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The Polish School of Posters

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Poster, artistic poster and the Polish School of posters.

The vernissage of Michał Batory’s exhibition Retro- perspective. Posters and objects at Alicja Stanska Art Gallery

The first vernissage column since my return from Paris! I know that you are waiting for the promised entry on Bacon en toutes lettres at the Pompidou Center, but I accidentally acted like a politician: until October 13th, you could have promised everything, but the fulfillment of the promises is a different story. Bacon is as dear to me as the Polish School of Posters, but since Michał Batory’s exhibition at Alicja Stanska Art Gallery ends faster than the Paris one, this vernissage column is about it. Soz.

Even though the discussion about the Polish School of Posters has been going on for six decades, the last episode was the week before, when P. and me watched the posters encouraging to vote in the then Sunday parliamentary elections in Poland on the pogotowie graficzne website. Because I and P. have the same views, there was no political discussion, but there was a billion times more emotional artistic debate. We were a Korwin, Kaczyński, and Schetyna of art. We were even a Kidawa-Błońska and Kukiz. We were all the candidates simultaneously. Compared to ours, the polemics of politicians are as mild as Pudliszki’s ketchup.

Well, P. thought that most of those posters did not add anything new, but duplicate old ideas. I replied: “No wonder since all the artists create a poster according to the Polish School of Posters, and its strength lies in the fact that it is instantly recognizable.” And for a quarter or so, we threw arguments to and fro like two non-divine meanies do with an unwanted bill in a restaurant. Some of the posters were coarse, plain, and as stodgy as spaghetti carbonara, but others were quite interesting. One of the more original works was the work of Gosia Herba, who is much more familiar with the tradition of the Polish School of Illustration for Children than with the Polish School of Posters.

One of my faves (and the Facebook shares confirm than not only mine) was Jakub Kamiński, and his work Don’t be a fish. You have a voice [it refers to the Polish equivalent of the English proverb “Children should be seen and not heard.” The Polish version also includes fish apart from children], which uses all the advantages of the medium: economical method of communication, metaphors, a witty and catchy slogan, and a pure form, which is all the best the Polish School of Posters offers.


Gosia Herba i Jakub Kamiński. Plakaty zachęcające do oddania głosu w wyborach

Because Poland is famous for many things: Frederick Chopin, Magdalena Abakanowicz, the bulletproof vest, placing the images of the dead on their graves, one of the oldest mountain ranges in Europe and precisely for the excellent school of posters. And one of its more interesting representatives is Michał Batory, who has been living in Paris for years, at whose vernissage entitled Retro-perspectives. Posters and objects I was at Alicja Stanska Art Gallery.


Polska szkoła plakatu. Michał Batory, wystawa “Retroperspektywa. Plakaty i obiekty” w Alicja Stanska Art Gallery

Art in Warsaw

Recently, one painter has complained that in Warsaw, unlike in other European capitals, art is not respected, because art galleries are closed in the city center and are replaced by second-hand shops. I immediately recall Kilo Shop, a vintage clothing store located on the Boulevard Saint Germain in the center of Paris, surrounded by galleries, the nearest of which, A2Z Art Gallery, is 140 meters away. Nevertheless, everyone kept their shirts on (both second-hand and other ones) and was not offended by the capital city, nor was the capital city offended by anything.

And as for the artist’s very accusation – it is not true. It is not true that a second-hand shop is going to replace that Warsaw gallery, which moved to the NEARBY premises, and it is not true that there is no place for art galleries in the very center of Warsaw. Quite the opposite.

Not only is ul. Marszałkowska [Marszałkowska Street], one of the most prestigious streets in the city, full of art galleries (actually the whole section from ul. Widok [Widok Street] to ul. Unii Lubelskiej [Unia Lubelska Street]), but also Aleje Jerozolimskie [Jerozolimskie Avenue], the second most crucial street, only in the triangle of the Palace of Culture and Science-the Polonia Hotel-the Central Station, has three great art galleries housed in three beautiful prewar tenement houses. Four, to be precise, because we should also mention the Nowe Miejsce, which is also in this location. I haven’t been on any vernissage there for ages, so I hope that there will be an opportunity to make up for it soon.

The Avenue of Art

At Aleje Jerozolimskie, there is the Bohema Gallery, which I mentioned in my column on contemporary sacral art, as well as the Museum of Bolesław Biegas, which I visited to take part in a fantastic vernissage of Jan Lebenstein, the report on which is already on Facebook or Instagram. Alicja Stanska Art Gallery is also located at Aleje Jerozolimskie, to which I still hadn’t had a chance to get. However, that is nothing, because, as the saying goes, the bottom of the bottle’s a charm, so I finally succeeded, which made me happy, because I had really wanted to be at the vernissage of Michał Batory.

