Barbara "Basia" Baranowska—best known in North America for her poster for Andrzej Żuławski's Possession (1981)—is the unsung hero of Polish poster art. Whereas the likes of Jan Lenica developed a distinct, often instantly recognizable style, Barbara Baranowska was a chameleon (as reflected in her alternating use of "Basia", "Basha" and "Bacha" as her professional name). She donned a variety of graphic personae—from the sometimes brutal cut-outs of her early Polish book jackets to the voluptuous, almost psychedelic surrealism of her French film posters. While she may not be the most prolific artist of her generation, the works she produced in Poland during the 1960s and France in the 1970s are unforgettable.
During the late 1950s, there was a revolution in Polish poster art. Free from the shackles of socrealizm (the Polish adaptation of socialist realism), a wave of artists brought a strikingly modern artistic sensibility to the poster. Lacking the resources to produce slick Hollywood-like posters, these artists turned to various modernist trends for inspiration. Often armed with little more than a brush, crayon or simply just a pair of scissors, these Polish artists developed a raw, sometimes savage but always intelligent approach to the film poster. Artists such as Henryk Tomaszewski, Jan Lenica and Roman Cieślewicz developed a unique and often witty approach to rendering the very essence of a film in a single, eye catching image. Less well known, however, are the women of Polish poster art, including Teresa Byszewska and, in particular, Barbara Baranowska.
Baranowska designed the covers and sometimes illustrating numerous books by the Polish-Jewish author Adolf Rudnicki (1909–1990), including Krowa (Cows), Narzeczony Beaty (The Blessed Bride), Niekochana (The Unloved), Zolnierze (Soldiers) and Lato (Side). In addition, she also illustrated children's books, the first of which was Mira Jaworczakowa's Najmniejszy podroznik (The Smallest Explorer) in 1962.
Strikingly beautiful, Baranowska made cameos in a handful of films, including Janusz Morgernstern's Do widzenjie do jutra… (See You Tomorrow, 1960) and Witold Giersz's Oczekiwanie (Awaiting, 1962). However, arguably the most widely seen of her artwork is the cow she designed for a brand of butter which even today can still be found in Polish shops.
At the end of the 1960s, Baranowska moved to Paris. She designed some of the most visual striking film posters of the 1970s, including Milos Forman's Taking Off (1971), Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1971), Luis Garcia Berlanga's Life Size (1974) and Andrzej Żuławski's Possession (1981). During the late 1970s, Baranowska moved to Hollywood, where she completed a series of portrait paintings, including Alfred Hitchcock, studio head Barry Diller and the Viennese magnate Charlie Bluhdorn. She lives in Paris.
To kick off an exhibition of Baranowska's posters in Montreal's J.A. de Sève Cinema, leading scholar of Eastern European cult cinema Daniel Bird gave a talk on the history, styles and influence of the Polish Poster School, including rare clips and stills. The Exhibit and Artist Talk were co-presented by Spectacular Optical and The Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies. My thanks to Kier-La Janisse for her biographical information on Baranowska. What follows is a slightly paraphrased transcription of Daniel Bird's presentation.
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What I'm going to be talking about is what makes the Polish poster so fantastic? And, secondly, try to give you an idea of how it came into being. And, thirdly, look at the question of how Polish posters actually influenced films. So not just a question of posters advertising films, but how the language that they embodied came to affect cinema itself. In addition to that, we can get to who I consider to be the key figures in the Polish Poster School and, towards the end, focus on Barbara Baranowska.
The Guardian in conjunction with an article where the designers talked about their inspirations. This is what they said: "Scot Bendall was the art director and one of three illustrators working on the project at LaBoca. The underlying concept behind the designs, he said, 'was to create artwork that conveyed the feeling of the movie in much the same way that Polish and Czech film posters did so well in the 60s and 70s'." There's one phrase that's particularly revealing about this point and that is the feeling of the movie. What is it about Polish posters that were so great? Their ability to capture the essence of a movie in one single image; an image which doesn't move.
They did a similar thing for Cul De Sac, about a recluse who lives on an island in the northeast of England alone with his beautiful young wife whose fantasy gets interrupted by two gangsters who have escaped from a heist gone wrong.
