I have known professor Wasilewski for 20 years. In a recent, exclusive to retroavangarda.com interview he talks about his art, art-related travels, poster design around the world and the state of Polish poster.
Anna Kłos: For many years you’ve been in the Program Council as well as among the members of the Organizing Committee of the International Poster Biennale in Warsaw and you took part in selection of posters submitted for this prestigious contest. What can you tell us about the changes through which poster went throughout the years? Let’s start with pinpointing which countries used to be leaders in this domain and which are on the top today?
Mieczysław Wasilewski: On the first Biennale that I remember, in 1966, we were all amazed by Japanese poster designs. The Japanese won back then two gold medals and were true victors, right next to us, Poles. That is when such two leading countries emerged: Japan and Poland, among the old, mighty players like Switzerland, Germany, France… And this continued for many years. Japanese poster design was awarded for the next years until the Finnish tide took over, for example…
It has to be underlined however, that the main trait which characterized these first poster competitions, was variety. Posters were sent to us by people from all over the world, the West – France, Italy, as well as the eastern countries.
AK: And how does the situation look today?
MW: The Japanese maintained their strong position and still belong to the countries excelling at poster and graphic design, while China made a visible mark when it comes to the number of submitted projects, which is understandable, given their numerous population. Of course quantity does not always match quality. But not only China moved forward, South Korea and Taiwan – these are the countries, which suddenly became active in this field too. And not only on our Biennale but other similar events all over the world as well.
AK: How did poster change in its graphic form? At one point computers appeared as a new tool, how did that influence poster art?
MW: When new media and computers appeared in the field of graphic design, sudden and radical changes followed. I’m not saying that this revolution was for the better, because it isn’t always so, but it was a visible step, a visible transformation in design, that was noticed by all people, on all continents, on all possible poster and graphic design events in the world. On the one hand, you could say it did not happen suddenly, at once, yet on the other it was a very significant breakthrough, at the expense of which those older graphic designers often were left behind before they even noticed. Like me. Thanks to technological novelties typography, not that significant until that point, started to play an important role in poster design. I think that you could even say it was a kind of revolutionary change, where typography that once was used just to compliment the image, suddenly became the substance creating the image itself. Such famous names like Neville Brody, or American designers whom you like..
AK: David Carson
MW: Yes, and post-carsonists, Netherland school… All that says a lot about radical changes in graphic design, in poster as well.
AK: In Poland we have School of Art and Design in Łódź, which gave us for example Krzysztof Iwański; Typography in his posters is clearly dominant.
MW: Of course. But they (the avant-garde movement from Łódź) had done it long before, only by traditional techniques, and now new possibilities emerged and it’s flourishing, evolving.
AK: Poster belongs to the so-called street art. Is it true, as some say, that good poster has been pushed to museums and in the street all that is left is rubbish? Did standards really dropped that much?
MW: There is a bit of truth in that, but I wouldn’t say that it ‘has been pushed to’. I’d rather say that it got promoted to a higher level, to a more ennobling field, given what kind of informative role it had. Poster once lived in the street and today it lives in galleries, so it did move a step higher. Nevertheless, I of course do regret that artistic posters disappeared from the streets. In my youth the street was a real art gallery. In great majority movie, theatre, event, circus posters were truly pieces of art. But it has to be noted that they were not burdened with commercialism, they were often ‘l’art pour l’art’ because there was lack of goods anyway, both fast-moving consumer goods and ‘cultural’ ones. Thus the authorities in all communist countries, from Russia to GDR, from Vietnam to Bulgaria with Poland in the front, could allow themselves such luxury of art for art, as there was state patronage. And it all got suddenly fucked up in 1990, when the market started to play an important role. Today we have what can be seen – those ‘beautiful’ billboards and photos accompanying movie posters, or even theater posters. Ambitious productions are sadly marginalized because cultural institutions have to take care to sustain themselves financially. In the past there was state patronage, which in fact was a fertile ground for great, artistic creation.
AK: You have been creating posters for exactly 50 years, and for 31 years you have been the head of poster master worshops at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw. Do you remember why did you get immersed in this field of art so strongly and not for example painting or sculpture? Why did you choose poster design?
