Behind the Scenes at the DAM

How Artists Under Communist Rule Created American Western Film Posters

Rebranded: Polish Film Posters for the American Western is an impressive collection from the golden age of Polish poster art, the culmination of an art form 100 years in the making.

Responding to the new medium popularized by artists like Henri deToulouse-Lautrec in the late 1800s, Polish artists soon saw the poster as a means of artistic expression. The artists who gravitated to the new techniques were not novices but established talents, many connected with the Academy of Fine Arts and members of the Society of Polish Artists (generally known as Sztuka, which means Art). Their enthusiasm made the poster acceptable as a form of art.

The first Polish posters appeared in the 1890s and were advertisements for exhibitions and theatrical performances. As the movement grew, posters were used in all areas of communication: advertising everything from cleaning soaps to travel. Acceptance of posters as art led to the first International Exposition of the Poster, held in Krakow in 1898. The power of the poster to act like a mirror for Polish society was born.

Posters became universal. The advertising posters of the 1920s and 1930s used the simpler forms as a direct visual language of communication and it worked. The poster became advertisers’ medium of choice. Influenced by European art movements of the era, students addressed the new requirements of advertising.  

The end of World War II found Poland under communist rule. Posters would play a key role in making the new regime acceptable to the public. With that goal in mind the Propaganda Poster Studio was established in the city of Lublin. The process was regimented; artists were given lists of slogans that would achieve maximum impact. Ironically this period of state control laid the groundwork for the golden age of Polish posters that followed.

The golden age of the Polish poster took place in the 1950s and the early 1960s. Like everything else in Poland, the film industry was controlled by the state. Film Polski (Polish Film) and Centrala Wynajmu (Movie Rentals Central) commissioned poster designs. Though the 1950s were a freer time in Poland, the poster was basically the only avenue of individual expression. This, however, proved to be a blessing. Artists working in a state-controlled industry were outside the commercial constraints of capitalism and could express their talents as individuals, free from the demands of the big movie studios. The movie posters are true works of art, not just advertisements for the latest John Wayne epic.

While movie posters today are interchangeable, varying little from one country to another, the Polish film posters of the 1950s and 1960s were specifically created for Polish audiences. They  are classics, and the many works included in Rebranded—like those of Jerzy Flisak, Wikto Gorka, Jerzy Jaworowski, Witold Janowsk— give us the best examples of the legacy of the Polish poster school.

Image credit: Jerzy Flisak (Polish, 1930-2008), El Dorado, 1973 (detail). Polish poster for the American film El Dorado (1967). Lithograph. Courtesy of the Autry National Center, Los Angeles. 95.168.1

Susan Mayhew is a member of the provisional docent program at the Denver Art Museum. She has been at the DAM since 2012 and her favorite artwork is Lucas Samaras's Reconstruction #20, 1977. Susan had such fun when she volunteered in the museum's Paint Studio, watching visitors young and old don their smocks and create their masterpieces with all the energy of a Pollock or Picasso.