.
The birth of Polish poster art dates back to 1899. From the start, posters were a relatively cheap, and therefore accessible form of art. Throughout the 20th century they served as a barometer of changes, tensions, and public sentiment.

At times the state issued posters as reminders of tradition, weaving in the information, and advertising folk and regional motifs. Furthermore, Polish posters served as calls to action, mobilization for war, and mobilization for reconstruction. Looking back, one can see that they were a reflection of Polish trends and styles, as well as ideas about city space and identity throughout each decade.

For the purposes of this project, I chose to focus specifically on the way in which cities and places in Poland were portrayed in Polish poster art. The number of posters produced in this category is vast, thus I chose only the most visually arresting works. I started in 1910, and examined works from each decade, until 2016.

 

1950-1970

In January 1945, Warsaw lay in ruins–the devastation of the city, which had been home to over 1 million people before the war, was almost complete, and the new Communist authorities even considered moving the capital elsewhere. According to one plan, Warsaw was to be left the way it was – a lunar landscape of ruins – as a war memorial for future generations. However, the decision for the reconstruction of the capital prevailed, launching an nation wide effort to resurrect the city from the ruins.

Erik Lipinski 1948/1952
Erik Lipinski
1948/1952
Erik Lipinski 1952
Erik Lipinski
1952
Erik Lipinski
Erik Lipinski

After the rumble left behind by WWII was cleared, Polish cities in the 1950s became a clean slate, ready for reconstruction. The government wanted to mobilize and engage the entire nation in rebuilding Poland’s city, and most importantly to rebuild the destroyed the capital. During 1940s and 1950s posters depicting Warsaw were focused on unity and strength. Erik Lipinski’s posters from 1952 show depict scenes of reconciliation against the backdrop of Warsaw’s ruble. Cranes resurrect the fallen city, and patriotic themes can be seen in throughout the majority of the images. Banners of red and white, bricks, and doves of peace abound. In order to aide in the reconstruction, the government shipped building materials derived from rubble in cities all over Poland. Through this sort of imagery, the reconstruction of Warsaw, and the nation, was painted as a collective effort, dependent on the efforts of all Poles.

Tadeusz Trepkowski 1954
Tadeusz Trepkowski
1954
Waldemar Świerzy 1953
Waldemar Świerzy
1953
Tadeusz Trepkowski 1950
Tadeusz Trepkowski
1950
Artist Unknown 1950
Artist Unknown
1950
Erik Lipinski 1952
Erik Lipinski
1952
Roman Cieslewicz 1956
Roman Cieslewicz
1956
Maria Garbyś Oblowska 1959
Maria Garbyś Oblowska
1959
Jan Leninca 1955
Jan Leninca
1955

In the 1960s, Poland achieved relative political autonomy from the USSR, and culture began to play a larger role at the center of public life. The state, as both patron and controller of the arts, gave formal recognition to the poster as a legitimate art form. It was the state’s patronage that was responsible for the poster’s widespread successThis encouragement took many forms, including establishing educational programs in poster design at Polish colleges of art, and organizing national poster competitions throughout the country. During this period, poster design became a well-recognized profession, attracting artists from various disciplines including print making, photography, illustration, sculpture, and painting. Artists working during this time reinterpreted the nature of the poster, opening it up to the imagination and aimed to distanced themselves from the from conceptual regulations of the past. The 1950s and 1960s represented the emancipation of the poster as an art form, and posters became known as vehicles for individuality rather than mere tools of mass propaganda. Despite uniformity in most aspects of life under communism, the poster remained a vibrant outlet of individual expression.

Tadeusz Jodlowski 1968
Tadeusz Jodlowski
1968

Since the opening of the Polish Poster School in the late 1950s and its rise to prominence throughout the 1960s, the Poland became increasingly known for “wall and board” art, and the country hosted the first International Poster Biennale in 1966. Two years later, the world’s first poster museum was opened in Warsaw in 1968. After a decade of social realism’s dominance in the art of the Soviet Bloc, 1960s Polish poster art seemed like a breath of fresh air. The colors, patterns, and subject matter became much more exciting and seemed to promise a much brighter future.

Waldemar Świerzy 1969
Waldemar Świerzy
1969
Waldemar Świerzy 1969
Waldemar Świerzy
1969
Jan Mlodozeniec 1969
Jan Mlodozeniec
1969
Waldemar Świerzy 1965
Waldemar Świerzy
1965
Waldemar Świerzy 1968
Waldemar Świerzy
1968
Waldemar Świerzy 1961
Waldemar Świerzy
1961
Wiktor Górka 1961
Wiktor Górka
1961

By the late 1960s, cities and places were portrayed more as bucolic playgrounds than industrial masterpieces. Furthermore, humor became incorporated into the definition of Poland as a place. After over a decade of reconstruction, the country seemed to be back at it’s feet. For example, Wiktor Górka’s iconic print “Hunting in Poland” reverses the roles of the hunter and the hunted, humorously echoing the 1930s tourism advertisement posters touting Poland as a “hunter’s paradise.”

To view the rest of the digital project, please visit: http://nataliakopytnik.georgetown.domains/ 

“Strolling Down Nevsky Prospect,” by Leslie Martin

The following piece is excerpted with permission from Leslie Martin’s digital project “Strolling Down Nevsky Prospect,” completed for REES 577: Socialist and Post-Socialist Cities. To view the rest of the digital project, visit  http://lesliemartin.georgetown.domains/NevskiiProspect/.

REFLECTIONS

by Leslie Martin

Intersection of Nevsky with Fontanka at Anichkov Bridge. Photograph by author.
Intersection of Nevsky with Fontanka at Anichkov Bridge. Photograph by author.