So the question is: why Poland? Why does this Poster School emerge in Poland during the late 1950s? Let me try to focus this a little bit. The area I'm particularly interested in is immediately after the war and leading up to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the crumbling of Communism. One sentiment—which has come up from discussions with Andrzej Żuławski, Barbara Baranowska, and many other people—is that the strength of Polish posters lies in the fact that they were produced in poverty; the fact that the means in which artists had to express themselves were so limited that they were forced to come up with ingenious solutions. It was this condition that has resulted in the interest of many of these posters.
Secondly, this aspect of Polish culture wasn't just limited for posters, it was an aspect of film. The use of real locations in, let's say for example, Andrzej Wajda's War Trilogy from the late 1950s. From theater, Jerzy Grotowski's so-called "poor theater", in which he renounced light, make-up, and all the conventions of normal theater. Also, documentary film, the so-called Czarna Seria, the Black Series, which took an uncompromising look at Polish reality. The one aspect that bound all of these art movements through the late 1950s and early 1960s was the poverty. This poverty had both an aesthetic quality—it was visually interesting—and was highly intelligent. It's these two qualities that mark out the Polish Poster School.
Just to recap: we're talking about the time when the Soviet Union still existed. Poland, of course, was part of the Eastern Bloc, which were countries that were not technically in the Soviet Union but under their influence. I'm looking specifically at Poland; but, that's not to say that the quality of posters was better than that taking place in Czechoslovakia, for example. There were many rich schools all around Eastern Europe for much the same reasons, but we're going to be looking only at Poland for this presentation.
The other thing is that there's something really interesting about the fact of posters as a form of advertisement—this was the time when everything was owned by the state—so their function was something slightly different. Let's look first at the historical context by which these posters came into existence. The first actuary of the Polish Communist Party during the 1950s was Bolesław Bierut. During his rule, the period between 1949 and 1955, the aesthetic norm in Poland was socialist realism. This wasn't a trend. This was the way the government insisted things should be represented in cinema, the visual arts, and in theater. It lasted roughly for this six-year period.
Wojciech Fangor, who is still alive and well and appearing in galleries in Warsaw. He was talking about Rothko's paintings a few weeks ago and, as you can see, this painting is about as far away from Rothko as you can possibly get. It's easy to laugh at these pictures as being kitsch and funny but the point is that their goal is not to be pretty; their goal is to be educative; their goal is to shape consciousness. This image has an obviously clear visual message. You don't have to be a professor to work out that the lady on the left is a woman of the West, a woman with material goods, and the lady on the right—with her incredibly muscular thick arms through years and years of manual labor—is a woman from the East.
This all started to change in 1956 when Nikita Khrushchev denounced Joseph Stalin's crimes, along with his cult of personality, during his so-called "Secret Speech". One of the consequences of that was that Bierut died under mysterious circumstances—maybe suicide, maybe he was murdered—and Władysław Gomułka was enacted First Secretary of the Communist Party without the approval initially of Khrushchev. Nevertheless, Gomułka assured Khrushchev that Poland would be supportive of the Soviet Union and wouldn't be of trouble to them in the way that, say for example, Hungary had been in 1956. Gomułka became a figure known in the west and there was this relative period of liberalization in Poland, particularly in the visual arts. Socialist realism disappeared, Włodzimierz Sokorski—the Minister of Culture who implemented this aesthetic strategy—was dismissed, along with the Party's ideological leader Jakub Berman, and the consequences of that was a kind of mini-October, a cultural renaissance, which saw the emergence of the Polish school of filmmakers—Andrzej Wajda, Andrzej Munk, Jerzy Kawalerowicz, Wojciech Jerzy Has (all of these classic films winning all sorts of prizes at Venice and Cannes in the late 1950s)—the Black Series of documentaries, and the Poster School.
It's important to remember that the function of the poster was essentially communication. It was a communication of cultural events as well as political ideas. It was, essentially, street art. Remember how grey the cultural landscape was at this point. Poland, and its capitol Warsaw, were ravaged by the Second World War. Warsaw was, in effect, a construction site and these posters were flashes of color. In addition to fulfilling their role of communication, these posters were a bit of color to brighten up a rather grey life.
In 1957, Konstanty Gordona directed Sztuka ulicy (Street Art, 1958), a documentary about Polish poster art. Interestingly, Street Art was written by a poster artist turned filmmaker named Walerian Borowczyk. He wrote it with who was then an aesthetic advisor within the Central Committee, a person who is still alive, Szymon Bojko. This was an educational film explaining what a poster is and what it does. There are elements of it that are quite funny, which date it, but still it's quite intelligent and—if you know Borowczyk's work—there's also another level of irony on top of that.
