Tomaszewski’s ‘Historia’ (occasional notes on posters)

Eastern Europe, Graphic Design

In Eastern Europe before 1989, the state held a near-monopoly on all forms of public expression. Censors wielding red pencils checked every message that went into print. Fearful of the spread of free opinion, the authorities controlled the use of even the most basic office printing equipment. In Ceausescu’s Romania all typewriters, for instance, had to be registered with the State. As Hans Magnus Enzensberger noted in 1970 of another machine,

The Soviet bureaucracy, that is to say the most widespread and complicated bureaucracy in the world, has to deny itself almost entirely an elementary piece of organizational equipment, the duplicating machine, because this instrument potentially makes everyone a printer. … It is clear that Soviet society has to pay an immense price for the suppression of its own productive resources—clumsy procedures, misinformation, faux frais.

During the period of Martial Law in Poland after 1981 when the government stamped down on Solidarity, the anti-communist alliance of intellectuals and workers, the police raided art schools to take away the screen-printing equipment. Nevertheless, samizdat production (self-publishing) continued illicitly there and throughout the Bloc. At the same time, what Tom Kovacs called the ‘spirit of metaphor’ shaped dissenting culture in the Eastern Bloc. When, for instance, the famous Solidarity logo was banned, the Poles invented new symbols which did not draw the rancour of the state. Ordinary people would wear electronic resistors in the ‘national’ colours of red and white. Everyone knew what this gesture meant but for the state and its henchmen to act against those wearing these tiny pins would have revealed the absurdity of the situation. ‘Aesopian’ parables and allegories found their way into many different kinds of posters. ImageIn a 1983 theatre poster for a performance of a work by Gombrowicz, Henryk Tomaszewski sketched the image of a foot apparently making the ‘V’ gesture with its toes, a symbol which Solidarity leaders had adopted during the heady days of its rise. This was read as an allusion to the irrepressible spirit of the Trade Union then under prohibition.

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Zamecznik’s Silent Star (occasional notes on posters)

Cold War, Eastern Europe, Graphic Design

In many science fiction films of the Cold War period the cosmos is represented as an extra-terrestrial space in which international rivalries have been overcome. ‘Der Schweigende Stern’ (The Silent Star) depicted a world in which communism had swept the planet and mankind now enjoyed the benefits of nuclear technology, social equality and international fraternity. Internationalism was not only the theme but also the method of this movie: it was based on a book by Polish science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem and shot in East Germany with an international cast.

The film depicts the discovery of a mysterious object in 2003 which contains a coded message threatening the Earth’s destruction. A spaceship is dispatched to Venus, the source of this message, with an international crew. There, they find only the ruins of the warlike civilization which had itself already perished in a nuclear civil war. The Cold War message was clear to all.

Interestingly, the film was distributed in America under the title ‘First Spaceship in Venus’ where its latent communist message was less important than its capacity to satisfy the tremendous popular demand for science fiction. The poster distributed in the USA stressed the dramatic experiences of space travel which could be enjoyed from the comfort of the cinema seat: ‘You are there …, You are there …, You are there …, You are there …, You are there …’.  Not surprisingly Polish designer Wojciech Zamecznik’s horizontal poster capture Lem’s intentions best. The ‘star’ – which has sent the message  has fallen silent, a deathly planet on which life has been extinguished. It is presented as lifeless face. The only allusion to the ideodological subtext appears in red trail which follows the cosmonauts as they fly through the dark night of space.

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Autonomy. The cover designs of Anarchy 1961-1970

Collage, Graphic Design

The political philosophy of Anarchism attracted some extraordinary and perhaps unlikely British adherents. They included Alex Comfort, an expert on the science of aging and author of the bestselling The Joy of Sex;  Herbert Read, the poet and critic who wrote incisively about modern art; and Colin Ward, an architect whose ideas about the importance of self-organisation led him to write about many everyday things including children’s play and garden allotments. Far removed from the cartoon-cliché of bomb-wielding terrorists in thtumblr_locn2tEtWH1qzzsdjo1_1280-661x1024e late nineteenth century or the Kings Road punk, these anarchist intellectuals were cerebral figures who used their skills with words to argue for what Comfort called the ‘maximization of individual responsibility and the reduction of concentrated power — regal, dictatorial, parliamentary: the institutions which go loosely by the name of “government” — to a vanishing minimum.’ They may have rallied against the oppressive reach of the state and the ‘inflation’ of professionalism, but ‘the Establishment’ was keen to benefit from their skills: Comfort was an academic at University College London; Read was given a knighthood in 1953; and Ward was to spend the 1970s as an education officer with the Town and Country Planning Association.

