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Cold Truth: Mask Symbolism in 20th Century Polish Posters

Stasys Eidrigevičius Samobojca thumbnail  Andrzej Pągowski Teatr thumbnail  Wiktor Sadowski Haagse thumbnail  Stasys Eidrigevičius Maski thumbnail  Stasys Eidrigevičius Kelias thumbnail  Mieczysław Górowski Giuseppe thumbnail  Wiesław Wałkuski Polart thumbnail  Franciszek Starowieyski Zdziczenie thumbnail  Stasys Eidrigevičius Bialy thumbnail  Wiktor Sadowski My Fair Lady thumbnail  Andrzej Pągowski Witkacy thumbnail  Franciszek Starowieyski Kraska thumbnail  Franciszek Starowieyski Oni thumbnail  Wiesław Wałkuski Maski thumbnail  Wiesław Wałkuski W Srednim thumbnail


Disclaimer: These posters were originally designed to be placed publicly on the streets of Poland, so the size of the posters mentioned in this exhibition are mostly very large (approx. 26”x39”) and were printed on low-grade plain paper.


One of the main elements that Polish poster artists used in their works was symbolism. Because they were restricted from producing anti-communist works, this method became a way for artists to communicate their concepts. Masks were one of the many symbols artists used to define meaning for their audience. Whether the concept was to represent freedom or to publicize the political or social issues in Poland, these artists could communicate their emotions in complex yet unique designs.


During post World War II, poster design became a popular source of national pride and artistic tradition, which carried on throughout the Cold War in Poland. Not only have these wars impacted Poland’s independence, but also artists whose lives were dedicated to producing art. Posters were more than just graphic images to promote an event, they also revealed the artists’ emotional intentions and their unique experiences during the wars. The posters manifested a defined style of vibrant colors, abstract subjects, and witty remarks about the government that embraced the traditions of Poland.

From the 1950s through the 1980s, the Polish School of Posters, a movement founded by Eryk Lipinski, Jozef Mroszczak, Henryk Tomaszewski, and Tadeusz Trepkowski, set forth three generations of talented artists and their poster designs containing satire or commonly understood ironies that revolted against the established institution. Often, artists used those hidden meanings to communicate with the public. That is, Polish posters were meant not just to be viewed but also to be read, pondered, and digested thoroughly. Even though artists were making art again, there were exceptions to what they could create. They could only work on commissions through “a bureaucracy of government agencies and state-approved industries” (Reflecting the Soul of a Nation: Polish Poster Art). In other words, art commissions would be only for events like theatrical productions, films, jazz concerts, and festivals, which were mainly used as a “propaganda tool for social causes and cultural events” under the communist rule (Contemporary Posters).

Art was being produced again, however, anything that was published and popularized went through a censorship board. The censors checked for anything negatively associated with the Soviet Union or the Communist Party. Approved posters were stamped and signed by the censor, and those that they turned down weren’t published. As the war progressed, artists in Poland continued to express their emotions on commissioned posters to reflect on the country’s political and social issues. Soon enough, the popularity of the artworks marked the “Golden Age” of the Polish posters throughout the mid-twentieth century. The posters became “colorful accents in the city”; an exciting addition to the walls (Freedom on the Fence). From this period forward, designing posters became an important tool in addressing the solidarity for Poland’s freedom as a nation.


As mentioned earlier, symbolism played an active role in Polish posters as propaganda against the Soviet Union. While avoiding censorship from the government, Polish poster artists had to understand how to incorporate specific concepts in their work. By experimenting with different graphics, typographies, colors, and subjects, these elements have expanded the artists’ creativity. When developing a design, it is necessary to create something that would attract attention because the human mind responds to visual images better than texts. Visual language allowed Polish poster artists to become expressive by creating complex thoughts and ideas in the form of a physical image. According to Carl Jung, a Swiss psychiatrist, symbolic imagery results from emotions, impulses, and all kinds of feelings (The Social Impact of Graphic Symbolism). In terms of making Polish posters, artists had built up heavy emotions from the war to create a visually impacting image. Because artists weren’t allowed to display their art on the streets without permission, they had to communicate their message within their art. From there, they depended on the viewers to use their perception and search for meaning. The human brain would “fill in the blanks” of the picture to complete the puzzle. From the perspective of Polish posters, one can identify many symbols, and therefore, it is up to the viewer to determine the meanings of each graphic.