Most art galleries in Warsaw prefer white cube decor and wave the brush to paint the walls white. However, some places decide, such as Teutsch Gallery / Mazowiecki Dom Aukcyjny [Auction House] or exactly Alicja Stanska Art Gallery, on black, the color of the only ski routes I am interested in (because apart from slopes I like to ride off the slopes, and as you know, they have no colors, mostly stones).

The gallery has a fantastic, snail-shaped, left-handed layout. You enter the room where the “checking-in” took place during the vernissage, i.e., the person checking the guest list (hallelujah!). There was also a cloakroom and buffet there. Then, you proceeded to the main room, then turned left to the next one. Moreover, if it wasn’t for the glass, you could have also turned left and found yourself back in the first room with the buffet.

However, the essential things in the gallery were posters of Michał Batory, entire walls of posters, which were colorful and clean like the beautiful, shiny 400-year-old tiles presented during the exhibition at the Lisbon Museum in 2016. Most of the posters were associated with the theatre, many – with festivals, and a few not so much related to art, but society, responding artistically to the then-current events. For example, there was the poster Je suis Charlie with the slogan which, after the attack on the premises of the “Charlie Hebdo” paper in Paris on 7 January 2015, became synonymous with solidarity and freedom of speech and the press.


Michał Batory, “Je suis Charlie” plakat

A star is born

I have never hidden the fact that at my family home, in our private collection, in addition to numerous works by other outstanding artists, we have many posters. I am a follower of the Polish School of Posters. The best part of it is that we all use the name, but its origin is not clear. The official version is that it was used for the first time by Jan Lenica in the 88th issue of Graphis, a Swiss magazine, then Projekt, a Polish one, and… Lights! Camera! Action! Either way, the name was charming and needed, all the more that the Polish film school had already been operating for several years, so another “school” has already jumped into the already acclaimed position.

Most people connect the beginnings of the Polish School of Posters with 1945 and the great conversation during which Eryk Lipiński urged Henryk Tomaszewski to make film posters, but the real source is much older. Of course, the day of birth of the Polish School of Posters is as sure as the summer weather in Poland. Tough!

It is easy to give the moment of birth of an artistic poster in the world, namely the 1880s. As usual, it all began in Paris and the belle époque. I think everyone knows Jules Chéret and his “Parisian” colorful posters with casinos, cabarets, Moulin Rouge, and Yvette Guilbert, who was also immortalized by her friend Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. By the way, do you remember that there is now a grand exhibition of his works at Grand Palais? Why the hell did I come back from Paris!

The Polish School of Posters. The Beginning

In Poland, the first artistic poster, albeit incredibly verbose according to our modern standards, was by Stanisław Wyspiański and was about the play Interior by Maurice Maeterlinck and the lecture of The Mysticism of Maeterlinck by Stanisław Przybyszewski. We also found ourselves accidentally in the nineteenth century because the event took place on 20 February… 1899. Moreover, the party is on, although the Polish poster was extremely “Art Nouveau” for the next few years, including Jan Rembowski and his poster of Spring Salon of the Society of Fine Arts in Kraków (1914), to mention one example.


Plakat “Wnętrze”, Stanisław Wyspiański.
Fot. ze zbiorów Europeana Collections

In the interwar period, Poland finally regained independence. Moreover, just as the country suddenly gained borders, artists could creatively “cross” them because Western ideas such as German Expressionism, Cubism, or Art Deco took root in our country, thereby pushing out the outdated Art Nouveau. The Poles relished the new, not undulating, but geometric line.

Thus, the beginnings of the Polish School of Posters date back to the 1920s (sic!) and are linked to the Art Deco poster. By the way, it is fascinating that no other style got so many names as the Art Deco. Its synonyms are modern style, ultramodern style (extremely ultramodern style is still missing), Poiret style (after Paul Poiret, the one who took the corset off the women and put on a turban instead), and even the Chanel style (it was Coco who bumped Poiret!), the style of the 1920s (fair enough) or even a zig-zag moderne (my favorite one!), to mention just a few. The name “1925 style” was also used because Art Deco, as an elegant and orderly alternative to a flowery, pompous and a bit nervous Art Nouveau, was presented in Paris in 1925 at the International Exhibition of Decorative Arts and Design, or, to use the original French name, the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Moderne. Hence, the Art Déco. The name was derived from Art(s) Décoratif(s) and meant decorative art (meaning interior decorating or decor, and not exterior decorating or adornment).

