Rare old posters of Poland weave the story of the evolution of the discipline, writes Shailaja Tripathi

History has often held within its multi-layered folds the names that have taken up cudgels to fight the unjust. Artists, in different parts of the world, figured in the space with noticeable regularity. They rebelled against excesses, vented their emotions in the face of tragedies through the means known best to them.

Poland's long and continuous subjugation to foreign powers — the Austro-Hungarian empire and then the Soviet Union, led many artists to use the medium of posters. Coupled with other factors, gradually, poster art flourished and reached its peak under the Soviet communist regime in the '60s. An exposition of rare old posters organised by the embassy of the Republic of Poland in Delhi is currently on in the Capital, but sadly, the show doesn't include the path-breaking pieces, smeared with dissent, that the country has witnessed. Quite expectedly, the embassy has played safe and instead churned out a collection of film, theatre, opera and circus posters made by veterans like Waldemar Swierzy, Andrzej Pagowski, Jan Lenica, etc. which, if not bold, are delightful for sure.

The posters were in circulation 1890 onwards in the country to promote activities, at times propagating ideologies, but it wasn't until the period of the 1950s to '60s that the genre really came into its own and attained pure artistic qualities. That juncture eventually came to be called the Polish school of posters and quite a few posters in the show come from here.

However, there are works from the '70s, '80s and '90s as well, and 16 artists in all have been chosen to give a glimpse of the discipline.

The exhibition features two seminal works of Lenica, one of the foremost polish designers. One of his posters for the opera of Alban Berg titled “Wozzeck” made in 1964 (considered one of his finest works which won the Grand Prix at the Poster Biennial in Warsaw in 1966) has a huge red head with lips wide open in the middle of the face. His poster for “Faust” designed for the opera of Charles Gounod shows how Lenica brought painting technique to poster making.

Another star on the horizon was Waldemar Swierzy. His movie poster for the Swedish film Viskninngar och rop (1974) directed by Ingmar Bergman displayed at the exhibition is among the many done by Swierzy, who now works as a professor at Poznan Academy of Fine Arts. The film was released as Whispers and Cries in English. Swierzy's posters were distinct on account of their humour and elements of pop art.

From what started out as a means to express angst against the totalitarian regime later evolved into a distinct art form. Hemal Paliwal, cultural coordinator of the embassy, who has curated the show from the embassy's own collection says that poster art in Poland later came to be at par with paintings in stature but due to its reduced demand, the scene now lacks the vibrancy it once had. It is believed that there was once a time in Poland that no event, opera, theatre or film screening was deemed complete without posters.

A 40-minute documentary Freedom on the Fence has been made, focussing on the significance of posters in Poland's social, cultural and political arena. From expressionism to art deco, surrealism to pop art, poster artists were seeking myriad influences to create their works.

Film, theatre and opera posters did not lack artistic depth but it was really the cyrk or circus posters that were said to be masterpieces. Announcing the new circus show in town, they took influences from fantasy, folk tales.

Polish School of Posters

On view at India International Centre Annexe till May 31

Cyrk posters of the Crowned Lion, Tiger-Cat, Jaguar and Parrot designed by famous artist Hilscher Hubert are also up for view at the foyer of IIC.