Thursday, June 28, 2012

Poster Art

Currently showing at the Milwaukee Art Museum is an exhibition of French poster art from the 19th century. During this era a strange confluence of consumerism and art resulted in respected artists, perhaps most famous of which was Toulouse-Lautrec, to try their hand at street advertisements for various events and merchandise.
The artists were given great creative control and the work paid well, making this medium an exciting opportunity for many an up-and-coming artists. The streets of Paris soon became an outdoor museum as every wall was quickly covered with beautiful work. Collectors and critics soon claimed that the most beautiful art being exhibited in the City of Lights was the poster art of Toulouse-Lautrec and his contemporaries.

A poster by Toulouse Lautrec

Such a harmony between consumerism and art is, of course, astoundingly rare. If profit is the main purpose of the work in question, then it will inevitably appeal to the lowest common denominator. The era of beautiful poster art in Paris quickly faded away as advertisements and commercials became increasingly crude, ugly and pornographic.

Yet there have been other eras where non-artistic influences and intentions fed into the creation of great beauty. Poland in the 1950's and 60's became a similarly exciting venue for poster art as Paris had been in the 1890's (1). This time an unusual harmony was established between the bureaucratic machine of communism (which is even more at odds with the desire for beauty than capitalist consumerism) and the artistic community in the country. Social realism had begun to fade away as the dominant art theory and the artistic life of Warsaw exploded with creativity and passion. Artists such as Henry Tomaszewski (whose exhibition poster adorns the top of this post) led the way in this new medium, utilizing influences from a variety of sources, including surrealism, primitivism and pop-art. Nowhere was this exciting congruence of different theories and influences more apparent than in the astounding array of innovative film posters created by Polish artists from the mid 1950's until the early 80's. These works are revered by art collectors to this day and they are considered among the most interesting examples of how promotional material can achieve the status of art. These posters utilized symbols, imagery and ideas that were challenging, strange and wonderful. Some of them are like the visual equivalent of a work by Borges; playful, intellectual, funny and bizarre. 

Polish poster for Schlesinger's Marathon Man, designed in 1977 by Wiktor Gorka

Recently I learned that this great tradition of Polish poster art is alive and well. Two young artists, Joanna Gorska and Jerzy Skakun, are creating art that is not only reminiscent of the classic works of the 50's and 60's  but which has a beauty and stature all of its own. They have graciously allowed Light Within Light to exhibit some of their work below. Of special delight are the Jodorowsky posters which actually manage to encapsulate the wonderful strangeness of the films themselves. Check out the sample of their work and then go to their homepage for more great art: 
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All works below are copyright of the artists and are shown here with their permission.

(1) For a very insightful article on the era and the art please see:

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