MW: I finished the Faculty of Painting but after two years of learning I already knew that poster reflected what I was really interested in. I already noticed back then the leading names such as Tomaszewski, Cieślewicz, Lenica, Starowieyski, Młodożeniec, Zamecznik, Fangor, Pałka and others. As soon as after the second year I decided on graphic design as my major. The artistic posters by the masters mentioned above were all around and inspired students even more that some art gallery events. What is more, Polish poster was becoming famous in the world, in Europe, it was gathering awards, the name Polish Poster School emerged. These were the circumstances that made young people interested in the subject and made them want to participate in this public gallery space on the street as well. Every week or month something new appeared, we were observing with curiosity what Henryk Tomaszewski has designed this time, what Romek Cieślewicz brought from Paris, what new is up on the fence… That was darn inspiring and emotionally excited young people. Today it’s all in the past. Despite all that is happening now, countless possibilities, ease of travelling, it was those years of communism that elevated poster so high, above all other art fields. The successes of poster artists were more significant than those of any other Polish artists: sculptors, painters and ‘useless’ graphic designers (calling them so with a wink).
AK: Abroad, Polish graphic design is associated mainly with Polish Poster School, while Henryk Tomaszewski is said to be the ‘father of Polish Poster’. Who was Henryk Tomaszewski for you?
MW: At first he was exactly this kind of a guru in poster art. In the early 60s we were awed by his new creations. It was back when I still was a student, before I got into his workshop, which wasn’t that easy too, as he didn’t take in just anyone. After finishing my studies and diploma project (with honors) under his guidance, I started to like him more, in a more social way, but it still was this kind of closeness that came later, after I came back from 1,5 year stay in Paris with three wins in some quite significant poster competitions. Then he called me himself asking if I would like to be his assistant. I was shocked at first, as I didn’t know if I would or could cope as a teacher, I never thought of going that way before. But after two weeks I decided to agree, although when it comes to material gain it wasn’t a sinecure, I already got a well paid job in some redaction and I did some posters too. And I was afraid of Henio. Many people felt respect for him too. Nevertheless, after some years we became friends and he became someone more than just a teacher to me, more than a friend, a father almost, as I lost mine quite early. There was a family-like connection between us even. I bonded like that with his wife, Teresa Pągowska and his son too. But for all those years, at every project I did there was always this voice in the back of my head saying ‘what would Henio say about this’. But it came to a point that we both came up with subjects for students, I was often the one condemned to thinking of ideas and he chose from what I provided. That was our deal.
AK: You still continue some subjects provided by Henryk Tomaszewski.
MW: yes, I do, because some of them proved to be immortal, like ‘Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow’, then there was Lecowskie (aphorisms by Stanisław Jerzy Lec), which in its literary form was a synonym, a shortcut, a synthesis that is also needed in every good poster
AK: Do you use the same subjects for Academy of Fine Arts students and during different workshops abroad?
MW: Yes, it is often the case. A long, long time ago, back when I was still working with Henryk, we were visited by professors from the Netherlands, Germany, France and we noticed they were writing down and stealing our subjects J Thinking of a good topic, as you know, is one of the hardest things. Not all prove to be useful, sometimes you have to experiment. Sometimes we throw a new subject and it just doesn’t work and you have to think of something else, of course following the current flows, as the young have to be immersed in what is happening ‘now and here’. But some topics do prove to be immortal, for example Life is Beautiful, which I often used at workshops. It could have two opposed meanings, could be interpreted either literally or ironically.
AK: It is not easy to create a poster that will be understandable everywhere and at all times. You managed to do it – I mean the poster ‘to be, or not to be’. Currently and unfortunately, there are many ongoing military conflicts to which this poster can refer. Tell me please under what circumstances was it created and to what did it refer back then (in 1975)?
