Exhibition poster by Roman Kalarus
SOME LIKE IT RED - POLISH POLITICAL POSTERS 1944-1989
A poster constitutes a mirror for the times it is created in. Like a mirror it reflects the
political and the social situation, it informs about the repertoire of movie theaters and
dramatic theaters, it announces sporting events, it encourages to purchase certain goods.
The socio-political poster plays a specific propaganda role. Those who commission it expect
that effective impact of the work of art upon the viewer will allow them to get closer to their
desired goal. The goal varies depending on the circumstances: winning a war, or a presidential
election, or a parliamentary campaign; a struggle to alter social behaviors or attitudes.
The world-famous accomplishments of Polish artists are mainly linked to posters related to
culture. However, it would be safe to say that nearly all Polish masters of the art of poster
design focused to a large degree on political and social issues. The post-war history of Poland
is richly illustrated with posters. The communist propaganda machine was all too glad to reach
for this effective means of influencing the society. Beginning in the mid-forties, many
well-known artists would design posters for the new authorities.
1945 brings a series of excellent posters by Tadeusz Trepkowski that encourage the society
to defeat the Nazi enemy once and for all. Simple in form, emphasizing the power of symbol,
they quickly become the author's artistic "business card."
The years of 1946 - 1948 mark the period when the communist regime fought against opposition
that was still legal. Posters of that period jeer and mock politicians of the opposition
labeling them as anti-Polish and more than eager to collaborate with the Nazis and with the
American imperialists. Those deceptive and insulting in character prints would at times reach
quite a high level of graphic design. The early fifties witness an already fully-fledged
dictatorship. It is at that time that the party decision makers responsible for culture
create the socio-realist doctrine; art is supposed to be socialist in content and realistic
in form. Artists not willing to succumb to these rules are to be forced to abandon both
poster design and participation in exhibitions. The posters of that time are crowded with
workers smiling from ear to ear because they have just exceeded their work goals, with glowing
female tractor operators, with soldiers clutching their guns, and with groups of youth
featuring equal representation of students, workers, and farmers. These scenes serve as a
definition of so-called social alliances. Still, enormous numbers of posters ridicule the
enemies of the system, reminde the society about the eternal friendship between Poland and the
Soviet Union, attack American imperialism, good-for-nothing bums, as well as the chained dog
of imperialism, Jozef Tito. The doctrine is at its staunchest during the years of the most
extreme Stalinist terror. Posters become lies about reality. Against the gray backdrop of
poor cities and villages, and with the pastel colors of naive conventional realism, they paint
a picture of a country being built by the communists as a sure path towards a paradise on Earth.
The leading artists of that trend are Lucjan Jagodzinski, Wladyslaw Janiszewski,
Elzbieta and Wlodzimierz Zakrzewscy, and Witold Chmielewski. The death of Stalin and of the
Polish dictator Bierut, as well as the famous speech by Khrushtshev bring about political
change in Poland. The Communists have no intention of sharing power, but they are searching
for new, less brutal, and thus more popular, methods of ruling the country.
Artists are granted more freedom in making statements through their work. It is
then when the most salient designers - Henryk Tomaszewski, Roman Cieslewicz,
Jozef Mroszczak - known as the "founding fathers" of the Polish Poster School, address social
and political issues in their exquisite works. Prior to being sent to a print shop, each
design's content has to be approved by the censorship. The twilight of the sixties brings with
it two enormous political earthquakes: In 1968 the authorities brutally pacify a series of
peaceful students' protests against censorship and stir up an unprecedented anti-Semitic
hunt; two years later they put down workers' protests killing more than fifty people in
the process. Another government change takes place. Edward Gierek becomes the first
secretary of PZPR - Polish United Workers' Party. He declares profound social and
economic reforms, openness to the world, improved standard of life for the people.
It was then when, for the last time, a substantial part of Polish society choses to trust
the government. The seventies are dubbed the period of propaganda of success.
The climate of that era finds its perfect illustration in posters designed in those years.
Once again, as in the early fifties everybody is supposed to be happy. Joyful faces of
citizens of the Polish People's Republic stubbornly stare back from posters.