Ten years earlier, in March 1961, Ward had been the founding editor of Anarchy: a journal of anarchist ideas. This small format monthly was created to publish the kind of long and philosophical essays which not could be carried by its sister title, Freedom, an inky weekly newspaper that was then already seventy-five years old. Ward commissioned Rufus Segar to design his new periodical. Segar was working at the time for the Economist Intelligence Unit creating charts, maps and other info-graphics for business, education and government. Moonlighting with Ward, he designed more than 100 of Anarchy’s 118 covers – all of which are reproduced at 1:1 scale in Daniel Poyner’s new book Autonomy. The cover designs of Anarchy 1961-1970 (Hyphen Press).

Eschewing formulas and standard devices, Segar’s designs were diverse and often ingenious responses to the themes of each issue. Rarely meeting his editor, his brief often arrived on a postcard. Occasionally an illustrator was commissioned (Martin Leman’s Paolozzi-like collages of man-machines stand out). But more often than not Segar produced his own pithy drawings or worked with the images he had close to hand like clippings from newspapers, official reports and even family photographs. Like the best advertising of the day, the cover images, were animated by sharp copy. The solitary pair of transparent spectacles in a pile of rose tinted glasses on the cover of Anarchy 74 is catalysed by the accompanying question, ‘How realistic is anarchism?‘

Segar’s techniques sometimes approached what Umberto Eco was later to call ‘semiotic guerilla warfare’. Anarchy 79 (1967), for instance, was dedicated to the boiling ferment underway in the dictatorships and failing democracies of Latin America at the time. The cover takes the form of a sketch with correspondence to Segar from Ward, news clippings as well as handwritten directions to a designer and the printer. These are more than technical instructions. A cutting from an official Ecuadorian newspaper demanding that the poor are swept off the streets to keep tourists happy is accompanied with handwritten marginalia; our ‘translator … says that the tourist is always wrong, if he goes to the temples, he has no social conscience.’ On the back page, Segar instructs the designer to visualize the demographic explosion underway in the region: ‘Do a diagrammatic map of Latin America’. This, of course, is message to himself, the other Rufus Segar at his Economist Intelligence Unit drawing board. Interviewing Segar, Poyner tried to get the designer to talk about his double life as anarchist and design technocrat. The answer is unrevealing: ‘I found my forte in charts, maps and diagrammes.’

But of course designers are rarely the best interpreters of their own work. And, in fact, Poyner turns to the one of the most skilled deciphers of design, Richard Hollis, who supplies a technical analysis of Segar’s approach to typography and printing in an essay entitled ‘Anarchy and the 1960s’. Poyner also includes a characteristically brilliant 1987 essay by the late Raphael Samuel reviewing an anthology of essays from Anarchy. Disappointingly, this structure keeps form and content largely separate. Graphic design historians have spent many words trying to establish the relationship of style to ideology. In the élan of Cuban poster designers working for Castro’s revolution, for instance, Susan Sontag saw ‘a culture which is alive… and relatively free of the kind of bureaucratic interference’. So what was the relation between the libertarianism of British anarchism and Segar’s designs? Was his eschewal of a credo or a singular style a claim on freedom? This was what Herbert Read had in mind when he wrote ‘it is always a mistake to build apriori constitutions’. Was Segar’s sharp-witted bricolage technique a political declaration (as it was for the Situationist International, his contemporaries on the continent)? And if, as Samuel suggests, British anarchism faltered just at the moment when it was most needed, the revolutionary year of 1968, should the same charge be leveled at Segar’s designs? To judge from the images in this book, they would stand up well to this kind of scrutiny.