Home > Lounge > Features > The many avatars of Polish posters

The Kolkata Centre for Creativity has several arresting visuals on display—there is a quaint one of a black cat jumping into a bucket full of washing detergent and emerging white, another of a little dog giving the spectator a knowing look from between a woman’s shapely legs. Thirty-six such posters form part of the ongoing exhibition Between Art Deco And Modernism: Polish Posters From 1918-1939, organized in collaboration with the Polish Institute in Delhi.

This unique selection, put together by Mariusz Knorowski, chief curator of the Poster Museum at Wilanow, Poland, hopes to give viewers in Kolkata a glimpse of art and everyday life in that country during the interwar period.

Poster-making has mainly three uses, even now: propaganda, providing information, and advertising. Some of the earliest ones, from 1908, predate the Polish nation state, when the territory was divided between different empires. Posters then were made by hand in large format, using watercolours. From 1939 onwards, one sees that the posters evolved from mere announcements to satirical political cartoons, military recruitment calls and product advertisements. There seems to be a greater emphasis on graphics and less on text.

“Poland regained independence in 1918 after 123 years of captivity, and it is only after this that we can speak of a sovereign Polish art without any foreign style elements," says Knorowski in an email interview. At the time, it was deemed critical to create Polish iconography that showcased the national liberation struggle. The posters developed their own peculiar idiom, both in the text and the artwork, to create a populist, simple visual narrative of a nascent Polish national identity.

Initially, artists such as Poland’s “national prophet", playwright, designer and painter Stanisław Wyspiański, relied on folk art styles and characters—what Knorowski calls “native and naïve art". “This was not very sophisticated in form and focused on glorifying heroes, but it was colourful, attractive, suggestive and directly affected the viewer—closer to illustration than graphic design," says Knorowski. Other well-known graphic designers, such as Edmund Bartłomiejczyk, Zygmunt Kamiński and Tadeusz Gronowski, improved on this style until it evolved into the artistically innovative Polish school of posters in the 1950s.

The movement had both academic and non-academic origins—film posters, for example, were firmly “kitsch" and belonged to the latter category. Although the posters, currently displayed at the exhibition, had functional uses, with many being created by professional artists from the Warsaw Polytechnic Institute, these artists were inspired by the art deco and modernism movements, as well as futurism, surrealism, expressionism and Dadaism. “In the 1960s, we see pop art from the West as a source of inspiration, as well as photography and modernist typography," says Knorowski. As styles evolved, so did the printing process. Lithography was the primary method along with offset and rotogravure. In the 1970s, a new silk-screen technique was introduced. Now, the process is largely digitized.

Though the posters originate from an entirely different era in another country, many of their concerns will feel familiar to an Indian viewer—the poster that talks about fighting tuberculosis and cancer, for example, hits closer home. Both the message and the aesthetic seems to reach out across the ages and remind one of not only our differences but also of all that unites us, in shared empathy, at all points of time.

The travelling show is on till 8 September at the Kolkata Centre For Creativity.

Rushati Mukherjee is an independent journalist based in Kolkata.

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