The double lives of Roman Cieślewicz

Polish graphic artist Roman Cieślewicz worked on both sides of the Cold War divide, but was driven by a single desire to communicate

Polish graphiste Roman Cieślewicz spent his life in the close company of artists but he always focused his energy on graphic design, welcoming both the inky qualities and the egalitarian effects of print. The opportunity to broadcast his images on a billboard or in the Paris Métro held far more appeal than the closeted world of the gallery. Looking back at his career of forty years in the early 1990s, he said, “It was my dream to make public pictures that could be seen by as many people as possible. Hence the high importance of the poster – the street picture. I had thought about the poster before the Academy [of Fine Art in Kraków]. Entering the street. That’s extremely important. Given the variety of objects surrounding mankind, I find an announcement the most important thing. Telling, saying, communicating, announcing, informing….”

Communist Poland – where Cieślewicz began working in the mid 1950s – was a surprisingly conducive environment for a designer with a mission to communicate, as a new exhibition at the Royal College of Art in London shows. Posters commissioned to announce the latest films and theatre performances were relatively free from official propaganda or the pressure to deliver audiences. Whilst film posters in the West were often vehicles for Hollywood stars, in Poland designers could promote the same movies with personal, even idiosyncratic, symbols. Commissions were given out to ‘licensed’ members of the ‘Polish Poster School’, a loose alliance of modernist graphic designers. Although censorship and compromise were built into this system, these designers were not drudges working to decree. Cieślewicz began his career just when censorship was being relaxed and experimentation welcomed. He quickly established a reputation for extraordinary surreal images, reviving the techniques of montage, décollage (the tearing or cutting of images) and frottage (a technique for generating ‘automatic’ images by rubbing across a textured surface). Employing techniques of surrealist art of the 1920s might have seemed like a strangely démodé gesture by the 1960s but that was precisely the point. Irrational techniques and ‘obsolete’ images represented suppressed values in communist countries which blew the trumpet for progress and science. After all, the Soviet Union had put a man into orbit in 1961, the most spectacular sign of its claim on the future. Cieślewicz’s imagery frequently harked back to the past – often in the form of Belle Epoch imagery – to trouble the present.

This was most evident in the pages of Ty i Ja (You and I), an idiosyncratic women’s magazine produced in the early 1960s by a small team which included Cieślewicz as art director. He folded a steady stream of printers’ devices, illustrations from 19th century school books and studies of natural history into its cheaply-printed pages, creating strangely vertiginous spreads that undermined the magazine’s modernity. Victorian cyclists would wheel across pages decorated with distorted and blown-up printers’ ornaments and the faces of models – from fashion spreads ‘borrowed’ from the pages of French Elle and Vogue – would be obscured by butterflies’ wings or peacock feathers. Without the need to attract the reader, covers would feature bizarre responses to the romantic theme suggested by the magazine’s title. The April 1963 cover, for instance, depicts a bowler-hatted man astride an ostrich which appears to have laid an egg in the image of his Edwardian belle. These designs usually exploit enlarged black and white images, cropped and culled from other printed sources at a scale which revealed their half-tone texture. These ‘blow-ups’ are often juxtaposed with vivid details: a hunched figure, for instance, skis down the slope of a tucked-up leg.

STYLE When Cieślewicz left Warsaw for Paris, he found work as an illustrator and art director in France. His ‘trademark’ style made use of repeated and blown-up images (Magician, for Elle shown above top). His design to promote Adam Mickiewicz’s play Forefather’s Eve at Warsaw’s National Theatre in 1967 (bottom) is an icon of the era with its desiccated figure lacking a heart, or perhaps a dried-out landscape. Mickiewicz’s mid-nineteenth century work reflected Polish anger at Russia’s occupation, a sentiment still current in 1967.

The magazine ignored the divisions of Europe drawn by the Cold War, frequently covering the work of Paris fashion houses, West German novelists and British photographers (not that figures like Bill Brandt knew much about their new found exposure in the East). When the Soviet Union was discussed, it was not in terms of fawning testimony characteristic of the rest of the Polish press. Ty i Ja’s editors were far more interested in the image of revolution offered by figures like Vladimir Mayakovsky and Alexander Rodchenko, the Soviet avant-garde of the 1920s, than in the saccharine art then currently on offer from ‘official’ Soviet artists. Independent and contrarian, Ty i Ja nevertheless mirrored the strange conditions of life in communist Poland in the 1960s. It was, for instance, full of advertisements – often designed by the magazine’s own staff – for products which were often almost impossible to obtain. Strictly unnecessary in a communist economy and much criticised by the official ideology, advertising was ‘needed’ by the magazine to demonstrate that it had its finger on the pulse of modern life.

On the invitation of Peter Knapp, art director of Elle, Cieślewicz left Warsaw for Paris in 1963 (though he continued to send designs back to Ty i Ja and his other Polish clients). Interviewed by Margo Rouard-Snowman, he recalled being dazzled by Elle, describing it as “journalistic machine: an editorial staff to bring out 250 pages which ended in the dustbin the next day”. Over the years that followed, he embarked on an impressive career in periodical publishing and advertising in France. After working on Elle, Vogue and other glossy titles, he was made art director of MAFIA, the celebrated advertising agency established by Denise Fayolle and Maïme Arnodin in 1968. Working with photographers like Guy Bourdin and Helmut Newton, Cieślewicz operated as a ‘service optique’ for corporations and commercial chains.

