Jan Lenica

Jan Lenica was born in Poznań, Poland on January 4, 1928 to the famous painter and musician, Alfred Lenica. His father encouraged him to be a pianist thus attending a music based secondary school in 1947. He switched paths and graduated from Warsaw Polytechnic in 1952 with a degree in Architecture. Warsaw Polytechnic is the oldest and best technical university in Poland known for its vast fields of available science and technology concentrations including Mechatronics and Geodesy and other famous poster designers also graduated from Warsaw Polytechnic. While he was still in university he began to put out illustrations and critique other prints and drawings reflecting the modern day political climate and after graduating he became an art editor for Szpilki, a satirical journal which played a role in his later design style. Quickly moving up in positions, Lenica was appointed as an assistant to Henryk Tomaszewski as the Chair of Poster of the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts by 1954 whose notable alumni include Tomaszewski and Wojciech Gerson.

The history of the Polish School of Poster reflected the idea that a poster is both a resource and an art form, which evolved into the reflection of political opinions and a tool to bring light to important social issues depending on the artist. Posters became a monumental tool in Poland during the time period of 1950 to 1980 because of the many evasions from outside countries and territories. Fighting against invasion became Poland’s source of patriotism inspiring polish artists of many fields to portray their traditions as Polish people to create compositions of all types to reflect their reality and to impart their culture. Different approaches were used to convey their culture including the integration of polish folktale, typeface, and patterns into their modern posters. Most posters created during this time were also inspired by the Art Nouveau style. The Polish School of Posters was made up of the artists Roman Cieślewicz Wojciech Fangor, Mieczyslaw Gorowski, Tadeusz Jodlowski, Jan Lenica, Jan Młodożeniec, Józef Mroszczak, Franciszek Starowieyski, Waldemar Świerzy, Henryk Tomaszewski, Maciej Urbaniec, Mieczyslaw Wasilewski, and Jan Sawka. It was characterized by its “iconic and symbolic aesthetic”. The posters created by these artists were different than other posters being produced in other parts of Europe because of the artistic quality, usually showed with paint or lithography, used to convey a message.  

Aside from poster art, Lenica animated his first film in 1957 in collaboration with Walerian Borowczyk. Despite being known for his work in poster design, Lenica played a major role in the animated film realm as well, his first and third works with Borowczyk, Once Upon a Time (1957) and House (1958), were revolutionary. During this time, Polish artists had difficulty funding their projects following the occupation from war and retreating Germany leaving damage. All of the destruction defeated the purpose of advertising posters because no one wanted to commission one just for it to get destroyed. The film industry was also affected by the death of Stalin. On top of that, animated films beforehand were not very popular to many audiences as they were considered to be childish (aimed for children) but the pair worked around the odds and brought in adult themes.

Once Upon a Time and House, amongst the duos others, featured allusions and were inspired by Georges Méliès, a french illusionist, and avant garde, also popular in France. Their style at the time was modern and experimental, using cut out and collage which at the time were new techniques in film. Once Upon a Time is  about an ink blot that comes to life, this experimentation put some viewers off because of the abstractness, but the freeness of it was ultimately a breath of fresh air to Poland following the seriousness of war. According to the pair, “It is our goal to return to visual cinema, conceptualized in contemporaneous terms, enriched by sound and color. We refuse to confine ourselves to one genre, but prefer instead to draw from anything that stimulates the imagination, stirs emotions, entertains, and pleases the eye.”. While there wasn’t a set theme to the films, they often referred to each other by featuring the same subject acting as a different character.

After the success of these films Lenica and Borowczyk had critics awaiting new works, but their individual work is nothing to look over. The pair eventually split up because of clash of style. Lenica’s films focused on surrealism and the concept of everything is not what it seems which he intertwined with his political viewpoint that liberty is violated when violence is restricted. The surrealism, combined with the haunting themes of Ionesco’s and Kafka’s work helps portray that in his films.  Along with this, during his lifetime he served as an educator for a time at Harvard in 1974 and the Professor of Posters and Graphic Arts at the Berlin Hochschule der Kunste. For six years he held the position of Chair of Animated Film at Kassel University which in surprising considering the tension that still remained between Germany and Poland. Lenicas impact includes spreading the Polish school of Animation and Posters across the world. After his film House was awarded at the International Competition of Experimental Films in Brussels, the world learned a lot more about the film industry.

Lenica was talented in many aspects of design, mainly known as an illustrator, stage designer, graphic designer, poster artist, and animator/cartoonist despite his background in music and architecture and his father’s presence as a painter and musician. He died in 2001 in Berlin but left behind a long lasting legacy. There is a distinct difference in animation before and after Lenica’s contributions. His illustrations were known for being satirical and he was often commissioned to design posters for theatre plays. His major awards include the Toulouse-Lautrec Grand Prix (1961), the first and third prizes at International Film Poster Exhibition in the Czech Republic (1962), the International Poster Biennale in Warsaw, Poland (1966), the Gold Medal at thePrix Max Ernst (1966), and the Gold Medal at the Prix Jules in Cheret, France (1985).

Sources used: