The Weird & Wonderful World of Polish Film Posters
Despite being in the digital age of short trailers specially edited for social media, interviews of directors and cast members accessible through the click of a button, and numerous press releases and critic impressions in the lead up to a film’s release, the poster still holds an almost static, nigh permanent place in the landscape of film marketing. While of course, the actual trends in the stylistic, typographical, and semiotics of film posters have shifted throughout the decades, the poster medium, albeit now mostly digital, is still going strong.
The importance placed on posters in the eyes of studios and distributors may not be as crucial as in the past—bygone eras of pedestrians passing by film theatres and ‘window-shopping’ numerous films competing for their attention and intrigue—the modern audience receives the first knowledge about a film’s existence through things such as digital news from the internet, a well-presented trailer, an actor’s social media, and so on. And yet, the film poster is still in use precisely because it engages the senses in a way that, in the briefest duration of time possible, invades the mind and memories into remembering the basic premise and message that the film is trying to get across, before actually watching the film.
Film scholar Stephen Parmelee noted that while its creation’s incentive is monetary, film posters serve an alternative purpose of triggering one’s memory of past films and, in turn, past eras and events in our personal lives, as well as the collective history of our society and culture; they have the ability to transport us to particular times and events in histories and remind us about the genres, directors, actors and how they relate to the way of life of that particular time and place. And indeed, even now in the internet era, when we search for a film on Google, IMDB, Letterboxd, and so on, we are usually presented at first with the poster of the film. They are essentially one of the best representations of a film’s ‘first impression’. The ability of a film poster to trigger nostalgia, remembrance, reflections of past films and eras is understated but important.
Nevertheless, marketing is still the reason for the modern film poster’s creation. Various legal clauses and contractual obligations to include top billings for actors (the placement of their names in order of importance or “star power”), studios and distributors, directors, taglines, release dates, et cetera—these things are in most cases prioritised first before the poster’s aesthetics. Whether one argues if films are commodities or individual pieces of art, the marketer is prone to consider films the former as their sole job is to sell tickets and gain as many viewership as possible.
That is not to say that theatrical, widely-distributed posters cannot look aesthetically pleasing. It is merely that poster artists are limited to certain conventions and trends, and even when they do break away from such traditions and formulate a fresh visual language, it may become a new trend and the cycle begins anew. Watch film poster artist James Verdesoto explain colour scheme trends in Hollywood film posters and how certain usage of colour, shadows, and composition of posters are effective in conveying the genre and premise that the film entails, such as combinations of white and red for comedies and dark blue for thrillers. They look compelling and true to the source material, but the fact that some stylistic choices are expected in certain genres can often cause a compilation of films from the same genre to have designs that are almost homogenous to one another. A single pixel in the grander mosaic of similar films.
The demand for ‘alternative’ art posters also exist. For instance, you can look at the works of Olly Moss and Mondo Posters. Criterion Collection editions of films they bring into their catalogue will also have artists creating unique artwork for the cover art. These types of alternative art posters break free of the aforementioned conventions and attempt to introduce compositions that infuse elements of characters, mood, and narrative of the films into the actual poster art. They worry less about including actors’ top billings or the name of the studio responsible for the financing of those films and put more emphasis on being as creative as possible. Even then, they still operate within the boundaries of the films and the package they come with. The voice and individual expression of the artist are, to some extent, still suppressed by the source material.
The Nationalised Film Posters of Poland and the Liberation of Poster Artists
Which brings us to the rather bizarre yet fascinating world of Polish film posters. What we refer to as the Polish School of Poster Art signifies a movement that began after the death of Stalin in 1953 up until the end of communism in Poland in 1989 after the Autumn of Nations that toppled Communist regimes throughout Central and Eastern Europe, including Poland. The movement is characterised by grotesquely beautiful imageries—that might not be the best representations of the films they portray but artistic nonetheless—as well as poster artists being at the forefront of creative decisions rather than film marketers. Notable poster artists in this School include Henryk Tomaszewski who was a Professor of Design at Warsaw’s Academy of Fine Arts and thought to be the “father” and one of the progenitors of the movement, Jozef Mroszczak, Tadeusz Trepkowski, Jan Leníca who was both a poster artist and a pioneer of Polish animation, and Andrzej Pagowski who belonged in the younger generations of Polish poster artists.
At the time, the communist system of Poland meant that all things, including cultural institutions like theatres, festivals, and so on were nationalised. A monopolistic film distribution company was created dubbed the Centre of Film Rental (CFR). This institution was instated in order to extend the government’s political grasp on entertainment and maintain power. Of course, a nationalised film distributor meant film posters were also created under the supervision and scrutiny of the CFR. Warsaw, being the capital of Poland and where the institution was located became the only city capable of producing posters. Poland placed an incredible amount of attention to the poster medium as it played a special part in public communication, so much so that one of the first poster museums in the world was founded in 1968 by the Polish government in Wilanów.
