Tomaszewski, Henryk


Before World War II Polish advertising posters were as graphically startling as any produced in Europe's leading poster capitals - England, France and Germany. But immediately after the war, more somber poster designs appeared that encouraged the reconstruction of a ravaged nation, and soon afterward, the dreary Stalinist aesthetic was injected into most popular art. In this milieu Henryk Tomaszewski (pronounced tom-a-SHEV-ski) introduced a shockingly playful and beguilingly abstract sensibility that characterized the Polish Poster School. This influential stylistic approach dominated the genre for decades, and from the '60's through the '80's it directly influenced cultural and political poster designers in France, England and the United States.

Henryk Tomaszewski was born in 1914 in Warsaw into a family of musicians. It was expected that he would devote his life to music, but in 1934, against his parents' wishes, he enrolled in the Warsaw Academy of Art as a painting student and graduated in 1939. Influenced by the exiled German satirists Georg Grosz and John Heartfield, Mr. Tomaszewski taught himself graphic design and drew satiric cartoons and caricatures, soon becoming became a regular contributor to the Polish humor magazine Szpilki. During the Nazi occupation he eked out a living while continuing to paint, draw, and make woodcuts - all of which were destroyed during the Warsaw Uprising. In 1947, along with kindred designers, among them Tadeusz Trepkowski and Tadeusz Gronowski, he was hired to produce posters for the state-run film distribution agency - Central Wynajmu Filmow. He and his friends accepted the jobs with the stipulation that their images would not be censored. Severe shortages in Poland made working conditions difficult: Brushes and paints were scarce, and printing and paper were inadequate. These limitations made Mr. Tomaszewski rethink the conventions of film posters. Instead of doing glamorous character portraits, he eliminated all reference to stars and replaced them with bold colors and abstract shapes to achieve graphic power. More important, as the poster designer James Victore noted in Print Magazine, "Rather than illustrating actual scenes, he suggested the mood of the films by applying filmmaking techniques." This included photographic montage, dramatic perspectives and bizarre cropping. While film directors criticized this approach as being too removed from their vision, Mr. Tomaszewski surprisingly had the backing of the Communist authorities in charge of the movie industry. His posters for the British films Odd Man Out and Black Narcissus were coyly symbolic illustrations that simply hinted at the films' plots. His posters for the famous Polish Cyrk (circus) combined abstract collage with expressive lettering, rather than standard typeset typefaces, which became something of a personal signature.


"Politics is like the weather: You have to live with it." - Henryk Tomaskewski

Even when he made a poster to advertise another artist's exhibition, Mr. Tomaszewski interpreted the content. For example, to announce a 1959 show of Henry Moore's sculptures, he created a veritable sculpture garden from the letters of the artist's name and placed Moore's Mother and Child on a pedestal made from the "O" in Moore. But this handling of the subject was not just a flagrant personal conceit; Mr. Tomaszewski succeeded in showcasing the salient features in Moore's work that were akin to his own. The strength of his graphic works lies in a simple and intelligent translation of messages and symbols from literary, theatrical, film, music and social themes into a visual language. He himself admitted "a lifetime search for such signs which would be comprehensible to everyone." In 1952 Tomaszewski was appointed Professor at the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts, heading its Poster Studio until 1985, educating dozens of up-and-coming graphic and poster artists of considerable renown. Indeed his studio attracted young trainees from all over the world and Tomaszewski invariably encouraged his disciples to do things their own way. After he retired he continued to design posters and draw cartoons until 1996, when nerve degeneration immobilized his legs and took away control of his hands.

Tomaszewski received a number of art prizes and honours in various countries, including five first awards at the 1948 International Film Poster Exhibition in Vienna. His cartoons were printed in various literary reviews, including Przegląd Kulturalny and Literatura. His drawings were published in the volume, Książka zażaleń / A Book of Complaints, in 1961. He designed a number of books and exhibitions, and was a member of many international art societies, including the prestigious Alliance Graphique Internationale (AGI). The Royal Society of Arts in London conferred upon him the award 'Honorary Royal Designer for Industry' in 1976. His works are unique for their simplicity, intellectual precision, extraordinary sense of humour and easy, laconic drawing. They convey general and profound truths by commenting on events that would otherwise have gone unnoticed, and their allusions and understatements invite a creative reception. His works are in various collections, including the Warsaw and Poznan National Museums, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Museum of Modern Art in Kanagawa, Japan, and the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam.


To view Henryk Tomaszewski's works from the Jim Hughes Collection click here