Polish Graphic Design History Essay

Polish graphic design, it would seem, is having something of a moment. From the stunning examples selected by Cooper Hewitt curator Ellen Lupton for the ongoing “How Posters Work” exhibition (on view through November 15, 2015), to the traveling show “Inside Out: Polish Graphic Design in the Making,” which recently made the rounds from Milan’s Salone del Mobile to the Wanted Design fair at NYCxDESIGN, and finally (and perhaps most notably), to Very Graphic: Polish Designers of the 20th Century, a beautiful new book that takes a sweeping and comprehensive look at Poland’s rich history of communication design, a legacy that goes well beyond the country’s best known efforts—its posters—and spans major social and political movements to provide context for the work, from avant garde experiments, bold collages, and winsome illustration to sharp logos, clever wayfinding, and eye-catching packaging design.

Much more than a catalogue or a “best hits,” the range of work in Very Graphic was chosen to tell the broader story of 20th century Polish graphic design. Organized chronologically into three chapters: 1900–1945 (war time), 1945–1980 (to the beginning of solidarity movement, a moment of political transition), and 1980–2000, each section is further divided by designer, 64 in all. For readers accustomed to art and design history books that cut a wide swath but give the people profiled in its pages just a highlight—a mere paragraph and a picture—you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the full essay illustrated with several pieces of work, spanning six full pages. For each designer! Okay, it sounds a bit geeky to get this excited about longform essays and all, but given the book started as a series of articles published in 2 + 3D Quarterly, it’s noteworthy for being this heavy on visuals.

Read just a few of these essays and the first thing you’ll learn is that Poland’s design history really is so much more than just posters. Don’t get me wrong—the posters are phenomenal. But as the book’s editor Jacek Mrowczyk pointed out in a recent panel discussion, posters are to Polish design what “sushi is for Japanese cuisine.” There’s a whole lot more on the menu.

Before we get to those other offerings, let’s touch quickly on why Polish posters get all the attention. At the time they were produced, long before words like “design” or “graphic designer” existed, the economy was in such a sad state that the bar to sell products was extremely low, meaning there was little to no pressure on poster artists (their term) from marketers to actually sell anything. The country may have been cash poor, but designers enjoyed enormous freedom. For example, the typical brief for a film poster designed in the United States would stipulate that the designer had to show the leading actors’ faces; not so for Polish designers, which is why you see incredibly artistic interpretations of films. According to Mrowczyk, many Polish posters are more like “colorful birds” than what we typically think of as advertisements.

Whether it’s a movie poster, a magazine layout, an album cover, a book, or a bottle of aspirin, the work by the designers in Very Graphic is some of the most breathtakingly creative you’re likely to find. No wonder its established a design legacy in Poland that has inspired generation after generation over the course of the 20th century, and why we continue to see such incredibly strong illustrators and graphic designers emerge from the country.

Images courtesy Culture.PL

An exhibition shows the best of Polish graphic art: posters, books, vinyl covers that capture the nation’s cultural history

Vibrant colours, check. Humour, check. Fantasy, check. If you have noticed any of these elements in a poster recently, then you have the Polish School of Posters to thank for it. The movement emerged in Poland in the mid-’50s to late ’60s and blurred the lines between poster design, painting, and story-telling. It pioneered a new approach towards art, one in which the artist could innovate and be original, a thought that impacted design across the world.

(From left) Lemur 30 B-Day, a birthday poster by Agata Dudek/Acapulco (2015); Radical Languages by Jakub de Barbaro (2012); Tadeusz Kantor Centenary poster by Honza Zamojski (2015)

The travelling exhibition — Eye on Poland. New graphic design from Poland — is showcasing a selection of multicoloured posters, independently published books, catalogues, and CD/vinyl record covers. A joint initiative by The Polish Institute in New Delhi, the Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum, and Polish culture portal Culture.p, it has so far toured Japan and South Korea.

Read:Partition, poverty, politics: What shaped master painter Jogen Chowdhury’s art

Commissioned by cultural institutions, museums and galleries, the works were executed by 30 designers, artists and design studios over five years. Glance through the posters, and what strikes you is the use of eye-popping colours like purple and fluorescent pink, an emphasis on bold letters, and vivid imagery that ranges from a Warhol-esque reproduction of a city, to a woman shedding tears of jet black ink.

“Our posters are colourful, witty and smart. Also, our language, cultural identity and imagination have impacted our contemporary graphic language and design,” says co-curator Magdalena Frankowska. The posters and graphics may seem vibrant but they camouflage a bleak and uncertain period in Polish history — when Communism was at its peak during the Cold War.

(From left) JAZZ by Małgorzata Gurowska (2015); Katowice Street Art Festival poster by Marta Gawin (2013); Lovecats. Pepe Bradock by Ola Niepsuj (2012)

How it began

After the end of World War II, wooden-fenced construction sites around Poland were covered with posters. In the absence of museums or art galleries, the fences were a makeshift platform to showcase art. Poster design was also introduced as a subject at the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts. These factors contributed to the rise of a new branch of art — the Polish School of Posters (mid-’50s to late ’60s).

“For 15 years, Poland provided the stage for the emergence of a new phenomenon in poster design. Its designers today are not just the creators of posters — they are also illustrators, visual artists or even photographers. The designers have tried out various techniques such as photography, collage, painting, freehand drawing or even a combination of all these methods to make the designs,” adds Frankowska.

(From left) Animals, poster by Robert Czajka (2014); Sophie by Homework; commissioned by Powszechny Theatre in Warsaw (2015); Invisible Kidney by Full Metal Jacket (2014)

Poster child

The posters on display showcase the significant periods of Polish history and offer a socio-political commentary. Designer Małgorzata Gurowska’s Locomotive/ideology is a graphic book which reinterprets The Locomotive, a Polish poem for children. The book, in the form of an accordion, has illustrations that showcase the contents of train wagons, which range from aggressive football fans to Jews (reflects its anti-Semitic history), soldiers and animals.

Locomotive/ideology by Małgorzata Gurowska (2015)

Similarly, Gurowska’s poster Jazz (shows a wolf howling in the night) is a cover for a music record, and reflects how Polish jazz music evolved along with the poster movement leading a lot of artists to design for music records. Ola Niepsuj’s poster, Lovecats (shows two cats balancing atop each other on a see-saw), is a poster for a music event that effectively combines simple drawing techniques with a digital format, while Agata Dudek’s poster (shows a blingy lemur and a bulldog) draws from fairy tales and children’s books.

“The modern Polish posters have an original form. Their creators play around with aesthetic conventions, grotesqueness and humour. The result is often high-quality, cutting-edge design marking new directions,” says Frankowska.

Selected works from the Eye on Poland exhibition

Eye on Poland. New Graphic Design from Poland will take place from June 17 to July 31, 10am to 5.30pm
At: Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum, Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar Road, Byculla (E)
Call: 2373 1234

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