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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”