In Poland, the poster could develop free from ties with commercialism and also thanks to favourable natural circumstances. Our way of life is quieter, the cities are smaller and in them, no jungle of advertising and neon lights grows to devour the small printed sheet of paper.
Workers of CFR generally regarded that “film poster is a work of art” and “if the purpose of film is art, art should be the main aim of the poster”. Thus, artists creating posters in order to create art first and advertisement second (or rather not at all advertisement) under the supervision of the CFR became the distribution model. Polish posters of the early 1960s placed heavy emphasis on the artist’s personality and individuality, perception of posters became not only ‘what the poster tells us’ but rather ‘how it tells us’. For all intents and purposes, posters are treated as self-contained works of art and its relationship with the source material is lessened. The artistic freedom of the artist was at the forefront of stylistic decision-making. Oftentimes this caused a disconnect between the narrative and plot of the film with the Polish version, as the artists were under no contractual nor financial obligation to stay true to the original vision and atmosphere of the filmmakers, Although a lot of posters still embodied the characteristics and overall emotional beats that the films were trying to get across.
However, it also needs to be addressed that the liberation from having to succumb to the market forces did not mean independence from politics. After all, such tight grips on the CFR by the government also meant that the artists were under political orders, they may be artistically free but still ideologically subordinate. The need to portray certain things carefully in a way that fits the political narrative of the government through censorship persisted, and refusal to become public persons by working for the government for an artist meant remaining unknown and out of a job. Subtle messages against authoritarianism that went over the censorship board were not uncommon, but the status of these artists as essentially public officials still persisted.
Alas, we have been talking in the past tense because the art movement, at least in its most authentic form during communist rule, has ended. But even before the transition to capitalism, the distribution model was plagued with issues. The film posters exist outside of the demand from cinema managers, and they rarely used them despite being free of charge. Because of the uncritical and unsocial reception to the posters, those cinema managers were unable to discern who and what was at the forefront of poster design. The result was an immense waste of resources due to the fact that the decision to print posters was not under the assumption of its value, but rather that each film should have a poster. The fate of many of those posters was straight to the shredders and never to be displayed.
How Polish Film Posters Deliver Meaning
Under the communist rule and in no need to cater to the invisible hands of the market that allocates resources under the incentive of demand, most scholarly hypotheses on the distinguishing features of Polish posters is simply that since there is no overproduction to sell, the main aim of producing poster is to inform the public of cultural or political events and arouse their interest or awareness of them. The goal was not to persuade, the posters did not invite people to get closer to them but rather due to the powerful imageries these posters contain, it was almost as if the posters themselves that jumped out of the wall and grabbed passerby.
The essence of the poster is, at the same time, defense and attack: Defense against the environment, against other posters, against the architecture of the street and, at the same time, attack on the passer-by. The methods of attack can be different: One of the most efficient is, in my estimation, attack by surprise. Similarity kills a poster.
Putting Jan Leníca’s words in context when we compare Polish posters to conventional posters produced for the sake of advertising a product, defiance to other posters and to the environment itself where the poster is placed were emphasized. This might make some amount of sense economically if we consider films themselves to be substitute goods of one another and you must simply choose at particular moments in time when you are about to watch a film, which film you are going to watch over other films showing at the theatre. However, in terms of marketing, familiarity with the product being advertised is rather important as consumers are often thought to be wary of the unknown, at least until they are exposed to it for a while. Particularly, familiarity with genres, conventions, imageries, and proximity to other similar films are often construed to be the impetus that gives film posters their meaning; that is why certain colours and compositions are more common in one particular type of film and not others.
And as history has shown, it is quite true that in post-Communist Poland, since the goal now is to sell rather than just announce or inform as a public service, many film posters are just imported prints and designs from the international version of the film. The previous painter’s designs were replaced by realistic photographic imageries that emphasize the fame of actors, the masculinity and femininity of the films, and the exotic nature of the themes presented in the film. And with commercialism and capitalism seeping into the Polish society as well, those posters would simply blend into the background under a jungle of other product advertisements nearby.
On the other hand, Polish film posters of the period when the School was in its heyday, which was during Communist rule, the constant breaking of cycles and the de-automization of the creative process are the basic principles that Polish posters employ to deliver their meaning. The stimulation of thought, appreciation, and interpretation are goals that override posters as mere objects of visual delight or a display of purchasable commodity. In the art gallery that was the street, to the audience that was the Polish people who were not yet familiar with the language of modern art, the Polish poster had the ambitious intention to deliver metaphors and deep meanings which require a closer look every time in order to fully understand the true intention of the poster. In a sense, these posters were paintings in their own right.
