Play Poland, the Polish film festival taking place across the UK in November 2016, has not only in recent years deepened UK audiences’ knowledge of Polish film, but has a website designed to provide insight into different aspects of movie making in Poland throughout the late 20th century. This includes a virtual exhibition platform about Polish film posters from the 50s to the 80s, when artists like Franciszek Starowieyski, Jan Młodożeniec, Mieczysław Wasilewski, and Jakub Erol developed an idiosyncratic style of poster design under the oppressive communist regime. It’s to be accompanied by an exhibition at Clapham Picturehouse of the work of Andrzej Pągowski – one of the form’s foremost exponents – running from 18 November till 31 December 2016.
Found in the section ‘Watch’ on the Play Poland Website, the exhibition consists of a number of categories in alphabetical order, each of which either focuses on a particular artist, or on a select theme in Polish film poster design, starting with ‘American cinema posters.’ The section nicely outlines the particular conditions Polish artists had to work under: cut off from the West, they were to create posters of films that they sometimes hadn’t even seen yet. Rather than hindering production, however, this meant that they were left a freer hand to experiment, relying on abstract forms, bright colours, naïve imagery and humour to realise their projects. In the category ‘Polish School of Posters’, artist Jan Lenica explains: ‘Polish posters, which because of their “oddity” had achieved great international success so rapidly, were original, as we were isolated from the Western world and it did not resemble anything else, as we have seen very little and have been completely on our own’.
Though it would have been even better to provide video links to some of the artists’ interviews, quotes like Lenica’s give the exhibition a personal touch – a difficult thing to do for something as intangible as an exhibition you can’t walk through but have to click on to discover what’s there.
The actual selection of posters on view is rather small, often comprising only one per section. Additionally, in the parts that don’t focus on a particular artist, we don’t know who created the poster as there are no captions, and the images can’t be enlarged. Nonetheless, they are stunning. A particularly great example is Andrzej Krajewski’s poster for the 1971 French film ‘Max and the Junkmen’, which shows a woman from two different angles, constructed with simple shapes and powdery colours. Krajewski’s interests in art deco and pop art make the image a flat and naïve composition, but one with so much charm and simple brilliance that looking at it never gets old.
However, Krajewski’s candy colours are the wonderful exception rather than the rule in Polish poster design: most other examples, like Jacek Neugebauer’s poster for ‘These Are the Damned’ (1968), create a much heavier and more serious mood, even though they employ similarly pared-down graphics. Of course, the mood of the poster depends on the genre of the film they represent, yet many works are unexpectedly dark and mysterious – leaving the viewer to watch the film to find out more.
The strange thing about the exhibition is that we never get to see all of the posters at once, which makes the online platform different from a ‘real’ gallery experience, where we can form our own story based on idiosyncratic comparisons between the works we encounter. In a way, this makes the ‘exhibition’ as a whole more difficult to grasp, because we can only ever focus on one image at a time – with a lot of clicks in between. At the same time, the online format is a comfortable way to explore new artworks: openly accessible, it allows you to read one or two of the categories at a time and go back to them whenever you feel like it.
Perhaps the site could have been conceived more comprehensibly, the sections structured in a slightly different way, for viewers to gain a better overview before going on to explore individual artists. Additionally, much of the text needs revision, as its English is sometimes a little clumsy. These are all things one can easily overlook: the topic of the exhibition, and especially the posters themselves, really do provide an exciting insight into Polish film from a new angle. Yet it will surely take a visit to the Clapham Picturehouse, and its display of one of Polish Poster’s foremost practitioners, to explore its fantastic landscape even more closely.
The Polish School of Posters Exhibition, featuring the work of Andrzej Pągowski, will run at Clapham Picturehouse from 18 November to 31 December, as part of the Play Poland Festival 2016. The online exhibition can be accessed by clicking on any of the images above.