The Art of CYRK Posters

During the golden era for the Polish Posters (c.1945-1980), the most recognized subject and the most highly acclaimed posters were CYRK Polish Circus posters. For approximately a quarter century, CYRK posters achieved a remarkable artistic quality as well as an unmatched degree of popularity.

These contemporary CYRK posters were first created in 1962, when the state circus agency, the United Entertainment Enterprises (ZPR), commissioned leading artists to develop a modern approach to the circus poster. The ZPR wanted a revised look for the circus poster to parallel the circus' efforts to upgrade its image. These new CYRK posters were not to be advertisements presenting concrete objects, people, or facts; but rather, they were to be artistic renderings reminding the public that an exciting and modern circus was coming to town. Based usually on a single theme, their metaphors and allusions created a wonderful artistic expression that should be viewed, but should also be read, pondered, and digested.

The artists of the Polish School of Posters, from the end of World War II through the l980s, possessed a genius not seen in one country since France's La Belle Époque of the 1890s. With state financial support and artistic encouragement, the graphic artists of the golden era of the Polish School of Posters designed strong, original, individualistic images - often intended to surprise, provoke, or disturb the viewers' beliefs and values. They frequently used camouflage and commonly understood ironies to communicate surreptitiously with the public and comment on society. Some designers preferred painterly realistic gestures; some drew upon the fantastic and surreal while others favored abstraction. CYRK posters, like the circus they portray, are exciting and diverse, encompassing a wide range of artistic styles.

The Polish School of Posters was never isolated behind an iron curtain but from its inception was part of the international art community. Polish poster artists entered international poster exhibitions and competitions both at home and abroad; their many awards helped establish the international dominance of the art of the golden era of the Polish School of Posters. In Europe and Asia, contemporary/vintage art posters including CYRK posters have long been recognized and collected as a unique art form. They are exhibited and sold in poster galleries and auction houses as art. They are part of many museum and private collections.

Bear in tuxedo – Waldemar Swierzy, 1974

I've got this one - definitely one of my favorite CYRK posters - not long ago. Its a very rare piece, printed in 1974 and I believe I was lucky to stumble upon it, since its a highly coveted print.

The designer, Waldemar Swierzy was born in 1931 in Katowice. He's a graduate of the Cracow Academy of Fine Arts (Dept. of Graphic Art in Katowice), designed his first poster in 1950 and obtained his diploma in 1952. Specializes in poster and all forms of commercial graphic, with a very prolific career. He had individual shows in Vienna, Moscow, Poznań, Sao Paulo, Caracas, Wrocław. Works as professor at Poznań Academy of Fine Arts.

Here are some of his Major Awards: Grand Prix Tolouse-Lautrec, Paris (1959); Hollywood Reporters Awards for the poster (1975 and 1985); Gold Medal International Biennial of Posters in Warsaw (1976); 1st Prize at the 2nd International Biennial of Posters in Lahti, Finland (1977); Gold and Bronze Medal at the International Jazz Salon "Jazzpo'' (1985); Gold Medal at the Polish Poster Biennial, Katowice (Poland) (1989); He is also a member of the elitist Aliance Graphique International (AGI).

Woman Roller skating – Wiktor Gorka, 1970

This one was an EBay treasure... Again, not easy to find and I've got it in a really good shape. The artist, Wiktor Gorka, was born in 1922 and became a Graduate of the Academy of Fine Arts in Cracow in 1952. By then, he started working for Poland's largest publishing houses and film distributors, like RSW "Prasa", "WAG" and "CWF". He was also, for many years, a visiting professor at numerous artistic academies in Mexico.

Here are some of his Major Awards: 2nd Prize in national competition for "6 Year Plan" poster, 1949; 2nd Prize at International Film Poster Competition, Karlove Vary, 1962; 1st Prize at International Competition of Touristic Posters, Berlin, 1967; Silver Medal at 2nd Biennial of Polish Poster, Katowice, 1967; The Jose Guadelupe Posada Merit Award at 6th International Biennial in Mexico, 2000.

Wiktor Gorka passed away in 2004.

Horse with plume - Jan Mlodozeniec, 1979

Not a hard one to find (EBay has some of those popping up from time to time), but I've got this one during a business trip to Brussels. The place I've got it from had, seriously, more than two thousand polish posters... all part of an inheritance piece that the shop owner had received from a collector which was a good friend of his. I wish I had enough money to buy the whole lot... Or at least more time to do some research and pick the best posters. There were some old, amazing and very rare pieces in there for sure.

