There was a trend in Polish posters that began in the late fifties and reached a crescendo in the seventies. It was characterised by a tendency towards surrealism and the metaphysical used to express a darker side of the national character. This was perhaps was a reaction to the social constraints of a dictatorial regime or the despair and yearning for the autonomy so often denied the Polish people throughout their history.
Jan Lenica (1928-2001) was part of this movement referred to as The Polish School of Poster, a term he is accredited to creating when he used it in an article on the history of Polish poster published in the Swiss journal ,Graphis.
He was a very versatile artist known mostly for his posters and experimental animated films. He has been described as an artist working at the meeting points of genres, blurring boarders and conventions and challenging the aesthetic standards.
Always attracted to unrestrained artistic experiment he developed an interest in film and theatre poster as he found that this offered more freedom than the Socialist Realism that prevailed at the time and unburdened him of the academic conventions imposed on other fine arts.
“Poster art seems closest to jazz: it is all about being able to play somebody elses theme in ones own way.”
Lenica acknowledges three stages in the development of his artistic poster language. 1950 to 1960 was influenced by realism and was more illustrative conveying the nature of the announced events. The second stage he describes as, formal search. In this stage he introduced varied and experimental means of expression e.g. collages of his old drawings and paper cutouts. The third stage was from 1962 and coincided with his making posters for the Warsaw Opera. In this stage he developed his own characteristic handwriting where his flowing, wavy line shows a fascination with Art Nouveau and features simplified detail free forms. His flowing , stylised contour lines weave through the picture-plane dividing it into coloured zones that form the image.
These posters were essentially gauche, watercolour and tempera works on paper. They show his extraordinary skill at being able to create intelligible signs denoting entire topics; a sophisticated artistic abbreviation.
Among his finest and most known works is Wozzeck, designed in 1964 for Alban Berg’s opera. It features a huge red head with the lips planted squarely in the middle of it’s face. The lines that emanate out from the mouth give the feeling of sound reverberating around the picture-plane and beyond while simultaneously describing the form. There is no perspective and little difference between foreground and background.
Lenica’s posters have been described as having a predatory, intense expressiveness. They were a new grotesque reality containing irony and absurdity with poetic metaphor.They are peopled with forms that seem to speak or cry out to their audience. In his own words,”A poster must sing.”
Jan Lenica was an artist who along with some of his contemporaries sought to rescue the tradition of Polish poster making from fossilising into an academic national style. He is recognised along with Roman Cieslewicz, Franciszek Starowieyski among others as one of the leading practitioners of Polish poster design in his time.
Meggs’ History of Graphic Design, Fifth Edition. Philip B. Meggs, Alston W. Purvis. published by John Wiley and Sons, Inc.