The phenomenon of the Polish School of Posters


Tadeusz Gronowski, plakat Orbis, 1932 r.

The real pioneers of the Polish School of Posters were graduates of the Faculty of Architecture of the Warsaw University of Technology, namely Tadeusz Gronowski, who created the LOT [Polish National Airlines] logo, and Edmund Bartłomiejczyk, who later, as a professor, ended up at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw. It was there that the Graphic Arts Studio was created in 1926, and the first Polish poster design courses began. When looking at the interwar posters, e.g., General National Exhibition by Bartłomiejczyk from 1929 or Gronowski’s Orbis from 1932, one can see how many elements of the Polish School of Posters were used almost a hundred years ago!

Fooling around the starting date of the Polish School of Posters led to the fact that now, apart from death and taxes, only one thing is sure: once Henryk Tomaszewski had won 5 awards at the International Film Poster Exhibition in Vienna in 1948, the world became interested in the ideas of Polish artists. The term “Polish School of Posters” refers quite nonchalantly to the phenomena that began in the 1950s, underwent modifications until the 1970s, and, in my opinion, they are still subject to them, because current heirs and followers of the Polish School of Posters add their extra bit or rather pixel.

The golden age of the Polish School of Posters was the period from the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s. Its peak was the year 1968 when the first world’s Poster Museum was created in the Wilanów Palace, as a branch of the National Museum in Warsaw. Moreover, the first Warsaw and the world’s, in fact, International Poster Biennale, had been organized two years earlier! The winners, apart from Henryk Tomaszewski, Waldemar Świerzy, Jan Młodożeniec, and Franciszek Starowieyski, our geniuses from the Polish School of Posters, were foreign artists. For example, in 1978, it was Milton Glaser (the one who created the famous New York logo, with a heart in the place of “love”) or Andy Warhol in 1970. After I visit the last Paris Biennale, every time I think of Warhol, I visualize all his works that could have been bought at Grand Palais. The price of tiny ones started from 190,000 euros. So yeah.

When you look at a poster, the poster looks at you

After the golden age, i.e., after the first generation of representatives of the Polish School of Posters, the second generation appeared in the 1970s, including artists such as Andrzej Pągowski, Rafał Olbiński, and Lech Majewski. Among the followers of the Polish School of Posters, we find, among others, Piotr Młodożeniec, the late Ryszard Kaja (whose Kołobrzeg hangs in my office) and Michał Batory himself. The Polish School of Posters, the second generation, appeared in the 1970s, including artists such as Andrzej Pągowski, Rafał Olbiński, and Lech Majewski. Among the followers of the Polish School of Posters, we find, among other things, Piotr Młodożeniec, the late Ryszard Kaja (whose Kołobrzeg hangs in my office) and Michał Batory himself.


Michał Batory. Polska szkoła plakatu

OK, so what is the phenomenon of the Polish School of Posters? As a medium, the poster is expressive, screaming, and must be remembered. Nonetheless, the poster, albeit brilliant in its simplicity, is also extremely challenging and not functioning without viewers. For a poster to have an impact (and to function), it needs a person who looks at it. A poster without a viewer is like being an unpublished poet. It is possible, but what is the point, since it will not touch anyone but the author — a poster not fueled with the glances of people passing by withers like basil without water. Leopold Staff put it best in the poem – surprise, surprise! – Poster: “I hook the eyes of a passer-by with a harpoon / I bite like with fangs and flog like with a whip.” This is how the poster should behave. If it can’t, don’t let it be published for real!

A good poster is an intellectual challenge, an artistic joke, a charade, a rebus, a visual, and sometimes a verbal puzzle. A poster is not a display, the purpose of which is only to convey specific content. The poster, apart from an informational function, has an aesthetic function. It based on associations, either obvious or surprising ones, and precisely in this oscillation between the expected and the unexpected, known and unknown lies the strength of the poster.

Take the poster in your own hands

It is most visible in Michał Batory’s poster of Bernard-Marie Koltès’s play for the Polish Theatre in Poznań. Koltès is a representative of the Samuel Becket’s Theatre of the Absurd, according to which searching for sense in life does not make sense. It is no different than in the drama Roberto Zucco, which tells the true story of the Italian serial killer Robert Succo, called the Monster of Mestre. The poster of Michał Batory depicts two gloves that look like hands, soaked in blood and drying on a clothesline.