There were some film clips in the documentary from two films by Sergei Eisenstein—Battleship Potemkin (1925) and October (1928)—and it's important to remember that at this point Eisenstein was still considered persona non grata, particularly in the Soviet Union. The second part of Ivan the Terrible (1946), which Stalin had problems with, had only just been released. It's interesting that they could use these examples in a Polish context if not maybe a Russian one. So there's an element of bravery about this documentary. Further, the documentary provides quite a showcase of the Polish Poster School, with examples from Lenica, Cieślewicz, among others, and I want to talk a little bit about them and what makes them special. After a period of five or six years in which Polish artists had to make graphic images that were in a Socialist realist straitjacket, it's important to remember that many of these artists were nonetheless familiar with western artists, not to mention Russian Constructivism. Both were aesthetics that were a problem at this point in time. It was like uncorking a bottle. Suddenly, all these influences by Picasso, Chagal, and Ernst manifested themselves in these Polish posters. Many of them were influenced by both Expressionism and Surrealism, and many of the techniques used in these posters, techniques that were fêted by the Surrealists and Dadaists—photomontage, collage—where utilized by who I consider to be the main representatives of the Polish Poster School: Henryk Tomaszewski, Roman Cieślewicz, Wojciech Fangor, Julian Palka, etc., etc.
Max Ernst was a strong influence, particularly on Borowczyk and Lenica. It's important to remember that both Borowczyk and Lenica were from Poznań in the west of Poland, which is obviously next to Germany, so there were a lot of German art books that they had access to. On top of that, Szymon Bojko, who co-wrote the documentary on poster art, told me of how he made Borowczyk and Lenica aware of the Dadaist John Heartfield; but, the big key influence—and to fans of Terry Gilliam and Monty Python this will ring a bell—is the surrealist experiment of creating new images from Victorian lithographs and prints. Max Ernst's collage book creating a story out of these things was a key influence on these posters and later animations. Ernst's work involved putting seemingly disparate elements together to create something fantastical and surrealistic. The Polish Poster School took this cue and found a visual way to express ideas.
Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz, who was a dramatist, a writer, a philosopher, and a painter. The Teatr Studio was directed by a guy called Józef Szajna. Szajna had emerged from the plastic arts and moved into theater. He had taken texts of Witkiewicz and used them as the basis for a theater production. In Poland at this time the director's personality was so dominant that you couldn't really recognize the text from which this performance came from, and—in this poster by Tomaszewski—he pokes fun at this. It's a really good critique of the director as tyrant in theater at this point, particularly in the case of Szajna. The idea behind this poster is that you have Szajna's personality ironing out the essence of the text. So not only did the poster advertise the production, not only did it draw attention to Szajna's artistic personality or ego, but it was also a rather healthy critique with a strong element of humor. Also, of course, it's executed in a seemingly crude manner with pencils, crayons, paint.
Kazimir Malevich and Russian Constructivism. This is one of the masterpieces of the Polish poster. It could have been made by a child, but in fact it was made by somebody who was highly intelligent, brilliant, poetic, full of meaning and purposely simple.
Ingmar Bergman. He uses a technique that was favored by such surrealists as Max Ernst and Hans Bellmer called decalcomania, which for those of you who don't know is where you put paint on glass, apply the glass to some paper, and either twist it or break it, or peel it off, to leave a random imprint. That's what Borowczyk has gone for here. It's quite interesting how the Polish Poster School used techniques and ideas that were the bedrock for the Modernist Art movement and manifested themselves in film posters, which is quite unique and which you don't see much of today.
One of the heroes of the Polish Poster School—certainly one of my heroes—is Roman Cieślewicz. I want to show you a clip from a BBC report of a big exhibition organized by the Royal College of Art in London three years ago on Cieślewicz's graphics, which not only puts Cieślewicz's work into context but also his influence today. One of the individuals interviewed in this BBC report is Andrzej Klimowski who is of Polish heritage, born in London, who has been working in England most of his life, although he did travel back to Poland in the 1970s to study in the studio of Henryk Tomaszewski. Klimowski has the best of both worlds: a background in England but, at the same time, an education in Poland. He told me a story once about how this special quality he had in his posters, this roughness, had really to do with the paper that he could only get in Communist Poland at the time. His greatest difficulty in making posters and graphics in the early 1980s was not having access to this crude paper in England so one of the main reasons he was going back and forth to Poland at the time was to get this shitty paper to bring back to London to make his wonderful collages.
