August 09

Jan Sawka: Political Posters and the Polish Solidarity Movement

41+p9N1QWfL._On the 9th of August 2012, Polish painter, printmaker, graphic artist, set designer and architect Jan Sawka died in his home in High Falls, New York. Jan Sawka was the son of an architect father and linguist mother.  His childhood was overshadowed by his father’s Stalin-era political imprisonment.  Sawka completed two Master degrees:  in Painting and Printmaking, from the Wroclaw Fine Arts Academy, and in Architectural Engineering from the Institute of Technology in Wroclaw. … As a young artist, he became a well-known figure in the world of Polish counter-culture.  He was active as a set-designer and graphic artist in the avant-garde theater scene (Kalambur, Teatr STU), cabarets as well as festivals such as FAMA and Jazz Nad Odra (Jazz on the Oder River).  He organized well-known happenings, centred on political satire and of an absurdist nature.  He illustrated books, including samizdats (underground poetry) of the most outstanding contemporary Polish poets of his time, including Edward Stachura, Leszek Aleksander Moczulski, Ryszard Krynicki, Stanislaw Baranczak, Adam Zagajewski and others. … By his late 20’s, Sawka had become a star of the Polish Poster School.

“The poster in communist Europe had a decisive political and cultural status. At first, as a weapon in a social struggle for human emancipation and later, as a medium of artistic expression independent of the commercial pressure of the market place, it had as authority it could rarely aspire to in Western democracies. It played an important role in communist ceremony and ritual, but its status shifts from that of a temporary agitational tool to that of an exhibitionary object caught up in the institutional framework of museums and galleries, curators and collectors. Paradoxically, as other media like television became more important for the purposes of state propaganda, the poster gained in symbolic significance. The region saw the birth of the ‘artposter’ and Jan Sawka, the Polish artist exiled since 1976, likened the role of the poster designer to that of Polish funerary sculptors under Russian imperial rule, forgotten but free.” (James Aulich, Maria Sylvestrova, Political Posters in Central and Eastern Europe, 1945-95: Signs of the Times)

51Z6GQKR16L._SX342_Labelled by the communist authorities as a reactionary, Sawka emigrated from Poland, first in 1976 to Paris, and a year later, to New York. He used to say that he had to be expelled from Poland because he was not prepared to be told, among other things, ‘what poetry to like and read’. As surreal as this may sound today, the strict political climate in communist Poland at the time, as well as the ‘hegemony’ of Socialist Realism above all other artistic currents, made it impossible for many artists to develop independent artistic careers. Some of them complied with the rigid aesthetics of Socialist Realism; whilst others either moved their activity to the ‘underground’ or left the country to carry on openly with their individual artistic careers. The most radical stance taken by some artists was total withdrawal from artistic activity. Sawka chose emigration.

In America, he first worked as an illustrator for the New York Times. He also started engaging himself with other artistic disciplines, mainly painting, print-making, set design, sculpture, and multimedia. All the while, he carried on working on poster designs. He would create posters for theaters and for publicizing his own exhibitions. He also created posters for important causes, such as the First World Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors in Israel, Non-nuclear Proliferation, assistance for Haiti, the memorial of the 1956 massacre in Budapest, Hungary and others.  In 1981, when martial law was imposed in Poland, the AFL-CIO led a bipartisan fundraiser that sold Sawka’s Solidarity poster in the millions to provide immediate support to the besieged Solidarity Movement.  Jan Sawka had originally designed this poster at the request of the Solidarity itself.  Pilots of LOT Polish Airlines smuggled the poster’s original to Warsaw’s Solidarity office, where it awaited printing.  On the day that Martial Law was declared by General Jaruzelski, security forces (UB) stormed the Solidarity office and destroyed the poster original.  Thankfully, an American photographer had captured images of the design in New York and Sawka was able to quickly recreate the design for the AFL-CIO’s “Let Poland Be Poland” campaign and fundraiser.  … Millions of dollars were raised. The image of a button with the Solidarity-logo as a sun above a landscape of crowd-like trees became an icon of the freedom movement.   

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