The Polish "Cyrk" Posters

From Circopedia

By Ylain Mayer


The end of World War II marked the dawn of a new period in the development of Polish poster art, which became known as the Polish School of Posters. The recently installed Communist regime began commissioning artists to design posters not only with social and political messages, but also and more prominently to promote the many aspects of the government-run cultural media: concerts, exhibitions, film, jazz, opera, theater, etc. and the circus (cyrk in Polish).

Building sites throughout Poland were enclosed with wooden fences, which were quickly covered with posters. These fences served as billboards and events’ notices as well as support for the art of the street. Circus became both the most internationally recognized and acclaimed subject depicted by the Polish School of Posters.

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The Art Of Cyrk Posters

Jacek Neugebauer (1971)
The first "Cyrk" posters appeared in 1962, when the ZPR (Zjednoczone Przedsiębiorstwa Rozrywkowe, or United Entertainment Entreprises), the state agency that oversaw the circus, commissioned leading artists to develop a modern approach to the circus poster. The ZPR wanted a revised look for the circus poster to parallel the circus's efforts to upgrade its image. These new circus posters were not to be advertisements presenting concrete objects, people, or facts; but rather, they were to be artistic renderings reminding the public that an exciting and contemporary circus was coming to town.

Based usually on a single theme, their metaphors and allusions created a wonderful artistic expression that, in addition to being viewed, were to be read, pondered, and digested. Cyrk posters became known for their mastery of certain specific qualities of the Polish School: painterly gestures, linear design, lettering, clever metaphors, humor, as well as vibrant colors. The significance of the circus as a cultural form during the Communist period in Poland (1946-1989), and the importance of these Cyrk posters, is attested to by the issuance of a postage stamp in 2002 with the image of the Mona Lisa circus poster by Maciej Urabaniec.

Politics And Poster Art

The post-war political systems in Poland greatly influenced the development of polish poster design. Beginning in 1945, Poland was known as the Polish People’s Republic, and was governed by a Soviet-supported Communist regime. Under this government, such media as the circus and the poster were given an exalted status, but they were subject to almost complete censorship.

In the 1960s, Poland achieved relative political autonomy from the USSR, and culture increasingly became the center of public life. The State, as both patron and controller of the arts, gave recognition to posters as an art form. While the State’s patronage supported the poster, the State’s encouragement created its success. This encouragement took many forms, including establishing education in poster design at polish colleges of art, and organizing national poster competitions throughout Poland. During this period, poster design became a well-recognized profession, attracting artists from various disciplines: print making, photography, illustration, sculpture, and painting; all of which contributed to the development of the Polish poster.

The 1970s witnessed a lessening of direct State supervision of the media, resulting in State-owned publishers exerting less and less influence over poster content. The political turmoil of the 1970s and 1980s further removed posters from governmental restraints. In this atmosphere of greater artistic freedom, poster design flourished; it became more dynamic, more expressive, and more artistic. Posters also became more intellectual and challenging as artists smuggled their own ideas into works still supported by the State.

Finally, in 1989, the fall of Communism in Poland and the introduction of a free market economy brought with it the end of an era—the end of the importance of the State-supported circus, and the end of the golden age of the Polish School of Posters.

The Artists Of The Polish School Of Posters

The artists of the Cyrk posters and the Polish School of Posters can be divided into three periods:

The First Generation (post-World War II): The founders were Jozef Mroszczak (1910-1975), Henryk Tomaszewski (b.1914) and Tadeusz Trepkowski (1914-1954). Each contributed to its unique style: a painter’s palette, the quick sketch—full of humor, strong coloring, surrealistic metaphors, concise composition and use of symbolism.

The Second Generation (the 1950s and 1960s): These artists, born in the 1920s and 1930s, include Roman Cieslewicz, Wiktor Gorka, Hubert Hilscher, Tadeusz Jodlowski, Jan Lenica, Jan Mlodozeniec, Marian Stachurski, Waldemar Swierzy, and Maciej Urbaniec. They continued the work of the First Generation, but in a more restrained, intellectual style. Some drew upon the fantastic and surreal while others favored abstraction.

The Third Generation (the 1960s-1980s): Born during and after World War II, these artists include Jerzy Czerniawski, Stasys Eidrigevicius, Marek Freudenreich, Rafal Olbinski, Andrzej Pagowski, Jan Sawka, and Wieslaw Walkuski. They introduced more aggressive designs intended to surprise, provoke or disturb the viewers’ beliefs and values. Their works often use camouflage and commonly understood ironies to communicate surreptitiously with the public. This generation firmly established the Polish School of Posters’ reputation throughout the international art community.

Image Gallery