Dario Argento fan, and you have Maitland McDonagh's book Broken Mirrors/Broken Minds: The Dark Dreams of Dario Argento (1991), you'll be familiar with Andrzej Klimowski's cover for that book, which is made up of red curtains, a big knife and a naked woman who is—in fact—Andrzej's wife. Klimowski has made some of the very best posters of the 1970s and—although my main interest is in the late '50s and early '60s—there were a number of poster artists who were continuing incredible work during the 1970s; Klimowski being one of them. Here is his montage poster for The Omen (1976), so simple yet so effective. This is montage in its purest sense: the juxtaposition of two elements for meanings. A demonic image drawn from a catalog of occult art along with the photo, which is not even a color photo, and is actually high contrast, crude, in simple black and white in both image and typography. It's a rather wonderful poster.
Warsaw Uprising and it involves members of the Polish resistance surviving by escaping through the sewers of Warsaw. Without spoiling the ending of Kanal, it's a pessimistic film; but, all the elements are there in Lenica's poster. Again, as with the Fangor poster, there's the red and the white. On top of that there's a depiction of a human form with a gun but with the lighting from above, suggesting underground. It's so simple and brilliant. The typography actually takes the form of a barrier. It could be barb wire and, if you watch the film, you'll realize it depicts the climax of the film. So effective.
One of the brilliant things that Borowczyk and Lenica did when they teamed up in 1957 was to follow up on Borowczyk's suggestion to Lenica that they take the essence of the Polish poster—this ability to express ideas in visual form without resorting to words—and push this in a cinematic direction. Borowczyk posed: Could they make films using this graphic language? In fact, that's what they both did in the late 1950s in Poland and then in the early 1960s in France (in the case of Borowczyk) and in Germany (in the case of Lenica). Here's a short animated film, just under 10 minutes, by Jan Lenica inspired by Eugène Ionesco's play Rhinoceros , in which he doesn't resort in any way to the text. Basically, Lenica offers a visual summary of the play's whole contents. He's used this language which he has learned and mastered and applied it to telling a story. This is one of the major contributions of the Polish Poster School and why it is so important. It's a stepping stone towards a visual language, which is what I like to see as a cinema goer and which I'd like to see more of in cinema today. When you look at a short film like this one of Lenica's, it's concentrated pure cinema. It's also very funny.
I'd like to look now at two of the women involved in the Polish Poster School. The first is actually Jan Lenica's first wife from this period, Teresa Byszewska, and secondly Barbara Baranowska. The one thing Baranowska and Byszewska have in common is that they weren't really that prolific, which has probably contributed—moreso than sexism, let's say—to the fact that they aren't as well known as they should be. The language of Byszewska's posters is just as minimal, just as bold, and just as aggressive as many of her male counterparts.
Some of my favorite work of Baranowska's are her book jacket designs where you can see many common elements with Lenica's animations, primarily a seeming crudity. Klimowski once told me that the skill of a Polish poster artist was when—not having a pair of scissors to make a collage—didn't stop you; you simply tore the paper with your hands and used the rough edge of the tear as a strength. You didn't apologize for it. You made it an asset. You put it into the foreground. Many of Baranowska's book jacket designs were for a Polish-Jewish writer Adolf Rudnicki, which she illustrated and there are elements in her illustrations that appear in many of her posters.
So just as a means of summary, in many ways the strength of the Polish poster was the fact that there was no sophisticated photographic means of printing as in Hollywood and England. The fact that posters were produced out of poverty, the fact that there were limited means, forced a degree of intelligence and the desire to find a visual language, a means to expressing a key image and adding elements to express the essence of what a film was about. What makes this period of graphic art so interesting—not only in Poland but in Czechoslovakia and Lithuania too—is the fact that you have a concentration; a visual means of expressing language and feelings. There's a danger that this quality of interest has been lost today as a consequence of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the marketplace. We're seeing this visual language lost, not only as an aspect of globalization, corporate branding, and a consistency in marketing strategies in Poland, England, France and America to minimize costs and not intrude upon corporate identity. On top of that, there's no need to be this crude, what with the sophistication and slickness of contemporary advertising culture. This crudity is a quality nowadays often looked down upon but I don't think it should be looked down upon. It should be celebrated and a good place to start is posters by artists like Barbara Baranowska.