MW: It was the 30th anniversary of ending of the WW II. Poland organized then an international competition, which was very fruitful when it comes to the amount of submitted projects – 1000 posters from several dozens of countries and I got an honorable mention for exactly this poster, which was a bit different from the rest. My poster didn’t adhere directly to war, like most of submitted designs. As it turned out later it remained up to date even today, as wars are, sadly, a never ending occurance. And it occurred to me, who doesn’t know English well, this linguistic play of words: OR- WAR. As usually, in the last moment, in one night I prepared the poster. I cut out letters basing on Futura, and under the Shakespearian question I slipped the WAR shadow.
And this poster got an honorable mention, in this competition mentioned above, won by Fukuda with his famous bullet going back into barrel. Yet on the next Biennale, my creation won a gold medal – in addition to that honorable mention. And today, as you say Anna, it is still valid thank to being Shakespearean and in English, because if it was in Russian or Polish then, obviously, it would be condemned to remain local.
AK: At the moment you are famous both in Poland and worldwide (even more than in Poland I think), you have travelled a lot. Which country is dearest to you apart from Poland and why?
MW: I have to yet again go back to my student times, when the name of Henio Tomaszewski attracted many students from all over the world, but the largest group was always from France. Such Parisians as Gérard Paris-Clavel, Pierre Bernard, Tierry Safis, François Miehe, Michel Quarez, were Henio’s students and I became friends with them too, we were of the same age. And we still are friends till today. Each time I was in Paris I met them, and they came here for Biennale competitions, they often won gold medals, operating in a well-known group Grapus. Thanks to my contacts I was In France many times, giving lectures or workshops at different, distinguished art schools. But not only France, I was in the Netherlands at three or four universities as well…
AK: And then you spent quite a lot of time in Finland.
MW: Before I ended up in Finland, I was in Damascus for two years. They invited me to lead a graphic design and poster atelier on the Damascus University. Knowledge of French came in handy in this dangerous, at the time, Syria. As I said, I stayed there for 2 years and I reminiscent the people and students with sympathy. I made some friends. Unfortunately, today we longer have contact, for obvious reasons. 10 years later I spent one year in Rovaniemi in Finland where I also was in charge of graphic design and poster workshops, on a totally different territory in terms of culture, where students had extremely different tempers and temperature of their designs.
AK: How does Finnish graphic design stand out, is it even possible to distinguish some ‘climatic’ influences on their design? Does the character of people have influence on the form of project?
MW: Of course, each element plays a role here. Despite the globalization process that is happening around us today, which by means of the Internet molded styles and ways of perceiving the world, the local accents always play an important role and are actually the base of each nook and cranny of the world, where each has its cultural roots and tries to nourish them, despite this universalization and homogeneity caused by the new media, the Internet and computer graphic design. I noticed this in Damascus already, where students were much better at designing abstracts than realism. Why? Obviously, because realism was there (in Islamic art) forbidden and non-existent. Designing abstracts, arabesques for hundreds of years made them naturally good at it.
Now, the Finnish were good at the cool perception of the world, better than us in photography for instance. But also typography put together with those photos, rather economically treated, was something unique. The success of the Finnish school in the 70s on a few Biennale events made them noticed. Today it already stalled a bit, but even so the educational system of University of Helsinki still makes them the leaders in terms of education.
AK: You were invited to numerous poster events in South America, where exactly? What do you think about the development of poster there, what are the characteristics of Latino poster?
MW: I spent most time in Chile, on three universities and did three different workshops, with the mentioned ‘Life is Beautiful’ exercise, which was quite favoured. I got some good results and met great people. Not only students but also ordinary people: warm, friendly, beautiful girls… It is in general a beautiful country, amazing landscape, wine, mountains. A total surprise. Before when I thought of Chile rather things like Pinochet’s dictatorship, murdered Allende (in 1973) and that sort of things popped into my mind. And here I discovered a wonderful country, both in terms of culture and geography. Later I was in Rio for a short bit of time with my friends BMW (Buszewicz, Majewski, Wasilewski) – we had an exhibition in their Academy of Fine Arts organized by their Ministry of Culture and Art and our diplomacy. And that also was a nice adventure, even though it was a much shorter stay than in Chile. I was also in the jury on Biennale in Mexico, where I also did workshop in Guadalajara – on a great university. Guadalajara was the old capital of Mexico.
