The first Polish theatre posters
The history of the theatre poster in Poland begins almost at the same time as in Western Europe. In 1891, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, with his poster Moulin Rouge, opens his series of thirty-one posters presenting, among others, the nightlife of Parisian cabarets and Alphonse Mucha creates the posters for the famous French actress Sarah Bernhard, using the wide range of means characteristic for Art Nouveau.
In 1899 Stanisław Wyspiański creates both a poster and a typographic playbill for the Interior, a play by Maurice Maeterlinck, staged in the City Theatre in Cracow. Researchers have recognized this poster as the outstanding work, establishing the principles of the art of the modern poster. As Ewa Kruszewska wrote “this poster surprises with the accuracy of association between the graphic sign and the essence of the Maeterlinck’s play" (Ewa Kruszewska, a typescript without the title in the collection of the Poster Museum in Wilanów – the Department of the National Museum in Warsaw, page 22).
Eight years earlier the reconstruction of The Grand Theatre in Warsaw finally came to an end. For the time of reconstruction (1890 – 1891) the performances were moved to the Summer Theatre. Chaos caused by these circumstances affected the artistic level of performances; therefore the completion of reconstruction was impatiently awaited. The opening ceremony of the Theatre was scheduled for October 11th, 1891 and promoted with the lithographic printing designed by Ludwik Nawojewski (with the use of a photograph by Karoli and Pusch). And this particular design and print can be considered as one of the first Polish (and certainly Warsaw) posters relating to the events associated with the theatre.
The interwar period and the period just after the Second World War
During the interwar period, very few artists were interested in the art of theatre poster. It was the period of the great successes of propaganda posters and advertising posters that promote specific products. Posters were used to advertise films, tourism, “Polishness” or national ideas, but very rarely to advertise theatre performances. This area was still dominated by a playbill, as it provided more informational opportunities. However, it occurred that some stage designers (Karol Frycz, Andrzej Pronaszko) created posters for their performances. The artists specializing strictly in the poster art (Tadeusz Gronowski, Stefan Osiecki) also occasionally designed theatre posters.
After the war the theatres were nationalized, according to the spirit and the principles of the new system. The authorities were aware of the fact how important propaganda tool the theatre could be. Along with this knowledge increased the demand for the poster, which would be a more attractive form of advertisement than the playbill. Still the problem was a lack of specialists in this field. Therefore, the posters were often created by graphic designers specializing in advertising commercial products, for whom the theatre poster was not the main area of interest. Their projects were far from Wyspiański’s metaphor. They were correct, but unfortunately did not draw attention. One of the few exceptions is a typographic poster for “The Wedding” by Stanisław Wyspiański, designed by Henryk Tomaszewski.
The Polish version of social realism
Perhaps – paradoxically – it was social realism - as the imposed tendency - that caused the impulse of rebellion that contributed to the revival of the art of the poster. In this particular area, the authorities did not interfere too much into the activities of the artists who, in the mid-fifties, began to implement in Poland the achievements of the Western avant-garde movement.
“The poster of the era of the totalitarian system in the Soviet version was in Poland less controlled by the censors than the other fields of art. The specific regulations and rules were not set up for this discipline, unlike in the case of other arts. In the infamous era of social realism no one interfered in the works of poster artists. In the fifties the poster was able to pass to the Poles the latest achievements and tendencies prevailing in the global art, unavailable to them in any other way. Through the posters designed by Polish avant-garde artists the experiences of Art informel, Tachisme, pop-art, op-art and minimal art etc. were transferred to Poland.” Ryszard Otręba My ABC… (Moje ABC), [in]; Krzysztof Dydo Polish theatre poster 1899-1999 ("Polski Plakat teatralny 1899-1999"), Cracow 2000.
The Post-Stalin Thaw and the beginnings of the “Polish School of Poster”
The second half of the 50s of the twentieth century is the beginning of the phenomenon commonly known as the "Polish school of poster". It is rather difficult to speak about a unified aesthetic trend or about a common denominator of all works. Paradoxically, what is common, it is the individualism of the authors, their liberty in the use of formal means and their intellectual overcoming the limitations of the system. This phenomenon is the most visible on the cultural posters – film and theatre posters. In the theatre it accompanies the Thaw, which allowed the staging of plays of national and foreign avant-garde authors in Polish theatres. In Poland emerges a group of young and very young authors with artistic education - Roman Cieślewicz (born in 1930), Leszek Hołdanowicz (born in1937), Jan Lenica (born in 1928), Jan Młodożeniec (born in1929), Rosław Szaybo (born in 1933), Franciszek Starowieyski (born in 1930), Waldemar Świerzy (born in1931) and Maciej Urbaniec (born in 1925). Their older colleagues are: Eryk Lipiński (born in1908), Józef Mroszczak (born in 1910), Daniel Mróz (born in 1917) and Henryk Tomaszewski (born in 1914). These are the people who, among others, will be setting up the trends of the “Polish school of poster” for the next thirty years.