But anyway, back to this poster... Jan Mlodozeniec is a Master of Polish poster design. He was born in 1929 and is considered one of the most outstanding artist in Poland in last 50 years. He's a graduate of Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts, with specialization in book and magazine layouts, studio graphic work and posters.

Major awards: Honorary Mention at National Exhibition of Book Illustration, Posters and Small Graphic Forms in Warsaw; award at 1st National Biennial of Posters in Katowice, 1965; First Price at 2nd Biennial of Applied Graphic in Brno, 1966; Silver and Bronze Medals at 4th and 7th National Biennial of Posters in Katowice (in 1971 and 1977 respectively); Silver Medals at International Book Fairs in Leipzig, East Germany (1965 and 1971); Gold Medal at 8th International Biennial of Posters in Warsaw (1980); Gold Medal at 5th International Biennial of Posters in Lahti, Finland (1983).

Jan Mlodozeniec passed away in late 2000.

Surrealistic Cyrk - Jan Lenica, 1976

Jan Lenica was born in 1928, studied in the Faculty of Architecture at the Poznan Technical University and became a Graduate of Architecture Faculty at the Warsaw Polytechnic. He draws satirical cartoons, works in illustration, graphic art and graphic design, exhibition design and theater stage design.

He eventually specialized in poster and, since 1957 in animated films. Author of numerous articles and books on poster art, he's also the author of the term "Polish School of Poster". He was also a professor at the Harvard University, Cambridge MA 1974 and Academy of Fine Arts in Berlin 1986-1994.

Major awards: Toulouse Lautrec Grand Prix at the International Exhibition of Film Posters, Versailles, France, 1961; 1st and 3rd Prize at the International Exhibition of Film Posters in Karlove Wary, Czech Republic, 1962; Gold Medal at the 1st International Biennial of Posters in Warsaw, 1966; Grand Prix at the Polish Poster Biennial, Katowice, Poland, 1999. Numerous awards for animated films and book illustrations.

Jan Lenica passed away in 2001.


Man with 2 hats (E. Dworakowski) - Witold Mysyrowicz, 1974

Two horse heads with plume – Lech Majewski, 1975

Amongst the many awards Lech Majewski won, some of the most importants are the 1st Prize in the International Poster Competition (UNESCO, Paris, 1971) and the "Best Poster of the Year" in Warsaw's Best Poster Competition (Poland, 1986).

Lech Majewski style has a combination painting and graphic design in his work.

Acrobatic Pyramid - Jan Sawka, 1975

Jan Sawka was born in 1946, in Upper Silesia, Poland. In 1970 he started freelancing as an artist and graphic designer, getting an MA in architectural engineering from Wroclaw University of Technology, in 1972. In the same year, he also got an MFA in painting and printmaking Fine Arts Academy in Wroclaw. During the years of 1973-1974, he was the Artistic director of the Stodola Gallery, in Warsaw, and F.A.M.A. of the Summer Arts Festival on the Baltic coast.

In 1977, he moved to New York, where he designed for the Wroclaw Jazz Festival, Bam Art Center, New York Times, Harold Clurman Theater, Samuel Beckett Theater, Jean Cocteau Repertory Theater, and many others.

During his long and prolific career, he has lectured at universities and museums throughout the world, also winning major awards, like "The most outstanding young poster designer" in the 5th Biennial of Polish Poster Design, in Katowice (Poland); The Golden Pin award, given by the editorial staff of Szpilki satirical magazine, Warsaw (Poland) in 1974; The Oscar de la Peinture award and the special prize of the President of France, 7th International Painting Festival, Cagnes-sur-Mer (France), in 1975; The 1st Prize, 7th International Poster Biennale, Warsaw (Poland) in 1978; The Artist Laureate, 7th Colorado International Invitational Poster Exhibition, Ft. Collins , Colorado (USA) in 1991; and the Gold Medal in Multimedia, 4th International Biennial of Contemporary Art, Florence, (Italy).

Contortionist - Jerzy Czerniawski, 1979

Jerzy Czerniawski was born in 1947 in Kwiatow. He studied in the Academy of Fine Arts and the State College of Plastic Arts, in Wroclaw. His artistic debut occurred on the wave of Polish counterculture in 1970's, and he works in graphic art, graphic design, painting, drawing and posters.
His major awards are: Bronze medal at International Poster Biennaele, Warsaw 1974; Second prize at poster Biennale, Lahti 1977; Silver Plaque in poster competition at International Film Festival, Chicago 1981.

