In an era of globalised entertainment, we not only see all the same films but they’re also framed in the same way: same trailers, same posters, same promos. But as Polish Poster Art 1952-84 at the Ian Potter Museum of Art makes clear, this wasn’t always the case.
Poland has a long tradition of poster art that predates soviet rule, but in the 1940s the new regime thought the genre aligned perfectly with communist ideology (folk art for the people) and tactics (powerful propaganda).
After Stalin’s death in 1953, the state allowed designers marginally more artistic freedom, which meant they didn’t have to produce everything in the same dreary soviet realist style. There were still strict controls on the types of films allowed to enter the country, but at least all the posters had to be produced in Poland, keeping many artists in regular work.
This strange confluence of factors is what makes this period of Polish poster art – from the 1950s until the end of soviet rule in the late1980s – so interesting. Poster art was one of the few outlets for creative expression, but artists still had to speak in code. They designed posters for commercial films, but they didn’t have to work to the constraints of capitalism. Stars, stills and the staples of Hollywood posters went out the window.
Instead, the posters on display at the Ian Potter Museum of Art rely on allegory, symbolism and cryptic clues. They look like they were made by artists living under an oppressive regime – skulls, guns and body parts make frequent appearances. All of which makes them a perfect fit for Polanski and Hitchcock but not necessarily light entertainment. (If you thought clowns were terrifying or performing bears immensely sad then you’ll appreciate the circus posters.)
Unfortunately the exhibition is missing some of the most well-known examples – there’s no Knife in the Water or Birds here. But the 65 works which are on show, drawn from one of the largest collections outside Poland, does include designs for rare Czech, Polish, Hungarian and Yugoslavian films that you’re unlikely to encounter elsewhere.