Lenica, Jan

JAN LENICA (1928-2001)

Jan Lenica was born in 1928 in Poznań, the son of musician and painter Alfred Lenica, graduating from secondary school in Poznań in the piano program before studying architecture at Warsaw Polytechnic in 1947-52. In 1954 he was appointed assistant to Henryk Tomaszewski at the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts. Although he was preoccupied with drawings for the satirical journal Szpilki during the late 1940s, he eventually branched out into book illustration and poster art starting in 1950. From 1963 onward he worked and lived mostly in France and Germany and lectured on poster art at Harvard University, USA in 1974. In 1979 he became the head of the Chair of Animated Film at Kassel University, and from 1986-1993 he taught poster and graphic art at the Berlin Hochschule der Kunste, designing sets for the operas in both Wiesbaden and Cologne.

Lenica's work marks one of the key chapters in the history of Polish art of the second half of the twentieth century. An extraordinarily versatile artist, his work in graphic design, illustration, poster art, set design and animation blurred the borders of each genre, juggling conventions and challenging esthetic standards. He was – alongside Henryk Tomaszewski - one of the forerunners of modern Polish press cartoon, contributing to both Szpilkit , Wiadomości Kulturalne and the daily Rzeczpospolita, often replacing the typical slapstick cartoon with an artistic one bordering on philosophical treatise.

His early, abstract drawings were shown at the Modern Art Exhibition in Krakow in 1948. Searching for his own form of artistic expression, he took an early interest in theatre and film posters. At the time of the Socialist Realism movement this allowed him considerable artistic freedom, releasing him from the obligation to follow the academic conventions imposed on other fine arts. In the early 1950s he was among the young graphic artists who created the famed Polish Poster School  (he is believed to have coined this term in the Swiss journal Graphis).

According to Lenica, his poster work developed in three distinct stages: The first stage (1950-56) was mostly influenced by realism, earning him the Assistant Chair of Poster at the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts in 1954. These works were more mostly illustrative and closely mirrored the subjects of the films/plays.

In his "formal search" stage (1957-61) Lenica began to experiment with different, less representational means of expression, including collages of old drawings and paper cutouts. In 1962 he started to make posters for the Warsaw Opera and embarked on the third (and most well known) stage of his poster design career - his characteristic "handwriting" style. Most of the posters from this period are in fact gouache, watercolor, and tempera paintings on paper. Sometimes he would experiment with cutouts and collage as well, adding to the capricious, flowing, wavy lines and simplified detail-free forms influenced by the Art Nouveau movement. There is no room for decorativeness or ornament in his posters, and conversely, they have a predatory expression with intense (and at times monochromatic) colors. He preferred to use two-dimensional forms creating neither background nor perspective. Altogether Lenica made over 200 posters including 1964's Wozzeck (which won the Grand Prix at the Poster Biennial in Warsaw in 1966) and 1968's Otello.

In the 1980's, Lenica rekindled his love for illustration, working on several children's books for Swiss publisher Bohem Press, including Timo the White Bear, A Mouse and an Elephant, and A Bird of Colour. Using a combination of gouache and watercolours, he produced a mood which was totally different from that of his other works. From the mid-1980s Lenica worked for the German (initially West-German) Post, designing a number of stamps, including the stamp celebrating Bertolt Brecht's birth centenary. His lifetime achievement was recognized with both the Alfred Jurzykowski Foundation Award in New York City in 1987 and the Smok Smokow Award of the Kraków Short Film Festival in 1999. He died in 2001 in Berlin, Germany.

To view Jan Lenica works from the Jim Hughes Collection click here