The famous performance, directed by Maciej Prus, starring Elżbieta Kępińska, Marian Kociniak, Roman Wilhelmi was produced soon after the Polish 1970 protests – a wave of workers' riots against the socialist government, that took place mainly on the coast of Poland and was bloodily repressed by the police and the army - it was the voice on totalitarian regimes and restriction of civil liberties.
The National Theatre
Due to the fact that the National Theatre was a public theatre, mainly subsidised by the government, the management was able to conduct a broad range of publishing activities, in terms of financing possibilities. It should be noted that fortunately these activities covered mostly the area of poster publishing. Under the direction of Kazimierz Dejmek and Adam Hanuszkiewicz among the permanent co-operators of the theatre were Roman Cieślewicz, Jan Lenica, Leszek Hołdanowicz, Maciej Urbaniec, Waldemar Świerzy and Jerzy Czerniawski. Memories of the theatrical events that took place here are accompanied with the recollections of the posters designed for these events, which equally firmly entrenched in the memory of the audience. It is also the case of “The Bedbug” by Vladimir Mayakovski, directed – yet unfinished – by Konrad Swinarski who died in the meantime in a plane crash. It instantly recalls the memory of red lips created by Jerzy Czerniawski, reluctantly associated with the hideous shape of the bedbug, due to the lowered corners of the mouth. It is the case of Hamlet, executed by the firing squad, on the poster designed by Marcin Mroszczak and Andrzej Krauze, which recalls the memory of the performance directed by Adam Hanuszkiewicz, with Daniel Olbrychski playing the main character. It is also the case of the poster designed in 1968 by Roman Cieślewicz for the „Forefather's Eve” directed by Kazimierz Dejmek, with the unforgettable role of Gustaw Holubek. And it is impossible to think otherwise about Phaedra, than as of a beautiful and tragic woman with burned eyes and mouth and with the serpent entwined around her neck - so intensely captivates the imagination this poster designed by Jan Lenica.
The last presentation of this performance, eventually banned because of the political reasons, gave an impulse to the so- called „March events” – a protest action of students and intellectuals in March 1968. In response the government reacted with the anti-Jewish campaign, which finally resulted with a mass emigration of Polish Jews. Kazimierz Dejmek, the director of the National Theatre was dismissed.
The Small Theatre, a branch of the National Theatre, established by Adam Hanuszkiewicz, was located in the basement of the cinema "Relax" - with entrance through the department store "Junior. This chamber scene, with the unusual arrangement of seats, hosted various important premieres, among others „The Unrecognized Drama” directed by Tadeusz Minc and „Antigone” by Sophocles directed by Adam Hanuszkiewicz, with the debut role of Anna Chodakowska.
The Dramatic Theatre of the City of Warsaw
The Warsaw Dramatic Theatre is – apart from the National Theatre - the only one that has been emphasized within a separate chapter. This honour is obviously justified by the quantity and artistic quality of published posters. The regular publishing activity in the area of poster publishing had been commenced by its artistic director (at the turn of the fifties and the sixties) Marian Meller and continued afterwards by his successors: Jan Świderski, Andrzej Szczepkowski, Jan Bratkowski, Gustaw Holoubek… The characteristic feature of this particular theatre were premieres of plays by Polish and foreign playwrights, among others Friedrich Dürrenmatt, Witold Gombrowicz, Sławomir Mrożek and Tadeusz Różewicz with the posters for these performances designed by Jan Młodożeniec, Henryk Tomaszewski or Franciszek Starowieyski. Many of these artists created their unique style during the cooperation with the Dramatic Theatre. Nowadays, the posters from that period still surprise us with their “atypicality”. Various other artists occasionally joined the group of the graphic designers permanently cooperating with the theatre, among others Eryk Lipiński, Daniel Mróz, Jerzy Srokowski, Waldemar Świerzy, Mieczysław Wasilewski…
A wise patron, which undoubtedly has been for years the Dramatic Theatre of the City of Warsaw, provides a sense of security and creates the conditions for freedom of creative explorations. And the effects are often very rewarding.