But these were angry years in France when student radicals took to the streets in an attempt to drive the country to revolution. Designers and artists were required to take sides. On the left, consumerism was identified as the chief enemy. “The consumer is killed by the things he becomes attached to, because these things (commodities, roles) are dead,” anno-unced situationist writer Raoul Vaneigem in 1967. Cieślewicz was not untouched by these arguments. He worked for left-wing publishers – Georges Fall and François Maspero – producing iconic images of gauchiste icons like Che Guevara, Lenin and Ho Chi Minh. His flattened-out ‘Pop’ style was not simply a matter of fashion; it signalled an interest in the way images circulate in the world. Salvaging found imagery, Cieślewicz was a ‘bricoleur’ without too many cares about copyright. Meaning could be made in the way a small half-tone print might be blown up to monumental proportions or an image loses detail in reproduction.

Print’s ‘natural’ capacity for reproduction prompted Cieślewicz to produce a series of ‘unnatural’ screenprints in the early 1970s. He developed a new form of collage, closer to the baroque ‘principle’ of the fold than surrealist games with a scalpel. Playing with lines of symmetry, he composed mirror images in which bodies seem to form strange headless shadows or familiar faces take on the appearance of the Cyclops. Something important is always ‘folded’ out of sight. Always a recycler, Cieślewicz reworked these black and white experiments into designs for posters and magazine covers.

COLLAGE Alongside his interest in the dynamic use of type and montage developed by the Soviet avant-garde in the 1920s, Cieślewicz was fascinated by the poetic and surreal effects of collage. Party, produced in 1976 (left), and Hung Up In Spite Himself of 1981 (right) feature combinations of art historical and modern images. The latter, for instance, includes a floating, prostrate figure from a fifteenth century painting by Paolo Uccello, strangely restrained by the Twin Towers. This powerful image has acquired an unintended tragic resonance in recent years.

In the mid 1970s Cieślewicz began a collaboration with the Centre Georges Pompidou, the major art centre in the heart of Paris which was then nearing completion. The early programme of exhibitions set out to explore the art of the European avant-garde of the 1920s. Cieślewicz – who had escaped the claustrophobic world of communist Poland – proved remarkably skilled at reinterpreting the graphic language of Soviet constructivism for the Centre’s publicity. Cieślewicz’s use of block ‘schwer’ lettering and angular composition – in the manner of Rodchenko – owed much to his experiences in Eastern Europe. As a student, he had sought out the last surviving members of the pre-war avant-garde in Poland (“real communists” as he called them and allies of the constructivists). The landmark 1979 Paris–Moscou 1900–1930 exhibition was promoted with his clever typographic design which combines Cyrillic script and the Roman alphabet. The two capitals of modern art are locked together in a tight grid. Making a union of East and West, ‘Paris-Moscou’ was a kind of visual metaphor for its designer: in communist Warsaw in the early 1960s, Cieślewicz had brought the visual panache of the Western consumer spectacle to Ty i Ja and, working in Paris in the 1970s, his interest in the Soviet avant-garde lent a new typographic force to the rather bookish world of French graphic design.

Always viewing the public as intelligent beings, Cieślewicz once said, “To me a picture could never be separated from the content. I always go for the maximum picture and the maximum information. You need to stimulate imagination to the maxi­mum.” Nevertheless, over the years he became more critical of the pervasive influence of the media in modern life. Like other thinking designers of his generation such as Jan van Toorn – and many today – he found himself both inside and outside his 2 3 profession. In the 1970s he produced a body of politically engaged graphic work including an occasional journal, Kamikaze: Revue d’information panique (1976, 1991 and 1995) and exhibition Pas de Nouvelles – Bonnes Nouvelles (No News is Good News, 1986). Abandoning the uncanny effects of surrealism, these series of collages drew upon the most direct forms of visual expression – graphic contrasts of scale and tone – to deliver sharp critiques of the moral economy of the mass media in the West. What, he asked, is the appeal of images of famine, violence and cruelty?

WORLD ISSUES Cieślewicz’s fascination with the effect of mirroring was put to effective use in this poster produced by Amnesty Inter­national in New York in 1975 (left). The work of the humanitarian organisation, founded in London in the 1960s, in directing attention to the fate of political prisoners around the world is referenced in its use of bars. This design was an early example of what became the dominant theme in Cieślewicz’s work in the last decades of his life. His 1994 poster ‘There is no Just War or Unjust War But there is a Dirty War’ (right), produced late in his life for the Centre International Contre La Guerre, Verdun, France, reflected on the terrible personal tragedy of war and featured a photograph of a horrifically disfigured soldier.

When Cieślewicz died in 1996, he had worked on both sides of the Cold War divide; he had explored the dreamworlds of surrealism as well as the party lines of constructivism; and he had worked for media corporations and for partisan publishers. Nevertheless, long threads can be traced through his work. Perhaps the most consistent trope is that of the broken body. His 1962 poster for Luigi Dallapiccola’s Kafkaesque opera, The Prisoner features a figure whose tragic fate is clear from the outpouring of crimson paint which issues from his broken neck.

To commemorate the bicentenary of the French Revolution in 1989, Cieślewicz was commissioned by the Imprimerie Nationale to illustrate a special edition of Anatol France’s 1912 novel, Les Dieux ont Soif (The Gods are Thirsty). His illustrations contrast bucolic scenes from 18th century paintings with photographic records of the terrible facial injuries endured by First World War combatants. The French Revolution – the mythic foundation of the république – is provocatively connected to the pointlessness of the battles of the Somme and Marne. What drew Cieślewicz’s attention – whether in Warsaw in 1960 or Paris in 1990 – was not the romantic appeal of ‘Revolution’ but the dignity of the individual in the face of power.

David Crowley is deputy head of Design History at London’s Royal College of Art. The first UK retrospective exhibition of Roman Cieślewicz’s work runs at the RCA from July 16 to August 7. It is organised as part of Polska!, a year of events celebrating Polish art and culture. Entrance to the Cieślewicz exhibition is free. More information is available at the Polska! website,, and also at



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