Over the vast amount of symbols represented in Polish posters, one in particular that had a significant impact on the Polish community were masks. Masks have been used for different interpretations of art. For example, theaters used masks to represent specific characters in a play. This helps bring both the character to life and the impression that they are playing their role efficiently. In Poland, such customs that would involve the placement of masks in posters were theaters, films, events, and circuses. The artists celebrated the beauty and traditions of the Polish, however, there was a change to the meanings and styles of masks. At first, the masks in Polish posters were bright and colorful, but after the collapse of the economy in the late twentieth century, the once friendly-looking masks have transformed into a more uncomfortable and grotesque style. Some posters mentioned in this exhibition contain a literal image of a mask, but they have been transformed to the point where it’s unrecognizable. On the other hand, some posters have a metaphorical interpretation of a mask, but it is still just as hard to identify. Artists who took on abstract forms evoked “a greater emotional response than realist ones, as they come from within” (The Social Impact of Graphic Symbolism). Using strictly realistic art could distract the real message because it may be too literal and familiar, whereas an abstract drawing provides a symbolic statement that conveys the meaning thoroughly.

Inspired by the Polish culture during the twentieth century, artists used their traditions to reflect on their posters because that was how they could draw the attention of their audience. The artists relied on visual communication because it became a way to attract viewers instantly while also providing an emotional long-lasting impact. Several well-known artists who became a part of reviving the Polish posters were Andrzej Pągowski, Franciszek Starowieyski, Mieczyslaw Górowski, Stasys Eidrigevičius, Wieslaw Walkuski, and Wiktor Sadowski. Together, they became the third generation of poster artists who challenged themselves to create more aggressive designs to “surprise, provoke, or disturb the viewers’ beliefs and values” (Illustration History). By abstracting the mask, they used it as a symbol to advocate for Poland’s independence. Each artist had a role in contributing to social and political change with their unique differences in terms of symbols, metaphors, and graphic styles and techniques. Ever since the Soviet Union took Poland’s independence away, there was a big transformation to the Polish posters. From being used for Soviet propaganda to being recognized as both a work of art and a statement, the posters have been a huge influence on the artists and the people of Poland.


Stasys Eidrigevičius Szkoda thumbnail  Stasys Eidrigevičius XIV thumbnail  Stasys Eidrigevičius Wielki thumbnail


Perhaps the only artist that used mask imagery in all of his works is Stasys Eidrigevičius. His work reflected the effects of “growing up in a society in which for two generations people had to hide their true selves in order to survive” (The World of Stasys Eidrigevičius). Furthermore, the Lithuanian artist took an interest in the symbolism of masks as a tool to push for change. From there, masks became important in Stasys’ work. He believed that “a mask is like a new face,” meaning that it was a way to reveal the true identity or emotion of a person. When observing his works, they all contain a similar distinct and timeless character he designed. Identifying his style is very obvious among other artists. His interest in masks could have started from when he saw Native American masks in Chicago, Illinois, in 1986. Comparing his style to the Native American masks, they both used distortion and exaggeration of facial features to either emphasize their beauty or highlight their emotion. However, Stasys took a different approach to his creation of enigmatic masks. Instead, he took a darker turn in design where most of his characters' eyes seem cold and lifeless and their facial expressions were never smiling. This could insinuate the sense of loneliness he and others felt during the war. Since then, he has made a series of mask designs. Later on, his work reached popularity among the public and the Polish posters. Each of his unique mask designs reflected on the life of Poland crushed by authoritative dictatorships.


Andrzej Pągowski Hair Thumbnail  Andrzej Pągowski Mistrz thumbnail  Andrzej Pągowski Makbet thumbnail


Widely known for his film, theatre, and festival posters is a designer named Andrzej Pągowski who included various symbols and imagery in his works. He claimed that “every poster for [him] is an individual exercise different from the previous one.” Each poster he created was unlike the other, and they all contained different stories. He incorporated a lot of playful imagery in his works, which contributed to his artistry. For example, in the poster Makbet (Macbeth), a red brick wall wraps around the man’s face, which creates an illusion of a mask. Brick walls are sturdy and rigid, but Pągowski loosened the element’s structure to make his viewers wonder its significance. In his works, he only used one main subject and added a twist to it, which becomes the focus of the piece. Unlike Stasys’ work where there is a distinct style to the character, Pągowski’s work all have different styles. His individualized posters evoke a range of moods and ideas. When Poland established a free market economy, the publication of posters became mass-produced, which led to artists being unable to produce work. Nevertheless, Pągowski became familiar with this economic transformation and took advantage of this time to become successful in creative advertising.