AK: Lately Ecuador has also become an important point in the development of graphic design and poster.
MW: That is correct. Latin America in general is being reborn and in Lima, in Peru and in Bolivia there is new biennale competition where my students also appeared.
AK: Apart from European countries, Iran is also important when it comes to poster art – you have some friends in Teheran, what can you say about the contemporary design in that part of the world?
MW My friends Majid Abbasi and Reza Abedini were once on our Biennale and I was in charge of showing them our Academy of Fine Arts. That’s how we became friends and later they invited me for a workshop in Teheran, that was 10 years ago. And I found there great people as well – designers enthusiastic towards poster art. I discovered that Iranian productions depends like nowhere else on their calligraphy. When you see a project so visibly melted with calligraphy, you can tell at once it is an Iranian poster. Besides they speak of themselves: no, no, we are no Arabs, we are Persians, an older culture. And this connection between image and writing is really spectacular. Iran is in this area exceptional and recognizable at first glance in all its works, no matter if it’s Majid Abbasi or Reza Abedini or other Iranian graphic designers.
AK: I would now like to move on to Your art. Looking at your posters one can clearly see inspiration by art of the Far East, Chinese and Japanese calligraphy. You visited both of those countries, tell me about these inspirations.
MW: These inspirations accompanied me in my student years, as the title of my diploma under Henryk Tomaszewski’s guidance was “Japan”. At first it was supposed to be ‘A trip to Japan’ but in the end I did a few meters long panneau made of dozens of parts, all different, showing what Japan was for me at the time. In 1966 we had Japanese visitors from Tokio and one professor, top one at the time – Takashi Kōno, when he saw my work he even quite liked it and said: ‘how wittily you arranged this typographic part, that it is upside down”. Terrified, I discovered that it was in fact my mistake. But I composed myself and took this straightforwardly as a compliment. So these interests of mine were there already in the 60s. I dreamed about Japan all the time but I never expected I would manage to go there. And finally I was invited there and gave a speech about Polish Poster School at a big symposium. I managed to visit Japan perhaps because I met here a Japanese girl who was fluent in Polish – miss Ayumi Hirako, and she was partly the spiritus movens of my stay, I travelled around Japan with her.
China, in turn, I visited earlier, for the first time in 1986 before the Tian’anmen square incidents. I went with eight students with whom I spent two months there, using all sorts of means of locomotion to move around China, visiting monasteries, Buddhist temples, where monks did those images of theirs, mainly meant for tourists and sold on spot. The process of creating these was a whole religious service, with a short period of meditation, and then with a few strokes of brush they conjured up a sign, or a bird, or plants, or a turtle, or a small landscape and that was amazing and inspired me later, not so much to mimic it exactly, because I’m distant from this culture, but how through a gesture you can create something both abstract and a meaningful, a figurative element. So this border between abstract and figuration is the secret, which has always fascinated me and which after my first stay in China I tried to apply in my graphic works: posters, illustrations, drawings, and it remains like this till today.
AK: I would like to ask about the details of the technique that you use. Do you use special brushes, inks, papers? How long the creative process takes in your case, what are its stages? How many sketches are created before the final effect is achieved?
MW: When it comes to tools, I usually use good Chinese products: inks, brushes and papers – these were absent in Poland in communism, so I bought a lot of them in China, they were cheap too. Nevertheless, when it comes to brushes I have a varied scope here. I often use those great Chinese brushes but sometimes also the old, completely worn out ones, because they have a whole different structure and allow to make seemingly careless strokes, rowdy ones. A mix of these different tools is my arsenal. But I never had any ambitions to copy the monks, who have done this for thousands of years. The only thing I can tell you is that before I arrive at the final version of a project, tens, if not hundreds of sketches are made, from which I throw away almost all, I leave for myself one, three, a few at most, but the choice belongs to me only. I often asked my daughter of son which project is better in their opinion, but I still think that the final choice belongs to the author. Although, when we were students, Henio Tomaszewski told us that sometimes we should confront our poster with the opinion of a cleaning lady or a servant. To ask them: what do you see here? And even this could be a pointer if we didn’t get lost. It is all about a simple man understanding the poster. But it all depends on the poster’s function too, where it is going to be applied, should it carry a simple message, or have a double meaning of is it a cultural or social or political poster.
