Walking through Warsaw, the spiritual home of the Polish poster, you’d be forgiven for thinking that while the influx of Western capitalism in 1989 brought undoubted positives to the country, the break with communism also effectively announced the death of the street poster as an artform here. Considered and well designed posters are still papered up on the cylindrical stands that feature all over the city (announcing lectures, exhibitions or new indie film releases) but the majority of contemporary posters on the capital’s streets are the uninspired corporate offerings of big business: posters now completely interchangeable – bar the Polish text, of course – with the visual language of any modern city.
On arriving in Warsaw for the twentieth International Poster Biennale then, there’s a sense that this kind of competition could well mark the last gasps of a century-old cultural tradition that – as some have delicately suggested may be the case in Poland – actually shone brightest under oppressive communist rule. Yet what the recent Biennale proved is that while contemporary artists now struggle to find clients to commission poster work and, indeed, the space to show it in, it’s the collegiate and gallery systems here that support the artform in a way that the billboards on the streets are unlikely to do again.
These systems combine to make the Warsaw Biennale. The first poster competition took place in 1966 under the chairmanship of Academy of Fine Arts professor Jósef Mroszczak. Since then, it has grown to the extent that it received 2383 entries this year from all over the world – 647 of which were awarded a place in the accompanying exhibition and catalogue. Since 1994, the Biennale has been under the control of the Academy’s charismatic professor Lech Majewski and it was to an exhibition of his students’ work from the last ten years that we went during our first night in the city. The Galeria Ateneum Mlodych had a wealth of work on show – in particular, posters by Jan Wawrynkiewicz, Lukasz Szymanski and Ewa Engler revealed that the next generation of designers has a desire keep the traditions of poster art alive while embracing a range of new production technologies.
The long history of the Polish poster is also well documented within the numerous poster galleries in the city. During the second day of our trip, seeing original work by Poland’s most celebrated artists provided vital context for the work we were to view later in the Biennale exhibition. In the Grafiki i Plakatu (Graphic and Poster) Gallery, the work of the “four greats” – Henryk Tomaszewski, Jan Lenica, Roman Cieslewicz and Jan Mlodozeniec – hung on the walls while the gallery owners were relatively happy for us to trawl through archives of original work from the 50s and 60s. The prices were pretty good too, but somehow I found myself holding a modest set of Tomaszewski postcards at the till.
As an additional part of the Warsaw Biennale, a fascinating exhibition had been set up at the Institute of Media and Design on Spokojna Street showcasing a selection of the best posters from the nineteenth competition (held in 2004) and also from the event’s 40 year history. To complement the retrospective, two artists – Norikazu Kita of Japan and Vladimira Chaiki of Russia – also showed some of their best work, with the graphic minimalism of both working brilliantly in the white space of the gallery. They know how to show posters here too: up high (at about 12 feet) so that everyone can see the work, even when the room is full.
That evening, at the Wilanów Poster Museum, the Biennale exhibition was officially opened with the prize-giving ceremony where Gold, Silver and Bronze winners in each of the four categories – Ideological, Culture and Art, Advertising and the Henryk Tomaszewski Debuts for young artists – were announced. Going round this huge exhibition of exciting and surprising artwork, the range of nationalities with work on show was, at once, staggering and – somewhat bizarrely – embarrassing. France, Germany, Poland, Switzerland, China, Japan and the US easily boasted the majority of the 647 posters while the UK… I had to resort to rummaging through the index of the catalogue to find the mere seven posters chosen from artists from Wielka Brytania. A look along at the other listed entrants revealed that Iran and even Israel had had more success here than the UK.
While it was great to see the work by Dominik Klimowski and Johan Persson, Jonathan Barnbrook, Andrzej Klimowski, Andrew Mockett and Henrik Kubel (who was actually there!) it seemed a shame that these were the only designers to have sent work in and been selected to exhibit – and that only two of these seven posters were even for UK clients. Conversation soon turned to how the UK design industry views this kind of competition: is it deemed too traditional in its outlook? Too old-fashioned in its approach? Too Eurocentric? If so, these are wildly misplaced views – a quick stroll down one wall of the Wilanów museum revealed a range of stunning typographic, photographic and illustrative approaches, a brief selection of which are shown here.
It’s well known that Warsaw’s landscape has endured dramatic change over the last century. 85 per cent of the city centre had been destroyed by the end of WWII (much of this was then painstakingly rebuilt). Within all this, however, a commitment to the poster (and particularly its heritage) has remained in the people who run the galleries, teach in the colleges and organise this Biennale. The UK has been through much less yet, if the Biennale is an accurate international gauge, it would seem it no longer knows where its poster tradition is. Some argue that it’s already long gone. If it’s not, let’s see you in Warsaw in 2008. The Biennale remains surely the best place to celebrate this artform.