June 9 - October 2, 2011
The history of Polish posters goes back more than one hundred and twenty years. Poster art rose to a position of prominence in Poland in the late 19th century where the First International Exhibition of posters took place in Cracow in 1898. From the beginning, and up to the period shortly before World War II, the posters reflected prevailing international and modern trends, including Expressionism, Constructivism and French Art Deco. They were also part of a larger, naturalist, trend of European posters focusing on light-hearted subject matter and a certain celebratory and optimistic rendering of topics that served purposes of general education.
After World War II, and after Poland became a Communist puppet state of the Soviet Union in 1945, Socialist Realism, with its depiction of heroic workers and peasants, became the preferred style for public propaganda. Poland, however, had had a long and rich cultural history before World War II -- especially within the fields of theater, poetry and film – and managed to retain much of its originality and artistic integrity during the Communist years, though mostly focusing on imagery and subject matter that tended to be dark and introspective. This artistic freedom remained in place as long as the artists were uncritical of the general political situation and did not focus on the larger social reality.
It is the continuation of these strong artistic trends in the other arts that we see reflected in the posters created in the 1970s through the early 1990s, the period many of the posters on display in this exhibition were created, and the period in which the artists included found their voice.
Strangely enough, it was the state control of all cultural production that made the flourishing of posters possible. More than 1,000 posters were commissioned every year to promote theater, national and international films, ballet, opera performances, puppet festivals, and other cultural events. Not only were the artists asked to design posters, they were given the freedom to explore the subject matter of the opera or film in an artistic and subjective way.
Not surprisingly, that freedom resulted in work that had a generally dark tenor, leaning toward the expression of existential states of fear, isolation and persecution. In that way the posters strangely enough were able to publicly manifest much of what the general population could relate to in terms of a government that ruled though intimidation and terror, through an “all-knowing” secret police.
Poland was also a nation that had lived through almost unimaginable suffering during World War II, and wasn’t allowed the general capitalist consumer optimism that Western Europe experienced in the post war years (including West Germany). The period of mourning, and the general feeling of loss, was in that way “extended” in Poland, and another reason for the bleak or despairing viewpoint.
In recognition of the importance of the unique character of Polish posters, the First International Poster Biennale was held at Warsaw's Zacheta Museum in 1966. Two years later, in 1968, a Polish museum dedicated to the art of the poster opened in the City of Wilanow.
Once the Communist regime came to an end in 1990, so did the state sponsorship of posters. International capitalist advertisement was introduced in the country for all consumer goods, including cultural production, but posters were so highly regarded that they continued to be designed and commissioned, though in much smaller numbers, and generally as independent works of art by the most outstanding of the practitioners. We have examples of those posters on view in the exhibition as well. These posters reflect how, under the new market economy, the artist is now to some degree promoting his own vision and style.
The posters in the exhibition are from a private collection, and from the collection of the University Art Gallery.