To see and to be seen: Purposeful Social Display

“Though you may have some sort of necessary, indispensable business, once you enter it you are sure to forget all business. Here is the only place where people do not go out of necessity, where they are not driven by the need and mercantile interest that envelop the whole of Petersburg.” – Nikolai Gogol, Nevsky Prospect,  245

Nevsky has always been a place of “social display,” even during Soviet times. Catriona Kelly paints a vivid picture of Nevsky as a constant meeting place:

“The post-revolutionary years had seen the democratization of this formerly elegant street, and it was perambulated by a motley crowd, from indigents up to groups dressed for an evening out. In the 1960s, the more fashionable ‘sunny’ or south-facing side between Liteinyi and ploschad’ Vosstaniya was familiarly known, among young Bohemians, as Brodvei (Broadway) or Brod, and used as a place to converge. The nickname vanished with this generation, but the preference for the place survived. The prominence of Nevsky was assured by its uniqueness. There simply was no other comparable street for strolling, nowhere else you could be certain of meeting someone you knew, and probably more than once.” (Kelly, 260)

 View onto Nevsky from outdoor cafe, 2012, Photo by author
View onto Nevsky from outdoor cafe, 2012, Photo by author

I can personally attest that it is easy to run into friends and acquaintances on Nevsky and I knew less than fifty people in the entire city, the majority of whom did not live in the city center. Considering the fact that the majority of shopping and nightlife are located on or just off of Nevsky, no one should ever be surprised to meet a friend there. Nevsky is the center; it is a magnet for business, tourism, youth, and beauty.  As  historian Ronald Hingley noted on his trip in 1961 to Leningrad that “It is surprising to find anywhere in Russia so many well-dressed and attractive women as you can now see on the Nevsky Prospect” (quoted in Kelly, 260).

The Soviet Impact: A Nevsky in Leningrad — What’s the point?

Leningrad, view of Nevsky Prospekt, A. Skorospehov, 1969
Leningrad, view of Nevsky Prospekt, A. Skorospehov, 1969

After the Revolution, St. Petersburg was downgraded in nearly everyway possible for two reasons: one, the Bolsheviks wanted to break with Russia’s imperial past; two, the city was overwhelmingly form over function. The imperial capital was underdeveloped, could not serve the immediate needs of the new ruling class and it was difficult to see how the city could meet the demands of the Revolution: “In Marxist terms, the superstructure elegiac romance and heightened emotions meant, at base, insufficient provisions, poor roads and transportation, and a moribund industry.” (Goscilo and Norris, xiii)

Leningrad, Arch in the "New Holland" Island; Nikoliev, 1969
Leningrad, Arch in the “New Holland” Island; Nikoliev, 1969

The Bolsheviks for all intents and purposes abandoned the imperial capital and many argue that the city remained frozen in time, a living museum of a Russia that no longer existed. As a result, the city – and especially the city center – remained distinctly un-Soviet. Decades after the Revolution, Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote in his prose poem “The City on the Neva” that to his great pleasure “no wedding-cake skyscraper may elbow its way onto Nevksy Prospect.” (1960)

In practical terms, the Bolsheviks’ abandonment of Leningrad meant that centers of state authority were moved to Moscow. Leningrad’s nationwide role was deemphasized and over time the city became provincial in its own way. This is exhibited in the simple fact that Moscow was developed into a transportation hub, first with railways, and later with airplanes. (Kelly, 31)

Saint Petersburg City Duma. Photograph by author.
Saint Petersburg City Duma. Photograph by author.

So where did that leave Nevsky? In the new socialist state, what role could Nevsky – a commercial and social hub for the old elite – possibly play on the path to Communism? Would there an ideological impact Nevsky? Largely no.

In 1918, the Bolsheviks officially renamed the street Prospect of the 25 of October, but the new name did not take root among the locals, and, as before, everyone continued to refer to it as Nevsky Prospect.

In the 1960s and later in the 1980s there were suggestions for the removal of all shops on Nevsky. But in official plans that called for a reduction the number of shops, there were also provisions for increasing the number of cultural institutions on the street. (Kelly, 170) Perhaps the removal of shops had more to do with preserving St. Petersburg as a cultural capital and less with communist ideology. Gostinyi Dvor on Nevsky remained a major shopping center, living up to its resplendent past. (Kelly, 185)

Who “won” Nevsky?

Throughout its 300 year history, Nevsky has been dominated by aesthetics, an idealized view of history, and commerce.  These three constants are also found in the narrative of St. Petersburg, which can not be told without Nevsky.

St. Petersburg was designed and, to an extent, maintained as “a visually stunning showcase of Russia’s imperial ambitions” (Goscilo and Norris, ix). In his essay in honor of the city’s 300th anniversary, curator, Arkadii Ippolitaor described St. Petersburg as “the City in a porcelain snuffbox”. (Goscilo and Norris, x). These sentiments have led to the idea that the city is not for living in, but a museum to experience.

“St. Petersburg no longer exists as a city, for it as become a museum piece, much like an eighteenth-century snuffbox.”

Nevsky and Fontanka, Anichkov Bridge. Photograph by author.
Nevsky and Fontanka, Anichkov Bridge. Photograph by author.

What separates Nevsky from the rest of the city is its constant movement of vehicles, people and capital. It has been the movement of people on and money to Nevsky that allows the street to remain uniquely Nevsky – a center on its own.

 

Leslie Martin (MAERES ’16) is currently a Project Assistant for Eurasia at the National Democratic Institute (NDI).