And the posters are printed and distributed in huge, multi-thousand quantities.
Contrary to their real abilities, the authorities are promising to the people the proverbial
"golden mountains:" more apartments, refrigerators, TV sets, and other consumer's goods.
"The ace up the regime's sleeve" is supposed to be Fiat
126p, the so-called small Fiat - a car available to everyone. The promises find their visual
representation on posters. Of course there is still no shortage of prints inculcating into
the brains of Poles the ideas of friendship with the
USSR, of the leading role of PZPR (Polish United Workers' Party) or of the days of,
so called, "party community work." The posters are dominated by the red-and-white
color combination and by simple graphic forms. However, the illusion of abundant
lifestyle, made possible by foreign loans does not last long. The authorities,
unable to guarantee material goods to the entire society, follow the old rule of
"divide and govern." Consequently, large groups of people, employed in branches
of industry of strategic or export importance, find themselves in especially
privileged positions. Extravagant celebrations accompany such special occasions as
The Miner's Day, The Railroad Worker's Day, and The Forest Worker's Day.
The First of May and The Women's Day are turned into peculiar celebrations of
grandiose proportions. All such events are heralded by posters running along
the streets of Polish cities in tight, endless streams. The posters are printed in
gigantic, as for Polish conditions, quantities, reaching sometimes numbers as high as
a hundred thousand copies. Quite often there is not enough space in town for all the
copies printed. The unused ones end up recycled. In spite of all its gestures and efforts,
at the end of the seventies, Gierek's regime is already completely discredited and morally
and financially bankrupt. The year 1976 brings the put down protests in Radom and in Ursus,
and 1980 - the Solidarity revolution. For the first time in over thirty years uncensored
posters appear in public view. Looking at them one senses the designers' authentic
involvement in the genuine needs and aspirations of the society. Despite tremendous obstacles,
hundreds of posters, brochures, and fliers are printed and distributed.
The artistic level of the posters covers quite a vast gamut; the designs having come
from underneath the pencils of professional artists as well as amateurs inspired by a
sudden wave of enthusiasm. Walls of buildings get transformed into battlefields of war
against the official propaganda. Solidarity's logo designed by Jerzy Janiszewski
becomes the movement's most commonly recognizable visual weapon.
Solidarity, enjoying a decisive support of most of the leading graphic artists, is also
winning the war on paper. Nonetheless, shortly thereafter, the vast social movement loses
the two-year long battle to the heavily armed authorities who resort to introducing martial
law. Since the first days of that brutal assassination of human rights, the communist
propaganda machine worked like crazy and full throttle. It spews hundreds of posters
meant to discredit leaders of Solidarity, as well
as of other opposition organizations. And, just as in the fifties, again this
time there is a need for an outside enemy. That role has been traditionally
played by USA and other Western countries. Attacks target president Regan, or
the leaders of the AFL CIO trade union that provides enormous help to the
underground structures of Solidarity. The tone of the propaganda is uncommonly
caustic and generously spiced up with lies and distortions of facts. The
communists seem to have adopted the claim to fame of the Goebels propaganda - a
lie, if only repeated a hundred times, turns out to be true. Nonetheless, the
propaganda efforts get lost in a void. New cover-up trade unions and other
organizations hastily formed at the regime's prompting and with its support are
no longer able to win any public approval. The system stays alive solely due to
structured oppression. A tragic economic situation in Poland, changes in the
USSR, as well as ceaseless activity of the opposition result in the first
largely democratic elections in half a century.
The electoral campaign, enjoying eager support on the part of poster designers,
is run extremely well. Saying that Solidarity literally scores a knock-out
against its opponent would not be an exaggeration. Out of all the posters
designed in 1989, the one designed by Tomasz Sarnecki gains most popularity. It
effectively employs the Western-movie ethos of a just sheriff as epitomized by a
photograph of Gary Cooper from the movie "High Noon." The last dozen or so
years mark the functioning of a multi-party system. New political posters are
being designed. Quite like the designers who frequently openly state their
political preferences, also the voters, at the long last enjoying conditions of
normal political game, freely choose their representatives.