Bring back the unruly dogs – Daniel Bird

At the Flatpack Film Festival in Birmingham, filmmaker and writer Daniel Bird gave a cracking lecture on the art of Polish film posters, accompanied by an exhibition of posters from Barbara “Basia” Baranowska. The full lecture has been transcribed and can be read here. We invited Daniel to give his take on the current scene for Polish film festival posters, where he wonders if the ‘poster artist as hero’ is a thing of the past…

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Posters by Barbara “Basia” Baranowska: See You Tomorrow, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and Possession

When it comes to film festivals, Poland offers quite a range. There is Gdynia, which focuses exclusively on the domestic industry. There is Warsaw, which like the London Film Festival, presents itself as a sort of ‘best of the fests’. Despite focussing on cinematography, Camerimage packs a formidable punch when it comes to attracting Hollywood star power for what is, essentially, an industry affair.

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Posters for Camerimage Festival, 2010-2013

Then there is the New Horizons Film Festival in Wroclaw, and its sister event, the American Film Festival. Over the years, New Horizons has managed to combine an astute and frequently bold overview of what is happening in the world of film, combined with a competition section as well a thoughtful retrospectives (full disclosure: I curated 2013’s Walerian Borowczyk retrospective – himself a former poster artist). In recent years, New Horizons has advertised itself with uniform typography and minimalist designs featuring black on white with a single magenta colour accent – thus accommodating the brand colour of the key sponsor – T mobile. Two years ago, it was simply a thick line. Last year it was a fingerprint. In 2013 it was an iris.




Posters for New Horizons Festival, 2011-2013

This could be seen as part of a trend in which complete faith is put in typography, typesetting and a single, direct graphic idea.



Posters for Animator, and the American Film Festival, 2010-2013

For me, this tradition was pioneered by the likes of Grzegorz Laszuk, whose posters and programme layouts for Grzegorz Jarzyna’s Teatr Rozmaitości grabbed the almost lifeless remains of the Polish Poster School and dragged it into the Mac age. Nevertheless, sometimes it risks smacking of corporate branding, when there is a draconian control over typography and colour.


Posters by Grzegorz Laszuk, for TR Warszawa

The question I find myself asking is this: can the ‘poster artist as hero’ flourish under such constraints? Those titans of the 50s, artists like Jan Lenica, studied not graphic design but the likes of Picasso, François and Steinberg. Lenica died in 2001 and I doubt he ever had his colour palette and typographic choices dictated by a marketing policy.

jan-lenica_wozzeckPoster by Jan Lenica, for the opera Wozzeck by Alban Berg

Of course, there is always the danger of lapsing into nostalgia about the ‘golden age’ of the Polish poster. Indeed, I would readily pit some of Laszuk’s early posters and book jackets against the very best of Tomaszewski and Cieślewicz. Tomaszeski’s son, Filip Pągowski (who took the surname of his mother, another formidable artist, Teresa Pągowska), frequently pulls aces out of the hat, along have a handful of other defiant and, above all else, intelligent contemporary Polish poster artists. Arguably the most insightful commentary on the Polish response to the Smolensk disaster (which risked being hijacked by Polish Catholic Nationalists) was a cartoon featuring Jesus, sans crucifix, under which was written ‘where’s my cross?’ The answer was outside the presidential palace, guarded around the clock by the ‘mohair brigade’, who interpreted any attempt at removing an ad hoc wooden crucifix as an assault on Poland, the Catholic Church and, hell, even Western civilisation itself…

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Four images by Filip Pągowski

Pągowski‘s cartoon reminded me of my favourite poster by Tomaszewski, for a theatre production called ‘Witkacy’ by Jozef Szajna, then director of Teatr Studio in the Warsaw Palace of Culture. The writings of Witkacy, the avant-garde polymath who was in many ways a precursor of the ‘absurd theatre’ of Beckett and Ionesco, were unrecognisable after Szjana’s ‘design over direction’ mangling.

henryk-tomaszewski-3Poster by Henryk Tomaszewski for the play Witkacy by Jozef Szajna

Indeed, during the 1960s, whether it was Kantor or Grotowski, the director, not the text, was king in Polish theatre. Here, the egos of these often brilliant directors (Kantor, Grotowski) which sometimes veered off into kitsch (Szajna), was gently pin pricked, with the wit and humour, using a single, cutting poster image. Other than some act of ‘self-deprecation’ sanctioned from above, is there room today for such critique on behalf of the poster artist? When the ‘personality’ of the poster artist is reduced to a set of typographic preferences, is it only a small step away from no personality at all? Indeed, perhaps the ‘poster artist as hero’ a thing of the past?

Fake credits sequence that appears in Berberian Sound Studio, by Julian House


Initial concept posters for Berberian Sound Studio, by Julian House

Upon watching Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio (2012), I was first struck by the attention to detail regarding the conjuring up of an analogue past. In particular, Julian House’s meticulous, designs for imaginary tape reel branding circa 1970. Here, Strickland’s film brings out the sheer tactility and rawness of analogue sound and visual culture.




Images by Roman Cieślewicz for the film Vertigo, and cover of the magazine tyija


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Images by Andrzej Klimowski including posters for Down By Law, The Boss of it All and Flying Lessons

What Roman Cieślewicz and Andrzej Klimowski accomplished using razor blades and cheap paper stock is now achieved on the computer. While it would be regressive to call for a return to analogue culture, is it not too much to ask for posters and graphics with just a little bit of rawness and crudity? It is the slickness, efficiency and soullessness that I find reprehensible. Posters are a cocktail of art and advertising. The question is one of ratio. Too many posters feel not so much designed as engineered. I am not suggesting that there are no contemporary Polish artists with personalities (on the contrary!), but their window for expression is closing… We need more eccentrics, or rather a tolerance for eccentricity… Poster artists like Cieślewicz, Lenica, Waldemar Świerzy, Tomaszewski and Wojciech Zamecznik were like unruly dogs: you always remember the times when they do not listen to you, not the times when they do. Maybe it is time for the festivals that commission these posters to consider loosening their grip on the designer’s leash?


Daniel Bird is a writer and director based in Warsaw. He is currently producing a box set of restored films by Polish poster artist turned filmmaker, Walerian Borowczyk (

For further reading on Polish film poster design, the Quay Brothers pick their favourites on Adrian Curry’s MUBI blog.


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