One of the Great Secrets of Twentieth-Century Pop Art

by Michael Atkinson

Pulp form, thumbnail allusiveness, hyperbole, uncouth syntax—this much we all understand about movie posters, truly a public art form only Papuan tribesmen could claim to be ignorant of. Until we go to Poland. Outside of its fevered circle of cultists, the authentic phenomenon of Polish movie posters remains one of the great secrets of twentieth-century pop art. There are large-format books published here showcasing Italian movie art, Japanese posters, American exploitation graphics (no shortage of these), and, remarkably, amateur posters for Hollywood films made by Ghanaian artists on secondhand flour sacks. But none of the Polish. Nowhere else but in Poland has the very concept of movie-poster design gotten such a radical overhaul, and nowhere else has it so persisted at identifying itself as a freestanding object. The primary philosophical singularity at work in the tradition of Polish movie posters going back at least to the ’50s is this: The poster art need not visually suggest the movie in question in any concrete way whatsoever. In fact, direct visual reference to anything in the film is often shunned. The poster should at most semiconsciously evoke the thematic feeling of the movie (or its title—in many instances, Polish posters seem to be created with abject ignorance of the cinematic work itself). The artists chosen are prized for their intensely idiosyncratic visions, to which the movie-poster form and the marketing exigencies of a particular film must defer, not vice versa.

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Michael Atkinson’s latest books include a debut novel, Hemingway Deadlights, coming out in August; Flickipedia, cowritten with Laurel Shifrin; and Exile Cinema: Filmmakers at Work Beyond Hollywood.

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