Polish Posters Play with Protest at Vanderbilt University

Jan Sawka, The Tempest

France’s Belle Epoque came to an end with the first rumblings of World War I. The period had lasted for more than a quarter-century, and its peace, optimism and artistic advancements were celebrated in its stylized posters. If World War I ended the Great Poster Period in Paris, World War II prompted another in Poland.

Curiouser and Curiouser: Avant-Garde Polish Theater Posters From the 1970s is a vivid, colorful affair that’s full of the sexuality, humor and dramatic intensity of the performances these prints were created to promote. Inspired by Pop Art and the experimental theater of the period, these works share stylistic similaries with their contemporaneous American counterparts. But where American poster art after the 1960s reflected the hedonistic liberation of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll that arose in the wake of the various youth movements of the time, these Polish prints are soaked in irony and satire, born from a then-recent history of Nazi occupation followed by communist rule.

The exhibit pulls from the ripe center of the Polish School of Posters, which generally dates from 1950-80. Those designers brought bold colors and painterly gestures to poster-making, and the individuality expressed in a given poster reflects personal artistic styles that are not normally discernible in the mostly anonymous world of graphic art.

One of the show’s most welcome inclusions is cinematic — the 2009 documentary film Freedom on the Fence. It’s a history of Polish poster-making that details the evolution of these images from World War II through the fall of communism. The movie examines the revolutionary role that posters played in the social, political and cultural life of Poland during this period — one commentator notes that the prints are so colorful because there was no color to be found anywhere else during Poland’s communist era. Even if you don’t sit through all 40 minutes of the documentary, try to catch the beginning so you can see the jaw-dropping reworkings of American movie posters that were being made in Poland right after World War II. The movie is a great primer for the exhibition, and spotlights poster artists like Roman Cielewicz and Franciszek Starowieyski, both of whom have work hanging on the gallery’s walls.

Cielewicz’s poster for the Samuel Beckett play Happy Days dates back to 1979. Cielewicz’s Peter Max-esque print features disembodied hands holding a title card, while a handle-less umbrella floats freely above the empty space where one might expect to find a head — a rain of colorful, geometric, psychedelic patterns fills the background. Some reviewers have concluded that the seaside setting of Beckett’s play might actually be a post-apocalyptic one. Perhaps Cielewicz’s rain isn’t an allusion to LSD as much as it is a statement on the radioactive fallout that follows a nuclear blast.

Starowieyski offers up the exhibition’s most provocative image with his 1978 poster for White Marriage, Polish poet Tadeusz Rewicz’s psychosexual dissection of Poland’s patriarchal society. The play was a shocker when it debuted in the 1970s. Rewicz set White Marriage in the early 20th century as a way to disguise his cynicism for the sexual speculations of the surrealist farce’s protagonists — two coming-of-age girls. Starowieyski’s poster is full of wild, sexual frenzy, but the image of a hairy beast with an animal’s skull for a head and a clawed appendage for a penis is a distinctively male creature — even the title bar at the bottom of the poster shatters and explodes under the penetrating attack of its proboscis-like maw. It seems that neither artist nor playwright were very optimistic about the girls’ chances at liberated adult lives when confronted by such a monster.

The prints of graphic designer and set designer Jan Sawka are another highlight of the show, particularly his poster for a 1977 production of The Tempest that features a disembodied head in a muzzle dripping with bloody red text.

Danka Lustyk’s 1977 poster for The Little Theatre’s production of A Month in the Country is my favorite. One of the least painterly pieces in the show, it features a background of voluptuous pink that shrouds a white silhouette in the poster’s center — a woman’s dignified head contains a partial rendering of a patient face above a heart-shaped collar that overflows with pink and white flowers. The title appears in a playful border of green grass at the bottom of the poster. Month is a Russian comedy of manners penned by Ivan Turgenev, originally published in 1855. The play tells of a privileged but bored housewife who finds misunderstanding in a love triangle that disrupts a summer idyll at a country estate. Lustyk’s poster for a late-1970s revival captures the woman’s luxurious ennui while also mirroring the comfy ironies of the play’s bucolic setting.

The posters in this exhibition were gifted to Vanderbilt by the late Don Evans, an artist whose own work was full of the same kind of anarchic whimsy on display here. I have a list called “Lessons from Don Evans” attached with magnets to a file cabinet in my studio. Lesson No. 10 is, “Don’t be afraid.” The creators of Poland’s revolutionary posters would agree.

Curiouser and Curiouser: Avant-garde Polish Theater Posters from the 1970s Through Aug. 28 at Vanderbilt’s Fine Arts Gallery.

This review originally appeared on the Nashville Scene‘s Country Life blog.

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About Joe Nolan

Joe Nolan is the visual arts editor. He is a poet, musician, artist and critic who distills the city's gallery scene from Nashville's east side. Find out more about his projects at joenolan.com. (Photo of Joe Nolan by John Rogers)


  1. Tom Turk says:

    ,,,and the exhibit is at the Vanderbilt Fine Arts Gallery. (?)

    • Joe Nolan says:

      Yeah Tom, that information is on the original post and I’ve added it here. Sorry for any confusion.


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