The poster for the mystery play of the STU Theatre – Exodus, with the „libretto” by Leszek A. Moczulski and music by Krzysztof Szwajgier, directed by Krzysztof Jasiński, was often presented in the open air. It referred to the elements of fire and water and it had a great influenced on emotions of the audience. The scene when a naked girl and a naked boy, separated by a paper wall that sets on fire, approach each other was never-to-be-forgotten and emotionally received by the audience. The burnt out match on the poster designed by Jan Sawka refers among others to this scene.
The International Student Festival of the Open Theatre (earlier The Festival of Festivals) was a real “window on the world” for the alternative theatre environment in Poland. It hosted the theatre groups that were awarded at the similar festivals all over the world. The originator and spiritus movens of this festival was Bogusław Litwiniec, called padre (the father) of the alternative theatre.
"The Patients", a buffo (comic) performance, based on the novel by Mikhail Bulgakov, is another cult performance of the STU Theatre, directed by Krzysztof Jasiński, a founder (in 1966) and a long-time director of the theatre where worked various important theatre artists, visual artists, musicians and poets.
In 1975 the STU Theatre became a professional theatre. In 1977 "The Crazy Locomotive", the musical by Marek Grechuta and Krzysztof Jasiński, based on the works of Witkacy was staged in the STU Theatre. The ambitious show was presented in a huge tent. The speeding white locomotive with wings was running into the centre of the stage, the bicycles and the handcars were also used during the show. Marek Grechuta and Maryla Rodowicz acted in this performance.
„Kalambur” in Wroclaw, the STU Theatre in w Krakow, The Theatre of the Eighth Day in Poznan, the 77 Theatre in Lodz and the Academy of Movement in Warsaw were not only theatres, but also the centres of the cultural life of the young intelligentsia during the times of the Polish People’s Republic. The author of the corporate poster of the Open Theatre Centre “Kalambur” is an active artist, initiator and author of many projects, exhibitions, actions - sometimes causing discussion or controversy.
The Theatre of the Eighth Day is one of the most important alternative theatres in Poland originating from the student countercultural movement of the 60s. Performances presented in the 70s and the 80s were important, courageous and often ironic comments on the reality of the Polish People’s Republic. The poster with the image of Stalin was published in the period of the "First Solidarity" - the period of temporary easing of political restrictions.
The first poster designed by Wołyński for the Theatre of the Eighth Day, for the performance based on the texts by Stanisław Barańczak. The first version of this poster was banned by the censors. And no wonder - Wołyński designed a playing card with a double-figure of a worker holding the rudder, referring to the famous poster of Włodzimierz Zakrzewski from the 50s (the “helmsman” of the nation was the communist PARTY). The second version of the poster – with the head full of crumpled newspapers – was received by the censors with a relief…
The creative cooperation of Wołyński and Barańczak, strengthened in the exile, in the United States, lasted until the death of Barańczak in 2015.
Jerzy Janiszewski was the author of the sign (lettering) of the „Solidarity” – the Independent Self-Governing Trade Union, which in 1980 led to the agreement between the socialist government and the workers. The typeface designed by Janiszewski was called “solidaryca”. Krystyna Janiszewska designed in 1980 the sign for the Polish 1970 protest – a bloodily repressed wave of workers' riots on the coast of Poland.
„Polish Bethlehem” is the only theatre poster designed together by Krystyna and Jan. They both emigrated from Poland in the 80s.
A self-portrait of the artist, wearing a suit and a red shirt, of which the lower hem sticks out from the unzipped fly, was initially the basis for a poster for the New Theatre in Warsaw - probably for the "History" by Gombrowicz. The censors were vigilant and banned the poster. The representative of the Main Office for the Control of the Press, Publications and Performances came to the theatre during the rehearsals to see whether the performance may be presented to the audience (or else what must be changed before the public presentations) and spoke with Get-Stankiewicz about the poster. She was mostly interested in the shirt – she was trying to understand why it was red. Get-Stankiewicz was happy to provide the answer. He told her he liked this colour. And in particular this specific red colour from the primary colour triad, what was maybe not a very sophisticated penchant. The censor kept on putting a pressure on him, seeking for some other reasons for which he used this colour. Yet he did not let her fox him. He said he just liked it. Well, what could she say then? She obviously could not say she did not like this red colour. Get was undoubtedly an advocate of normality in the times when we all became slightly paranoid… Eventually the censors did not permit to publish this poster. The STU Theatre later on used the rejected project on the poster for Barefoot. And in Krakow, surprisingly, the project was not banned. (Excerpt from the memories of Anna Mieczyńska, "The Provocateur", from the catalogue "Hommage à Get" published on the occasion of the posthumous exhibition of Eugeniusz Get-Stankiewicz in the House of Culture Śródmieście, Warsaw 2011.)
