When the tight squeeze of Communist regime censorship applied itself to art in Poland, trained artists turned their hands to the unmonitored medium of poster production. Communist leaders believed that posters for cultural events, like film, opera, theatre and the circus, couldn’t threaten their rule. So from the late 1940s until the June 1989 elections that turned the tide on the Communist party in Poland — in a landslide election fueled by a poster featuring Gary Cooper in High Noon — posters were one of few forms of individual artistic expression available in the country. As a result, they became intensely creative works, loaded with personal expression and, at times, political commentary delivered through coded metaphors that recast traditional Western images — a cowboy, a horse, a gun.
“This kind of iconography immediately relates to the viewer that this is a film about the West and the American West in particular, but ... these images in some way speak to different issues or there can be a subversive nature to the use of the images, depending on the particular artist,” says Darrin Alfred, associate curator of architecture, design and graphics at the Denver Art Museum, which has 28 original lithographs from the Autry National Center of the American West on display for Rebranded: Polish Film Posters for the American Western.
The exhibit, staged in an all-too-easily-overlooked gallery, presents a foreign commentary on scenes more classically depicted in the neighboring galleries of contemporary Western American art. It’s a rollicking exploration of subversion through subtext and visual metaphor that occasionally turns outright explicit in its rebellion against an oppressive government that responded to labor strikes and student protests by killing strikers and detaining tens of thousands of political prisoners.
In the hands of these Polish artists, the ever-vigilant cowboy at times serves as a symbol of independence and solitary strength, but could also connote the watchful eyes of the procommunist officials and the secret police. In posters for Major Dundee, The Missouri Breaks and Bad Day at Black Rock, white eyes beam forward in contrast to figures painted in dark shades of blue and brown.
People literally chomping at the bit for freedom find a metaphor in wild horses, who rear up in posters for The Rounders and The Misfits. For The Misfits, the artist zeroed in on the moment in the film the mustangs too small to ride are rounded up to be made into dog food. Eyes wide and nostrils flared, the horses strain against invisible hands and the reach of death to those too weak to work and a life of servitude for those strong enough to live it.
While these posters may have made subtle jabs at the Communist government, Alfred says, “it wasn’t necessarily meant to be this image or this product that was going to turn people’s minds in Poland about the Communist regime. ... I don’t think they ever felt this was a true political art form.”
In fact, when he created the poster that would be emblematic for the democratic movement for decades to follow, Tomasz Sarnecki was just a graduate student at the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts.
Thirty years of economic difficulty and social unrest had followed after Russian forces, which came in to wipe out Nazi rule, left a Communist regime in Poland as they retreated. When Polish workers founded the first independent trade union in the Soviet Bloc, the Solidarity party, in 1980, nearly a third of the nation joined.
Communist leaders, pressured by Mikhail Gorbachev (hoping to share power with a movement he couldn’t seem to squelch), the West and continued social unrest, allowed Solidarity party leaders to participate in the 1989 parliamentary elections. For the Solidarity party, a get-out-the-vote movement was key, and they used posters for High Noon — a 1952 film from America, to do just that.
Sarnecki, the grad student, had created the poster, and his professor gave it to a Solidarity activist.
Red lettering at the top proclaims not the name of the film, but the name of the Solidarity party. Gary Cooper, as the sheriff who rose alone to defend his town against a paralyzing fear, strides toward the viewer with not a gun, but a ballot in his hand and wears a Solidarity badge on his vest near his silver star.
The slogan at his feet reads: “It’s High Noon, June 4, 1989,” the date of those first semi-free elections. The poster covered fences, kiosks and walls the days before the election. (By the time Cooper’s face was covering the streets of Poland, he’d been dead 28 years.)
The Solidary party won victories in that election that are credited as pivotal for democratic movements throughout central and eastern Europe.
Set aside the gravitas granted by the historical significance of these posters and they still shine as brilliantly creative and bold in their graphic choices. Take Witold Janowski’s poster for Oklahoma!, in which a barely outlined human form is drawn in with a hat and a silhouetted hand over a guitar and a wide open mouth formed by the letter O at the start of the title, evocative of Curly bellowing that long “O” at the start of “Ooooooklahoma.”
They’re innovative in their use of symbolism — for Jerry Flisak’s poster for El Dorado, the drunken sheriff fills the frame in bright, comic-book colors, clutching a crutch instead of a rifle and wearing a whisky bottle at the peak of his Stetson. Man and machine become synonymous in the poster for Support Your Local Sheriff!, which shows a hand cocked like a gun, the single finger that points away from the fist turned into the barrel of a gun. A cowboy seems to see only his imprisoned future in the poster for Tom Horn, which shows a monochromatic brown cowboy with jail bars where his eyes would be and a red sun shining through them, about to set.
“They were a creative output for these Polish artists, but also these images and these posters were sort of representations or a distillation of a particular moment or an idea within the film, and you really didn’t get that in the American marketing and posters,” Alfred says.
Pressure from government censors can be partially credited for creating these artworks — had artists been able to choose other art forms, they might not have built what would become known as the Polish Poster School.
“It was a viable career opportunity at the time for these artists to be able to do this work, get paid well, and have their work out in the street for people to see,” Alfred says. “There wasn’t a gallery system then. … Many of these artists were that, they were artists, they weren’t trained as graphic designers. This was one of the only ways of them to be able to show their work to a larger audience.”
With the end of Communist rule came the end of the era of poster art, Alfred says, “Which is kind of ironic because you think about this instance where things are so controlled and edited and censored and you’ve got this great art form that comes out of it. And then as soon as that ends and the borders of the country are opened, Hollywood obviously came back into play in the country, the films weren’t being distributed by the government any longer, and so there really was less of an interest in having these artists do that type of work.”