Wiktor Sadowski Smierc thumbnail  Wiktor Sadowski Lorenzaccio thumbnail  Wiktor Sadowski Ghetto thumbnail


Just like the other designers, Wiktor Sadowski had a distinct style and interpreted powerful messages within his posters. When he was younger, he sought to create art that was monumental and significant to the art world. What inspired him to dive into poster design was the Warsaw kiosks in Poland, which were the only way to view art. The kiosks brought hope and motivation for the Polish during their darkest hours as it brightened the city with color. Sadowski pushed himself as an artist, and soon enough, his hard work led to his success. When comparing his five artworks shown in this exhibition, there is a common dark theme that could be reflected in the emotions the artist felt during the war. Small details such as the etched marks and deep shadows enhance the mood of his posters. Sadowski also included areas of intense color within his characters to create contrast for the plain background. This becomes visually impacting as a whole. For example, in the poster, Haagse Comedie, the yellow of the figure’s costume and the reds on both masks are bright areas of color, whereas the black background creates visual interest and drama for viewers. Overall, Sadowski’s creative output allowed him to produce unpredictable and fresh artwork that was pushed to its fullest potential.


Mieczysław Górowski Stulecie thumbnail  Mieczysław Górowski Pierwszy thumbnail  Mieczysław Górowski Kafka thumbnail


During the late twentieth century Poland, Mieczysław Gorówski’s debut as a graphic artist sparked when he composed designs for local cultural events and festivals, which were both captivating and informative. Instead of creating a narrative approach, Gorówski worked with “a highly objective, abstract form, with an archetype of the concept,” meaning to a degree, he kept the poster's desired written content while also containing decorative art (Mieczyslaw Gorówski). He used visual language to design metaphors that could be identified by a person. Without this method, it would’ve been difficult for the artist to reveal his opinions or emotions. Much like the other three artists, Gorówski understood that his task differed greatly from the role of a normal artist. He familiarized himself with techniques that helped him solve problems through reasoning and examine the purpose of every shape he created. Moreover, he abstracted his art like other poster designers to not only avoid censorship but also to communicate an important meaning to his art. Graphic representation of metaphors and the history of Poland became an important part of Gorówski’s reputation as a poster artist.


Polish posters were the emergence of creativity — a new medium of expression — which resulted from the country’s internal struggles for democracy and freedom. It became both a tool and an art form in which promoted topics through a rich and metaphorical design. Both World War II and the Cold War limited the artist’s capability to produce art, however, the Soviet government allowed commissions, taking the production of art to their advantage. Artists, during this time in Poland, gathered the hardships they faced and transformed it into inspirational art with deeply personal meanings. They developed new skills like learning how to use symbolism, imagery, and metaphors of Poland’s culture and pride to avoid censorship from the government. Without a doubt, many got away with messages and nationalist imagery from the censors. When the economy fell in Poland during the mid-late century, artists worked harder than before and produced art that attracted not just the Polish, but people from around the world. Following this hardship, Stasys Eidrigevičius, Andrzej Pągowski, Wiktor Sadowski, and Mieczysław Górowski were the few artists who carried on the traditions of the Polish poster. While the poster format was already a tool to address their half-suppressed ethnic identity, these third-generation artists continued to invoke historic motifs and nationalist imagery that flowed from Poland's past (Posters: A Global History).

Much like Poland’s history of using masks as symbols in posters, today’s current situation still values this idea of representation meanings through “masks,” but differently. Ever since the huge spike of coronavirus cases in early 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended everyone to wear a face mask when out in public. This recommendation caused different emotions for many people. Some felt like the face mask impaired their freedom, while others believed that they were ineffective for protection against the virus. A simple object like a face mask has become a political statement, and in one way, acts as a symbol of weakness. Even though some view the face mask as a negative object, others find it as a way to show their personality. There are thousands of different patterns, designs, colors, and styles of mask designs that appeared on e-commerce websites, and many are already fit for the fashion runway. Other people view the mask to not only make a fashionable statement but also for protection. To conclude, masks have been embedded in the culture that everyone experiences now.

Symbols are everywhere. Whether it appears on a poster or in a book, they are signs that challenge or inspire viewers to understand the truth about something. Influenced by common history and culture of the times, these graphics are used by artists to tell a story or to create a concept for their viewers. The ability to blend both new and existing material strongly emphasized the individuality of Polish poster artists and led them to international recognition for their talent and creativity. Despite the Polish poster artists’ success, the era of art ended when Poland established a free market economy in 1989, which impacted the growth of the posters. Posters, once displayed as art, were instead replaced to be advertisements, meaning that “commercialism began replacing creativity” (Contemporary Posters). The once original and vibrant designs were erased, leaving nothing but repetitive, dull, mass-produced posters. Because Poland transitioned to the capitalist system, many of the artists' creativity declined, marking the end of the golden age of the Polish posters. Nevertheless, the Polish posters produced during the war were preserved as many still admired the distinctive and innovative designs. Thousands of posters are displayed in exhibits and even online to preserve their uniqueness. Overall, this revolutionary contribution to the art world has impacted many lives as it sparked originality which will forever be an important aspect of graphic design.