There is a funny story associated with this poster. In the times of Polish People’s Republic there was a strict price list for the remunerations, which artists were allowed to charge for their works. However, the acceptable rates were not satisfactory for the best artists. Yet it was difficult to find a solution to get past the stringent rules. In this particular case Henryk Tomaszewski charged the additional price for… colour separation.
Tadeusz Gronowski, considered the founder of the modern Polish poster, was the author of hundreds of works, mostly advertisements (for example of a famous slogan “Radion sam pierze” – “Radion – self laundering”). During the interwar period he worked as a stage designer for several theatres in Warsaw, but he designed very few theatre posters.
Franciszek Starowieyski von Byk (the bull) – this name was adopted by one of the great artists of the Polish poster school. Originator of the theatre of drawing, an expert on human anatomy, in particular on female bodies. In his works he ostentatiously referred to the works of the seventeenth-century masters.
Henryk Tomaszewski – one of the most eminent representatives of the Polish school of poster. His works are characterized by the artistic abbreviation, metaphor, and graphic transfer of a message, but also by playfulness or irony. This distinguished artist probably anticipated the state of martial law in Poland and the Military Council of National Salvation (the Polish abbreviation “WRON” – is similar to the Polish word “crow and there is a slogan “the crow will not beat the eagle” that refers to the White Eagle – the Polish national emblem) and the public sentiments that were to come a year later.
Jerzy Grzegorzewski – the visionary director, graduate of the State Higher School of Fine Arts in Lodz and the State Higher Theatre School in Warsaw. In 1982-1997 the artistic director (since 1990 also the general director) of the Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz Studio Arts Centre. In 1997-2003 the artistic director of the National Theatre in Warsaw. Marek Walczewski, portrayed on the poster, was one of his favourite actors.
The posters (playbill-posters?) designed by Pluta for the Juliusz Słowacki Theatre in Cracow refer to functional typography. Using print typography (nowadays of course in a computer technique), he creates, in spite of the simplicity of means, artworks not devoid of humorous aspect, such as for example "Twelfth Night".
Enthusiasts and „pollectors” (poster collectors)
It is also worth mentioning here, besides the two previously emphasized Warsaw theatres – the National Theatre and the Dramatic Theatre, which for many years pursued (or still pursue) wise policies in the field of poster publishing, some other theatres, e.g. the Zygmunt Hübner Powszechny Theatre, the New Theatre and the Lalka Theatre in Warsaw, the Coastal Theatre in Gdansk, the Jan Kochanowski Theatre in Opole or the Wanda Siemaszkowa Theatre, Rzeszow that for years has been organizing the Biennial of the Poster. This phenomenon is often connected with the director of the theatre and sometimes with a specific person whose passion becomes poster publishing. I would like to mention here two important persons. The first one is Władysław Serwatowski, the organizer of many exhibitions, the jury member in various poster competitions, the collaborator of several theatres, the initiator of the language competition during which the word "pollector" was created - meaning someone who collects the posters. The other important person is Cezary Niedziółka who cooperated with the Zygmunt Hübner Powszechny Theatre and then with the Coastal Theatre in Gdansk. The retrospective exhibition of the theatre posters published thanks to his initiative (a few dozen out of about 150), held in the Warsaw cafe Relax, organized by Piotr Dąbrowski in June 2015, proved that the Polish theatre poster did not perish and that the young artists also begin to take an interest in the theatre poster.
Fortunately, there are “pollectors” - documentarians - publishers, both private and public institutions, various enthusiasts organizing numerous retrospectives and exhibitions, who sponsor publications documenting the art of poster - including the theatre poster. The most famed and important activists in this field are Krzysztof Dydo in Cracow, Piotr Dąbrowski, Nina Rozwadowska and Andrzej Stroka, Bożena and Piotr Rajchel, Włodek Orzeł in Warsaw and Florian Zieliński in Poznan. As well as the Zbigniew Raszewski Theatre Institute and the Poster Museum in Wilanów, a branch of the National Museum in Warsaw, with its collection consisting already of over a dozen thousands Polish theatre posters.
Concept of the exhibition - Anna Mieczyńska-Jerominek
Translation - Agnieszka Mrowińska
Coordination and cooperation - Klaudyna Desperat, The Zbigniew Raszewski Theatre Institute