AK: Are your works created on 100×70 format from the beginning? Or are they smaller sketches which you later enlarge? I mean, do you work in 1:1 scale or smaller?
MW: You know Ania, when I was beginning it had to be 1:1 scale, so 100x70cm. In the 70s we had to use 1:1 cardboards, the letters were painted precisely with a brush. Working in smaller scale started when first drum scanners were introduced, then you could make it smaller, A4 or A3 from what I remember. A3 was the standard in the 70s. And later it evolved so much that you could really suit yourself. Today it is not a problem to make something in the size of a post stamp and then enlarge it. So now I do my works on small formats – sometimes as small as a packet of cigarettes, and then I enlarge them. Of course, later the image has to be composed with typography – on the computer. And this is the final stage – printing.
AK: You rarely use colors. Black dominates in your works. I remember when I was a student and came to you with a book cover project, which was black and white. And you pointed out to me this ‘radicalism’, saying that ‘you arrive at black’ and you can’t ‘so suddenly’ make this decision. Explain to the readers, what is ‘arriving at black’ and what is black color to you?
MW: I used to make posters in color, at the beginning of my career in the 60s, just like the others. And later, gradually, partly because of our communistic, low quality printing possibilities, I moved towards black and white. In old printhouses 30% lack of accuracy was a standard, which was abstract for me, for all of us actually. What does it mean, how to measure this 30% off from the original – it was an absurd. It often pissed me off that the color didn’t come out in print as I planned, it was the same for Henio and the others too. In face of these problems they had to seek help in black, for example Lenica often added a black stroke. There were also monochromes which made the color difference less painful. Janek Młodożeniec was less bothered by this as he was a full blown colorist. He usually did a dozen or more color versions and was always unhappy with them, but in the end he always chose one of them. This discord to bad printing quality was one of the factors that directed me to black and white. But it doesn’t mean I got immersed in it completely, because a poster often has to have some color accent tied with the subject. But slowly I was entering the black and white world, keeping in mind that actually black and white is the world of the whole spectrum of colors, as there isn’t just one white and one black. There are 1000 blacks, from brownish through purpleish to the greenish one. The same goes for white, you know that yourself. When you take your old posters out of a drawer they are never white. The have the temperature of a yellowish paper and it has its charm. The question is, how to reproduce it in an album about antiquities, to what extent de-yellow this old look. You can often see this in albums with old poster reproductions. How to put, for example Toulouse-Lautrec, on a white background when no collector has such specimen? I have on my wall a poster by Daniel Mróz., “Death on a pear tree’, which used to be white-black-blue and today it’s golden ochre plus weathered blue and black – which surprisingly remained. When you look at posters in the streets you can see how their colors change even after a few weeks…I’m saying this on the side, moving from your question, but they are no less important for someone who is sensitive to everything that is going around, to the color of a wall in a room or of the ceiling or floor…all this is a part of how we perceive the world. And just as we offer these pieces of printed papers, everything else around us is important and influences us whether we prefer black and white or coloristic polyphony.
AK: Is this resignation from color an attempt at synthesis, a shortcut?
MW: In a sense surely yes, of course. Even the philosophy behind a road sign informs us of kinds of solutions – that red is more obliging, warns us, blue calms us down and yellow builds up the contrast. All this is present in the composition of a poster – it depends what information it is going to carry, should it engage the viewer in a positive way or should it raise a protest – this is the whole philosophy behind color. In this austerity, which I borrowed from master Jerzy Lec, I myself used black and white scheme for long periods of time, with full awareness that ‘less is more’.
AK: Let’s move on to the subjects of your works. No matter if you get commissioned to make a movie poster, a magazine cover or a newspaper illustration, you very often use the imagery of a woman. Are female portraits in your pieces imaginary or are they based on women that you know? (I mean, are these portraits from nature, photos or are they pure fiction?)
