BY MIN CHEN
“The gallery of the poster,” Henryk Tomaszewski once claimed in the ’50s, “is the street.” And for the Polish artist, the streets of his native Warsaw, following World War II, were terrains wrecked by combat, formless and rocky with the debris of urban ruin. Rebuilding efforts were apace and up went wooden barriers, demarking the boundaries of construction sites. In the midst of that dreary and uniformly gray landscape, onto those drab wooden walls, however, appeared that unique source of light and color: the poster.
The medium of poster design had been gaining steam in Poland since the close of the 19th century, evolving with a clarity of form and purpose. In the 1900s, painters such as Jozef Mehoffer and Karol Frycz crafted the earliest specimens, art deco-flavored advertisements for concerts, exhibitions, rolling papers. Diversified approaches swept in with the 1920s and ‘30s—from Stefan Norblin’s minimalist yet painterly tourism posters to Tadeusz Gronowski’s Cubist works. In the 1940s, under Communist rule and state-mandated social realism, posters largely served as organs of propaganda; Włodzimierz Zakrzewski, notably, ran the Propaganda Poster Studio that churned out just that.
But it was in the decades after the war that the medium truly flourished. From the mid ‘50s, following Polish October, Stalin exited as Gomułka entered, ushering in a no-less repressive regime. Cultural institutions and industries were run, supervised, and censored by the state, but felicitously, posters, particularly those produced to market foreign films to local audiences, were left largely unchecked. The state, it seems, was disinterested in how these posters looked and was a generous enough patron of the (state-sanctioned) arts, allowing poster artists to ply their trade without major scrutiny or commercial considerations. And in the absence of a postwar art market, the streets became a gallery.
And so arrived the movement known as the Polish School of Posters, heralding the poster as an art form rich in conceptual imagery, graphic innovations, emotional content, and artistic expression. “The poster ceased to be a mere means of presenting an object or service but began to interpret and comment on it,” wrote Zdzislaw Schubert in The Polish Poster in 1979. “The poster began to function as a specific branch of art, ruled by its own principles and… a way of expressing the author’s attitude as any other branch of art.” Artists including Waldemar Swierzy, Wiktor Gorka, and Jerzy Flisak thrived in this environment; their film posters cementing ideas and meaning in figurative blends of images and typography. These were succinct compositions, but even their concision delivered an aesthetic and emotional experience. They were, in brief, direct hits.
Into this fertile landscape stepped Rosław Szaybo, who, even before his graduation from the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw, was excelling in poster design. Under the tutelage of Tomaszewski and Wojciech Fangor, the young Szaybo clearly grasped the impact of image and the primacy of color. His first poster for a jazz festival in Warsaw in 1960 employed photography and collage to kinetic effect, while his later posters for films such as The Diary of Anne Frank (1961) and The Lover (1965) fused illustrative and graphic forms, and straddled the fine and commercial arts. His interests also leaned toward musical themes. Jazz 60 aside, he designed a couple of covers for Astigmatic, a series of 1960s Polish jazz records, before moving to England, landing as artistic director of CBS Records, and masterminding yet more album sleeves (over 2,000 apparently) on which his name would be made.
Significant among his creations for CBS are the cover for Mott The Hoople’s Hoople (1974), Soft Machine’s Seven (1973), The Clash’s 1977 debut, and Chicago’s 1983 compilation If You Leave Me Now—all of which demonstrate Szaybo’s smart use of symbolism (the lone heel on Chicago’s album) and texture (the torn edges of The Clash’s cover, the repetitive collage of band members’ faces on Mott The Hoople’s record). Those skills came chiefly and clearly to bear on his iconic work for Judas Priest. Szaybo’s designs for the heavy metal outfit have been many (1978’s Stained Class, 1981’s Point of Entry, plus their longest-living logo); but what else has been more everlasting, more captivating than his cover for 1980’s British Steel?
For a record that uproariously augured British heavy metal, British Steel led with an image suitably incisive. Szaybo himself admitted he “didn’t necessarily” listen to the band’s music, but the record’s title triggered in him memories of the durable English razorblades that he would buy at Warsaw’s Różycki street market (coinciding with Judas Priest frontman Rob Halford’s source of inspiration: Gillette razorblades that carried the words “Sheffield Steel”). So he designed such a blade in outsized proportions, inscribed on it the band’s logo and the album title, donned a studded bracelet, and gripped the blade by its (blunt) edges, while photographer Bob Elsdale took a picture.
It was a straightforward shot, plain and simple with nary a drop of blood, though its snappy composition belied elements of danger and drama, power and immediacy. Then-guitarist KK Downing recalled, “As soon as we saw it, we thought: ‘This is as sharp-edged as we are.’ It’s so totally fitting.” Indeed: viewers might be shocked or intimidated, repelled or compelled—whatever it was, the image hit and left its mark.
From the ‘80s on, Szaybo, though based in London, resumed designing posters for Polish film and theater releases (he returned to Poland in 1993). It was a turbulent decade for the country. Under the Polish Communist Party, it roiled with economic upheaval and social unrest, while workers’ strikes and resistance movements—notably the Solidarity labor union—aggressively agitated against the powers that were. Polish poster artists, too, reflected the era’s oppressive mood in darkly surreal and confrontational works. Such were posters by Mieczyslaw Gorowski for the 1982 play Policja and Wiktor Sadowski for the 1984 film End of the Lonely Farm Berghof—provocative pieces that interpreted their respective cultural artifacts through a contemporaneous Polish perspective. In fact, the distance between the tones of the product and its poster was often vast.
Note Wieslaw Walkuski’s poster for 1987’s Bagdad Café, an offbeat and ultimately heartwarming comedy directed by Percy Adlon. Walkuski’s painterly poster, however, offers a psychologically harrowing vision: of a single poised hand, sticking a long pin into a rock’s face. In its muted colors and austere tone is harbored a weighty visual metaphor about the audacious insistence on and possibility for change. This poster also arrived in the final years of Polish poster production, which waned with the privatization of film distribution. Good, then, that Walkuski’s image makes a lasting impression—with the starkest of images and with the sharpest of pins, which, however delicate-looking, draws tears from stone.