Stasys Eidrigevičius

Born on July 24, 1949, in Lithuania, Stasys Eidrigevičius is a painter and a graphic artist who is well known to include mask-like imagery in his works. In 1968, Eidrigevičius graduated from the College of Fine Arts and Crafts in Kaunas, Lithuania. He gained a wide range of artistic knowledge from the outside world, like Western art and Surrealism. The popularity Stasys gained from his works placed exhibitions throughout countries like the United States, Japan, Australia, France, South Korea, and India. He has earned quite an amount of major awards and most recent ones include the National Award in Arts, Lithuania (2001), and the Commander’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland (2019). His arrival in Warsaw, Poland in 1980, became a permanent residence, and he continues to produce work that varies from oil painting, sculpture, book illustration, studio graphics, and photography.

Andrzej Pągowski

Andrzej Pągowski was born on April 19, 1953, in Warsaw, and is one of the most well known Polish designers during the Communist period. After he graduated from The State University of Fine Arts in Poznan, Poland in 1978, designing posters became his main interest, though Pagowski expanded his works with designing theatrical settings, prints, catalogs, billboards, and more. He claims that his works each have a separate concept and that they all evoke a range of moods and ideas. Some of Pagowski’s most significant awards include the Grand Prix at the International Film Poster Competition, Istanbul (1989), and the Poster of the Year Award, Warsaw (1983, 1987). Now, he continues to work with various forms and styles to his artistic creations.

Wieslaw Walkuski

Wieslaw Walkuski, a graphic designer born in Bialystok, Poland in 1956, started his artistic career at the Warsaw Academy of Art between 1976 and 1981. After graduating, he worked under film distributors like Polfilm and Film Polski to create artwork and cover designs for films. Over 200 posters have been published by Walkuski and many have been displayed at Polish and international poster exhibitions such as The Weidman Gallery in West Hollywood. Walkuski received many awards, and some include first prize for the International Movie Festival, Chicago, USA (1986), and the Polish Artists Association prize, Biennial of Polish Poster, Katowice, Poland (1995). In Warsaw, Poland, he works as a freelance painter, illustrator, and poster artist.

Wiktor Sadowski

Wiktor Sadowski, a Polish artist, was born in Oleandry, Poland in 1956, specializing in poster design and book illustration. He is well known for his sketchy/dark style, apparent in his posters. He attended the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw and graduated in 1981. From there, he has created posters for theatre, films, dance companies, and opera. Sadowski is one of the many third-generation Poster artists who became part of the revival of Polish poster art in the 1980s. His artworks are a blend of commercial use and fine art. He has won several major awards like a gold medal for the IX/X International Poster Biennale in Warsaw, Poland (1984), and a gold medal for the Society of Illustrators in New York, USA (1994).

Franciszek Starowieyski

Franciszek Starowieyski born in Bratkówka, Poland (July 8, 1930- February 23, 2009) was a Polish artist well known for his unique style set by his own creativity. From 1949 to 1955, he attended the Academy of Fine Arts in Krakow and Warsaw for painting and graphics. Mediums that Starowieyski specialized in were poster design, drawing, painting, stage designing, and book illustration. His focus was on Polish posters, which his concepts and styles ranged from socialist realism to the brightly colored Cyrk posters. He is the first Polish artist to have his own show at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York (1986). Some of Starowieyski’s major awards include a Gold Plaque from the International Film Festival in Chicago, USA (1979), and a film poster award at the Cannes Film Festival in Cannes, France (1974).

Mieczyslaw Gorowski

Mieczyslaw Gorowski (February 5, 1941- August 31, 2011), a Polish graphic artist, was born in Milkowa, Poland, and was recognized for the meaningful visual language he created in his works. He received education through the Academy of Fine Arts in Krakow, the oldest Polish fine arts academy, from 1959 to 1966. That being said, Gorowski made his debut through designs he created for local cultural events and festivals. His poster design career began in 1966, and since then, he has designed over 400 posters. Many of his works are found in collections in Europe and North America. Some of his major awards include first prize for the International Poster Invitational in Fort Collins, Colorado (1983), and first prize for the International Biennale of the Poster in Mexico (1992).