Polish film posters would not evoke a practical value of being both eye-catching and quickly understandable from a few seconds of glancing at it that Western conventional posters might have. If Western posters emphasize legibility, readability, and compositional assuredness within the comfort level of the beholder in order to persuade them, the freedom from commercialism meant that the primary function was to connect with the audience on an emotional level. In terms of legibility, if you remove the title of the film, it might take one a considerable amount of time to figure out what Polish posters were depicting, interpretation and appraisal of context are necessary. Continuing the art gallery comparison, if the practical use of Western film posters is to ‘shop’ for films to watch, Polish posters are individual pieces of art created with the utmost individuality of the artist yet still containing some characteristics of the films depicted and would require gazing at the poster for an extended period of time to appreciate and interpret them.
Painting Fine Posters
Under Stalin’s rule, the Soviets viewed ‘Art for Art’s Sake’ as the peak of bourgeois superfluousness and drove “Fine Arts” to the ground— in its place they imposed rigid social rationalism as the norm which The Polish School of Posters emerged in, as a quiet revolution. Artists who identified with the movement did not hesitate to use painterly gestures, vibrant colours, and semiotics to create functional artworks which contradicted the imposed order and presented their own creative agencies.
Two professors at the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts have been credited as “forefathers” of the movement: Henryk Tomaszewski and Jozef Mroszczak. They approached their artistry and pedagogy differently, yet shared dedication in training subsequent generations of Polish poster designers, advocating students to invent their own artistic language.
Henryk Tomaszewski’s debut took place in the second half of the 1930s, where his style is typified through a youthful approach that can be seen in his choice of colours and seemingly synthetic drawings. Take for example one of his most renowned works on landmark films, Citizen Kane (Polish title: Obywatel Kane). Completed in 1948 just in time for the film’s second release which gave it a commercial success, his stylistic approach has matured away from the free-drawn lines of his early works into minimalistic forms that he employs with his signature playfulness through his choice of colours and dynamic layered composition. Tomaszewski’s layered background/foreground elements within the 2-dimensional surface of the poster mimic the film’s famed use of deep focus lenses that clearly shows both the foreground and the background at the same time, inviting the viewer’s eyes to move between planes and information through character movements, which Tomaszewski has executed in his poster through colour schemes varying in value (brightness).
The poster’s background, on the other hand, has been borrowed directly from the film’s single most prominent narrative device, Kane’s iconic campaign poster, which has been redrawn in clean blocked-in grey shapes—accentuating the film’s straightforward approach in presenting its main character, publishing magnate Charles Foster Kane’s pursuit of political power through grey means of mass media polarisation that would eventually lead to his own downfall. Throughout his career, Tomaszewski continues to use this type of mental shortcuts to convey succinct yet sophisticated messages.
The School’s other side of the coin was Jozef Mroszczakv, who like Tomaszewski, began his career in the 1930s and would later emerge to be one of the most important figures of the school by actively keeping its memories alive. He published multiple books on Polish posters and also initiated and co-founded the world’s first Poster Museum in Wilanow along with the International Poster Biennial in Warsaw. In his work, Jozef Mroszczakv conjured posters made of crass nauseous colours that defined its own shapes—absent of clearly drawn lines— reminiscent of the 1920s German Expressionists. This style contrasted Henryk Tomaszewski’s, who chose instead to present muted colour tones within striking hand-drawn black lines.
Due to this lack of defined black shapes defining lines, his work demonstrated an unrestrained painterly quality when compared to other artists in the Polish School of Posters. One demonstration of this would be his 1955 poster of the 1933 British drama-comedy, The Private Life of Henry VIII (Polish Title: Prywatne życie Henryka VIII) that chooses to highlight the humour of Henry VIII’s character through Mroszczakv’s choice of dramatic stance depiction and painted decorative background. The vivid splotches of green and red bring to mind folk glass paintings and naive art, one of the most pronounced constant characteristics of Mroszczak’s posters; they help him put forward posters filled with persuasive information through minimum child-like pictorial aspects.
The two forefathers, especially Henryk Tomaszewski was later succeeded by his own assistant—Jan Leníca—who might be better recognised for his talents in animated films as well as visual arts. Unlike his predecessors who preferred to stick to one medium, Lenica experimented with an array of them: gouache, watercolour, tempera on paper, and the occasional use of cutouts and collage. A landmark piece might be his rendition of Jean Luc Godard’s Le Petit Soldat (1963), where Lenica uses his often capricious, flowing, wavy line-work inspired by Art Nouveau. And though Art Nouveau heavily impacts his choice of linework and typefaces, his finished drawings took a simplified, detail-free form, looking more towards Tomaszewski’s minimalism paired with his own use of intense-monochromatic palettes.