Plakat Michała Batorego do sztuki “Roberto Succo”

And now the fun begins. Batory’s poster visually transforms the verbal layer. Strictly speaking, it transforms three idiomatic expressions associated with gloves / hands. Everybody knows what “have blood on your hands” means; Roberto Zucco murdered several people, including his parents. “Handling something in velvet gloves” is doing something without getting your hands dirty. If you “do something in gloves”, you have blood on them, not on your hands. And even if the limbs do get a little dirty, they can always be washed after all.

The phrase “wash your hands” means shifting responsibility to others, and this is the case in Koltès’ play. Of course, as in any decent drama, indifferent society is always guilty of everything, no one is appalled by the fact that the pathological family sends the girl to the brothel. Violence escalation is the fault of society, so Zucco is not the only one guilty. Everyone is a potential murderer, and everyone has blood on their hands, even the girl’s brother.

A poster is not a restaurant menu that you always know what to expect from

A poster may work on idiomatic expressions or other well-known motifs, but it must depict them in a way that we would have never come up with. The poster for Łazienki Park has a clean background, typical of Michał Batory, and a close-up of lips in profile. Speaking of which, heart-shaped lips (the term like it was taken from a Disney cartoon) usually mean lips seen from the front, and the corners of the mouth, together with the Cupid’s bow, create a shape similar to a heart. Moreover, Batory, to enliven the image, twists them 90 degrees clockwise, thereby making both red-painted lips look like two halves of one heart.

A good poster balances like a drunk tightrope walker between recognizable elements of the cultural code (otherwise, we would not understand the sense of the message) and something new, fresh, unconventional; something that we do not know, something that would focus our attention, amaze and entertain us at the same time. Moreover, this is very difficult to achieve in the late second decade of the 21st century, the world of interactive advertising and broadened reality. We are jaded and bored, and most visual messages are like a menu in a well-known tavern. We will not even look at them because we know what to expect. Boredom, sir.

That’s why the poster must be like a perfect date. From the first second, it must bewilder, ridicule, and make you unable to leave. To that end, a good poster must be different than others, also – unique and unforgettable. Again, like a perfect date. Because a good poster, as Staff writes, is “an impudent pimp, a tempting pander, / offensive intruder.” The poster cannot be a polite hothouse flower and stand quietly in the corner like a mop. And Michał Batory posters are such intruders that hook us.

Polska szkoła plakatu. Plakat teatralny Michała Batorego

Do make wild claims if you do know what you’re about

At the same time, a good poster is like a beautifully served and well-composed dish. What is the point of the fact that the dish is tasty, but served on a dull, bland tableware; or the dish is colorful, albeit entirely tasteless? Likewise, a poster is not only a visual concept plus an inscription; it is all contents and binding. As I look at some of the latest artistic ideas, I wonder if the authors know what lettering is, for example. I have the impression that they are as little familiar with that as with a nilpotent matrix. What use can color and composition have? Pfft. And then comes a doodle with a ladle at Rosenthal’s.

Michał Batory composes every element carefully, and the whole is also complemented with a witty concept. If I were to assign his works to an artistic style, I would place them at the intersection of Surrealism and Dadaism. The artist is fascinated by everyday things that are so ordinary that we do not pay attention to them. Mindfulness minus five hundred. Batory takes these ordinary-extraordinary things out of the original context, thereby completely depriving them of any meanings. Moreover, such bare objects, devoid of any semantics, are put in a new context, which, not for quids (but also pennies, guineas, crowns, pounds, shillings, sovereigns, and any other British currency) we would expect.

My favorite example is the old poster made for the 1997/98 music season for the sound research institute connected with the Pompidou Center, i.e., IRCAM (Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique / Musique, in English – Institute for Research and Coordination in Acoustics/Music). On a clean background, orange one this time, so typical of Michał Batory, there is a steel tuning fork, the prongs of which smoothly change into cotton buds. Apart from the unusual connection of an object as typical as a bud with something less common (unless you are a musician) like a tuning fork, Michał, as a result of his creative synthesis, serves us


Obiekt kamerton, zdjęcie i finalny plakat Michała Batorego. Plakat na otwarcie sezonu IRCAM / Centre Pompidou

Posters and exhibits

Both the tuning fork, as an instrument for tuning instruments, and cotton buds are related to ears, i.e., the center of hearing. However, I do not know anyone who, while fumbling in their own auricles, thinks that they are smooching themselves with a quasi-tuning fork. However, maybe I’ve missed something in my life, and I’m surrounded by people who are as flat as a quesadilla and with fantasy of a snail. However, it may turn out that I do not appreciate snails, who knows.

