If you did so in the wake of a major war, nobody would have money to buy art anyway. You could then make a deal with your country’s best artists—something like, “We won’t require you to work with any particular style or subject matter if you produce for us”—and put that art on posters promoting cultural events like operas and plays. Now try to picture what would come out of such a system.
For nearly four decades, between 1950 and 1989, Poland welcomed aesthetic experimentation while it quashed ideological dissent. If the Vintage Poster Gallery of Santa Fe’s show of posters by three of the era’s masters—Roman Cieslewicz, Jan Lenica, and Franciszek Starowieyski—is any indication, the result was absolutely nothing like those love-your-comrade agitprop gems we associate with the Soviet Union. Instead it was nearly the opposite.
These posters, made by the country’s most avant-garde painters, collage makers and photographers, weren’t overtly political; they were ingeniously subversive. The lucky genius of the Polish system was, ironically, that the presence of censors drove the artists to insert thoughts and feelings into their work indirectly, as metaphor and subtext—an ongoing conflict that inspired them to create pieces of intense inventiveness and depth.
Stark and bizarre, rife with absurd imagery, Roman Cieslewicz’ exuberantly dark designs most powerfully express the zeitgeist with a confounding quality that suggests some lurking horror. His simple profile of a man, for the opera The Prisoner (1962), is Kafkaesque. Virtuosic in its restraint and inexplicable in its juxtapositions, the poster displays a head in the style of a 19th-century etching, a body built of stacked feather-like shapes colored in a thick blue-green wash, and a neck wide open—not sliced so much as simply missing. Red brush strokes fill the gap and spread into a pink stain in front of the man’s face. Broody and alienated, coldly impersonal and yet abject, Cieslewicz’s art presents people somehow separated from themselves in a hundred different ways. Knowing, as the Communists did, that the personal is the political, it’s amazing these weren’t taken as treason.
Starowieyski’s surreal curiosities, elaborately painted and with hand-done lettering, tend to be bright and intricate but are equally unsettling. They rely on subtle wit to point to similar ironies. Even Lenica’s work—generally the prettiest and most accessible, with stylized ribbons and spirals that recall stained glass and art nouveau—bears a heavy mark of suppressed discontent. His 1970 poster for Swan Lake, which features a large bird amid gorgeous waves, seems innocuous until you notice that the bird isn’t a swan but a peacock, and neck-deep swamped, as if about to drown.
It’s hard not to be hit by what this says about the conditions of art production in our own society. Poland was a totalitarian state that tightly constricted its artists, but in a few key ways they enjoyed a power and freedom far beyond what today’s American artists find. All they had to do was get past the censors and bam: Their work was plastered all over the streets of Warsaw for hundreds of thousands of people to see.
Poland’s system reflects our “free” system back on us as something constrained instead by social and capitalist forces. Consider this: What is conspicuously missing from the story Santa Fe’s art tells about Santa Fe? It’s not likely you’ll find in our galleries art about taboo subjects such as abortion or mental illness—specifically art that truly delves into the ambiguities and challenges surrounding these topics. Why is that? The limits imposed by the economics of taste, it seems, are often deeper and stronger than those set by official censors.