Lenica also preferred to emphasise his poster’s two-dimensional forms, adding into them irony and absurdity as his subjects would lose signs of visual mass and weight, a conscious decision made to highlight the poetic metaphors he has imposed onto his subjects; who through their gaping open mouths, seemed to be engaged in a dialogue with the viewers. Lenica himself used to say that “a poster must sing”, affirming the Polish School of Posters’ creative agency over their work.
Poster art seems closest to jazz: it is all about being able to play somebody else’s theme in one’s own way
This creative agency of the movement to present the artist’s understanding of the films has been carried on to contemporary times through Andrzej Pagowski. Contributing actively in the scene from the late 1970s to today, Pągowski’s work can be grouped into two large sections: those from his early career days that visibly adopts the aesthetics of the Polish School of Posters, and his more recent work where principles of the Polish School of Posters has been adopted into the aesthetics typically seen in contemporary advertisements.
As a sample of the former is his 1987 poster for James Cameron’s film, Aliens (Obcy), the sequel to Ridley Scott’s renowned 1979 science fiction horror. Here we can still see evidently the painterly qualities of the Polish School of Posters. When compared to his precedents, Pagowski uses smaller brushstrokes to showcase a sense of depth within the paper as those in the school of realism did. He also utilised his small brush in jotting down his signature “charged handwriting” that he has applied steadily throughout his career—they are quick flicks of the wrist that imply authenticity.
In this poster, we can also see an exaggeration of the Polish School of Posters creative agency that they have applied onto their advertisements, a feat that its forefathers started to defy the Soviets No Art for Art’s Sake rule and to relate their realities to the Polish masses. Here we can see no trace of the famed Xenomorph physique as it is portrayed in the film, instead, Pagowski has presented us with a snake skinned creature of many eyes wearing a fur mantle, an alien indeed, just not the one H.R. Giger envisioned, but one that Pagowsk felt would resonate better with Polish audience.
On the subject of a poster artist’s creative agency, Pagowski himself has stated: “It’s not all the same who creates a poster. Some I trust, if they made a poster, I seek a ticket. Others I don’t – I don’t care what they like. In this sense, the creator of the poster becomes a co-creator of the film, he took its side.” Over the years, Pagowski has adapted his style to suit contemporary advertisement needs without betraying the Polish School of Poster’s spirit in putting forth the artist’s understanding of the film. His 2018 rendering of Wojciech Smarzowski’s film Kler (Clergy, 2018) achieves this succinctly. In place of the movement’s painterly qualities and visible brushstrokes are instead replaced with clean lines produced by what appears to be print linocuts, his quick handwriting has also been replaced by digitally rendered typefaces, and still, here we see that this is his interpretation of the film and how he admires the director’s uncompromising and essential portrait of the Catholic Church in Poland.
On this opportunity, Andrzej Pagowski commented “I don’t have a lot of dream challenges that I look forward to. I was lucky to have been given the opportunity to comment with my art on the most important films throughout the last 40 years in Poland and work with almost every great director. But among those few, there was a dream to make a poster for Wojtek Smarzowski’s film. Ever since ‘Dom Zły’ (The Dark House) I was tempted to comment graphically on his works.”
What we are able to take away from understanding and appreciating Polish film posters of this particular state-sanctioned individual artists era is to reconsider the role of the artist in film marketing. The Polish School of Posters liberated the artists from consumerist demands, allowing them to become lone creators and the standard-bearers. And even considering their relative subservience to some political restrictions, they were still able to present their work to embody their individual desires and be as full-of meaning as possible, while not completely abandoning the aim of the Polish poster to inform and announce to the general public. The normal distribution model of film marketing and advertising in some ways denied artists of these notions, as they are often thought to be specialists and being part of a team of committees that arrange the aesthetics of a poster to persuade and sell. A middle ground might yet to be reached since we know the demand and appreciation for modern art and alternative film posters exist. And, of course, we also know that the ability of a poster to trigger memories of time periods and of the film itself is potent, many films and filmmakers simply deserve to have those artifacts of remembrance be as momentous and substantial as the moving pictures that they have meticulously crafted.
Marcus, J. S. (2006, September 8). Polish Theater Posters That Provoke. The Wall Street Journal.
Parmelee, S. (2009). Remembrance of Films Past: Film Posters on Film. Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, 29(2), 181–195. doi:10.1080/01439680902890662
Zielinski, F. (1994). The Rise and Fall of Governmental Patronage of Art: A Sociologist’s Case Study of the Polish Poster Between 1945 and 1990. International Sociology, 9(1), 29–41. doi:10.1177/026858094009001003
This article was co-written by Bondan Syamsu and Pia Diamandis