Czerniawski's posters constitute a significant part of major museum and private poster collections.

Talking monkey - Hubert Hilscher, 1973

Growling cat - Hubert Hilscher, 1970

Hubert Hilscher was born in 1924 and died in 1999. He had many CYRK posters made, all bearing his very particular style: whimsical & fantastical, with strong hues, clean composition and controlled lettering.

In 1981 he won the 2nd Prize in the IV Poster Biennale of Lahti, and was a member of the AGI (Alliance Graphique International) since 1974.

Pagliacci/Clown with ruffled collar – Waldemar Swierzy, 1982

Swierzy in a poster that I really like and that can be easily found at EBay for a reasonable price. Monkeys, puppies and babies... you can't go wrong with them.

Two Hugging Bears – Wiktor Gorka, 1971

Here's Gorka again. For some reason this poster reminds me a lot of the Moscow Olympic Games in 1980. I wonder if the bears are the reason for it. Probably so.

Upside down clown face - Maciej Urbaniec, 1983

This true polish poster was being sold as russian when I got it. Weird. A very simple and clean piece that can almost go unnoticed, until you go "Heeey...".

Maciej Urbaniec was born in 1925 in Zwierzyniec, near Zamosc. He died in 2004, in Nowy Sacz (the polish "Tuscany").

He studied at the Wroclaw and Warsaw ASP, where he graduated in 1958. He was a poster designer and commercial artist, with a style that conveyed simple and powerful messages - sometimes ingenious and humorous - with painterly gestures and exceptionally elaborate artistic metaphors. He was also the teacher of some of the finest Third Generation (1960s-1980s) Polish School of Posters artists, and a professor at the Academy of Fine Art (ASP), in Warsaw PL.
As a member of the AGI (Alliance Graphic Internationale) since 1974, he has won many awards, like the 1958 Trepkowski Award; the 1st Prize at the 1st Polish Poster Biennale in Katowice; the 2nd Prize at the 4th Int'l Commercial Graphics Biennale in Berno and many Poster of the Month awards.

Gal swinging – Witold Janowski, 1978

Born in 1926, Witold Janowski style is a persuasive one, with colorful patterns and a form of design that might seem ingenuous, but hides a very thoughtful composition. In much of his artistic activity, Witold Janowski carries on with the pre-war tradition of architects as poster designers.

This graduate of Warsaw Technical University, exhibition designer and creator of visual images is also one of the makers of the well-known "Polish Poster School". It was Janowski "who designed one of the most beautiful and lyrical examples of that romantic school which is the poster for 'the 1962 film "How to be Loved", directed by Wojciech Has.

Indeed, it is his film posters more than any other part of his work that seem the most representative of the style of the aforesaid "Polish School". He was particularly prolific as a poster designer in the sixties, with their expressionistic tendency to examine the human condition.

Witold was also a professor at the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts, and won the "Best Poster of the Year" Award in 1961, 1974, 1978 in the Warsaw's Best Poster Competition. In 1964, he won the 1st Prize at the International Tourist Poster Exhibition, in Moscow.

Janowski's posters are always in tune with the times. They reflect contemporary moods and are therefore always modern.

Poodle Drummer - Liliana Baczewska, 1965

CYRK posters are more than striking images created by the artistic geniuses of the world-famous Polish School of Posters: they are also the artists' interpretation and commentary on society, often communicating camouflaged political and social messages.

During the golden age of the Polish School of Posters (1945 until 1989, the artists - being well-paid, highly-regarded and given much autonomy - became the spokespeople of society as their posters became the primary art form of the nation.

There are many posters known for their subliminal messages, and the Poodle Drummer is one of them: supposedly, it means that "the poodle will drum in a new era where the acrimonious society of Poland under Communism will be replaced by harmony (even the parrot & the dog will cooperate)."

It was designed by one of the few women that took part on the movement, Liliana Baczewska, born in 1931, and winner of the Tadeusz Trepkowski Prize (Warsaw, Poland). Her style is known for its whimsical designs and intricate lettering.

Gal roller skating - Anna Kozniewska, 1971

Born in 1933, Anna Kozniewska style is reminiscent of the poster artists of La Belle Époque. Her style and coloring, plus the usage of feminine figures on feathers makes it almost undeniable.

This poster is quite rare and believe me, the picture doesn't do justice to its vibrant colors.