It is characteristic of Michał Batory to place his artistic fusions and new combinations on a background without any ornaments that could either distract the viewer or, by bringing additional information, interfere with the poster’s message.


Ja na tle fotografii “przedplakatowych” Michała Batorego

The cleaned, distilled background, the semantic tabula rasa, appears to me as a display of a butterfly collection at the entomologist’s or precious stones in the jewelry box at the jeweler’s. This impression intensified in the second room, where, apart from posters, there was a cabinet with “exhibits,” i.e., the title objects. It was a real cabinet of curiosities! It was there that the photographed objects were located, and the photographs and posters based on them hung in the main room.

Therefore, the vernissage of the exhibition Retro-perspective. Posters and objects by Michał Batory was original! All three stages of the artistic process preceding the creation of the poster are presented there.

From the fork to the Bauhaus, or how a poster is made

The first stage is the physical preparation of objects, e.g., arranging the tuning fork with the buds, the flower with the watches, etc. The second stage is photographing it, and the third – creating the final version of the work, i.e., the poster. Of course, the previous “invisible” stage of inventing the poster, the process in the artist’s mind, is omitted.


W stulecie Bauhausu. Plakat “Bauhas”, Michał Batory

I had a lot of fun “peeking” at these stages, watching, for example, a bent fork-chair, which later, as a poster, was one of the 20 works by other artists invited by LABEL magazine to create a series of posters inspired by the style and ideas of the Bauhaus in the centenary of its existence. Apart from the great artists, I have the impression that most posters do not reflect the essence of the Bauhaus main idea at all. The posters are not inspired by the style and ideas of the Bauhaus; they are simply “Bauhaus-esque.” They repeat the century-long ideas, which are anachronistic one hundred years later, and do not squeeze out the Bauhaus clue, but incorporate them into our times. It’s a pity, because the potential of the exhibition was wasted. Fortunately, Michał Batory’s fork is a notable exception to inspiration because the artist understands the difference between inspiration by and being in style.

It is fantastic to look at an object in the frame (e.g., a tuning fork with buds), then its photo, and then a poster. I had the same fun watching the photo of the scissors-legs (only in Polish, both words can’t deny having a common stem) and comparing it with the later inscription in the poster version. The first stage (the cup-face object) was also interestingly combined with the third stage, i.e., the poster of the play “Le projet Andersen” at the Chaillot National Theatre in Paris. The cup having the face of Hans Christian Andersen contains hot coffee, the steam of the boiling beverage forms into fairy-tale characters. The writer’s brain literally boils while inventing subsequent stories.


Michał Batory, plakat „Le projet Andersen”


At the vernissage at Alicja Stanska Art Gallery, fantastic wine was served by the waiters, as well as a phenomenal buffet: delicious blue cheese, grapes, and strawberries, which, plus wine, make up my long-lasting miraculous diet. Actually, it’s miraculous that I do put on weight.


Wernisaż wystawy “Retroperspektywa. Obiekty i fotografie” Michała Batorego

As for guests, I have already written that, in my opinion, in Warsaw, there are separate art circulations: state, the mainstream one, gallery-week one, and business one. Alicja Stańska’s Gallery belongs to the third circulation. I met there relatively few friends from the world of art, although there appeared the owners of a gallery. However, there were some friends from other circles, e.g., music one. The guests were very diverse, mainly because Michał comes from Łódź, so there were many people from there, there was also a French delegation. Some curiosities: Rafał Trzaskowski, the President of Warsaw, was there and gave a short speech as an opening event.

I liked it that you had to have an invitation to enter the vernissage. I have mentioned many times that I like closed vernissages, and I am happy that more and more galleries are deciding to do so. On the one hand, it gives me a sense of pampering, and on the other, the comfort that there will be specific guests to talk to (or not), not art plus vernissage minks. The gallery should feel like a host and make sure that guests feel they are special, and it’s hard to achieve that if the crowd comes to the vernissage as to the sales in Zara. Moreover, because I felt special at Alicja Stanska Art Gallery, I will be happy to come to the next vernissage.


Ja, Michał Batory, właścicielka galerii Alicja Stańska i artysta Paweł Wocial


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