MW: You know, it depends, mostly they are fictional. But often the contents of a movie or spectacle or the plot of a book have to be reflected, so you can’t put an old lady on the poster if the movie is about a teenage girl, like “Cześć Tereska” for example, or like that poster for Oppa, an Actor’s Song Festival. In the poster “Masterpieces of Italian Painting” in turn, there was more freedom. In each of those cases female faces were closer to my vision, perhaps because I grew up with two sisters and I have a daughter, a wife and my son looked feminine for a long time (I’m kidding) but there is something to it, that I prefer the faces of young women rather than elderly faces. Sometimes it is a must to put on a poster a nobly wrinkled face, as nobly as Virginia Woolf or Georgia O’Keeffe. Elderly faces might be more interesting than young ones, but in my case perhaps it is so, that, maybe not so much female faces, but faces in general, are a large percent of what I have been creating in poster art for the last couple of years. I think that human face is the mirror of immensity of perception, feeling, that nothing can be more absorbing and expressive than a human mug.
AK: Despite your vast knowledge, narrow specialization and experience you’ve gained, I know that you are a very open-minded person. What do you think about other fields of art, for example street-art and Banksy?
MW: I am an admirer of Banksy. He is a great persona, I think. I don’t know who he is – no one knows. I have always been amazed by his presence all around the globe, sometimes in places as dangerous as the wall between Palestine and Israel… How on earth did he get there, it was almost a supernatural occurrence. But the sole fact that there is someone like Banksy, is reassuring for me, that the world didn’t go completely nuts yet, that there is some sort of relieve for all the idiocies of this world, wickedness of the politics and all evil. I also value other street artists, whom I met back in the 80s. These stencil actions were for me much more noble than 10 year old boys marking their presence by spraying some scribble on a wall, and there are tons of those – this I do not like.
AK: Banksy began from traditional, colorful graffiti. He chose stencils because it was faster and he could prepare them at home. This choice was also key to keeping his anonymity. But I would like to go back for a moment to your poster ‘To be or not to be”, in which its stencil technique might be associated with Banksy. But there is also the other thing: this intelligent play of words, which is a thing for Banksy too, vide RAT-ART, Wall and Piece – WAR and PEACE
MW: it is a very beautiful coronation of his makings, because what can you say: Banksy deals noble merchandise, that isn’t just random anything. This is something, this is someone. So I bow to his actions no matter what his identity is. The art piece speaks of its creator. Even if he has some flaws, he will remain in this pantheon of art for good. Maybe not on a pedestal or in golden frame like Mona Lisa…but he did have his museum stunts. Going back to street art, it is a movement connected with such great people as Basquiat of Keith Haring, who were the pioneers and who, just like Banksy, were chased by the police, before Warhol took interest in them and they were instilled on the pages of art history for good.
AK: To summarize our conversation I would like to ask how do you rate polish poster today?
MW: We are one day away from the wonderful 50th anniversary of the first International Poster Biennale in Warsaw and it is with sadness that I say this but the new management of this event has committed a significant faux pas by not organizing a poster contest, replacing it with some spectacle along the lines of presenting videos about achievements on this field. It is not the same and I am full of regret and sorrow that this happened, because it is a rather grim foreboding of what is happening in our backyard. And in backyard which is an oasis of primacy at that. We had the first in the world poster museum, then first in the world biennale and it has been so easily undervalued. I do hope the next time in four years will bring a rational continuum and this beautiful anniversary is not the end of a series of great events. I can only express regret at this year’s event, it is not a cheering state of affairs. But I do believe that Biennale will not fall, just like poster which was foretold numerous times to end. No matter how it will be carried on, will paper survive or will it pass completely onto screens, it is and always will be a live message, a brief visual message, which is a reaction to what is happening currently in every field, field of culture, politics, social phenomena. Today, especially in the times of image-dependent civilization, these short, concise visual statements are even more meaningful than before. Today, when we are flooded with visual blabber, it is poster with capital P, I think, that should be the positive carrier of all positive ideas
AK: Thank you very much.
Translation: Karolina Kłos