On Andrzej Klimowski

This essay was commissioned for a new book on the posters of Andrzej Klimowski published by Self-Made Hero in 2018.


In 1980 English-born Andrzej Klimowski had been living in Warsaw for seven years and was working as the designer of posters for the state film distributor and a number of theatres around Poland. That year, he put his commissions on hold to make a film for the Se-Ma-For film studio in Łódź. The studio had a high reputation for experimental short films and animations, and gave even novice film-makers like Klimowski access to 35mm cameras, professional lighting rigs and skilled technicians. It was one of a number of surprisingly free zones of artistic expression in the People’s Republic of Poland.

Entitled Martwy Cień (Dead Shadow), Klimowski’s ten-minute film lays out the symbols and themes that he had already been exploring in posters for most of the 1970s, and continue to occupy his imagination almost forty years later. A man sits at home, sleeping. We are granted access to his dreams and nightmares, many of which are haunted by the face of a woman. Her photographic portrait looks down from the wall of the apartment, framed alongside others from an earlier age. She also appears in print: the man leafs through an album of Victorian monuments, and Renaissance mausoleums and churches, before turning to a newspaper which features her portrait framed with a black border. The mood of the film is intensely introspective (an atmosphere heralded by a rapid descent down a musical scale before the action starts). Full of memories and desires, the home in Martwy Cień is what art historian Andrzej Turowski has called a ‘utopie rétrospective’.[1] Such places idealise settings and times – like the homes of childhood – which can no longer be accessed. The only incursion of the world outside the home comes in the form of a flickering television screen in which the same woman appears as a news presenter introducing reports of military violence and police brutality. In the final scene, she features as if in ‘real’ life only to turn to a deathly mask when embraced by the man. Whether as photograph, as half-tone illustration on the printed page, as video, or as celluloid, she is a ‘dead shadow’ who haunts the present.

Klimowski’s poster for ‘Torment’.
Klimowski’s poster for ‘Nashville’.

The woman was not a new discovery. She had already starred in many of Klimowski’s posters: in dark eye-make up in his design for Olea’s film Torment (1974); with foaming hair and in profile for the publicity for Robert Altman’s movie Nashville (1975); and, three years later, brightly decorated with stage-paint and peering out from the stage curtains to announce the thirtieth anniversary of the Współczesny Theatre in Wrocław. Yet she was not an actress. She was and is Danuta Schejbal, a theatre designer, Klimowski’s wife and sometimes his creative partner. (Most recently in their joint graphic memoir of life in Poland in the 1970s[2]). Her appearance in his work may be explained pragmatically as the convenience of having a model ‘on call’. Or it may be explained emotionally, as an expression of love and desire. But this intimacy also opens up the prospect of viewing the men who feature in his images as self-portraits (even if the man in Martwy Cień was not played by Klimowski himself) and the poster as a vehicle for some kind of self-inspection.

The mass-produced poster seems like an unlikely medium for this kind of turn inward. After all, modernist design theory had emphasised the poster’s public duties. Famously, A.M. Cassandre, the celebrated French designer, laid out the case for the poster as a kind of impersonal medium in 1933: ‘The poster is only a means to an end, a means of communication between the dealer and the public, something like telegraphy. The poster plays the part of the telegraph official: he does not initiate news, he merely dispenses it.’[3] But the conditions which prevailed in the People’s Republic of Poland when Klimowski began his career, released the poster designer from the pressures of commercialism or even the task of accurate delivery of information. Hardly required to ‘sell’ seats in cinemas and theatres, and benefiting from a strong belief in the autonomy of the artist which was shared by many working in the arts, poster designers probably enjoyed more freedom of expression than their counterparts in the West. Posters had to pass through the state censor’s office, but were rarely banned. Klimowski recalls only one such incident; when the film distributor required that his poster for Torment be reworked before it was sent to the censor. He recalls

The communist state was very careful not to aggravate the church. There was a Spanish film about a priest who was under the control of a woman, unable to escape her influence. I made a photograph of Danuta naked from the back. I had to use delay timer because I had my hands around her, holding a cross and bound in a rosary. The response was outright no. The publisher said the censor won’t pass it.[4]

When commissioned to promote imported movies like Torment, poster designers in Poland had little access to publicity photographs and might not even see the film in advance. Instead, they might be given a plot summary by the distributor. And in the case of theatre, the posters had to be printed long in advance of the premiere. Often, all that was available to the poster designer was a script or libretto. In such circumstances, poster design was, necessarily, an act of fantasy and improvisation. This added greatly to their autonomy. After his return to UK in 1981, Klimowski continued to work in much the same way. His intuitive approach to the image was hardly suited to the regimes of market research and PR which shape publicity in the business-minded world of graphic design in the West, and so while the supply of poster commissions continued, they were never to be as plentiful again.

Klimowski’s poster for ‘Kartoteka’.

Klimowski’s posters, book jackets, illustrations and his film Martwy Cień evades simple interpretation, yet the repertoire of images and devices which appear in his works is remarkably concise and constant. The repeated overlay of one person’s eye on another’s face or the attachment of wings to a human torso are not arbitrary combinations, guided by some kind of surrealist fascination with the effects of chance. These gestures recur so frequently that they are more like Klimowski’s own idées fixes. And if the meanings that might be attached to such montages cannot precisely determined, say in the manner of a rebus or even an allegory, they are best understood as poetic metaphors, sometimes for what cannot be seen. In fact, many of Klimowski’s poster images and illustrations allude to blindness or to what might be called ‘displaced’ sight: a 1998 poster produced to promote the 28th Short Film Festival in Kraków features a transparent blindfold through which, paradoxically, light emanates; in others, like the posters for Jacques Deray’s movie Flic Story (1976) and Tadeusz Różewicz’s play Kartoteka (1984) or a performance of Richard Wagner’s Flying Dutchman at Warsaw’s Teatr Wielki (1981), a human face is either hidden or abruptly cut-off. Sometimes, the eye has left its conventional position altogether: for an adaptation of Botho Strauss’s die Zeit und die Zimmer (1993), for instance, a large eye peers back at the viewer from the frame formed by the crooked arm of a woman holding her head. Is the eye hers? Or yours? Or God’s? There is, of course, something capricious about using a medium that is tasked with pleasing the eye to explore blindness or displaced eyesight. But Klimowski seems to be suggesting that external sight must be extinguished for internal vision to flourish.

Klimowski is by no means alone in making this suggestion. Late in life, philosopher Jacques Derrida was invited to curate an exhibition at the Louvre in Paris. True to his deconstructive method, he set out to expose that which had been repressed in an institution which was a cornerstone of Western art history. The result was his Memoirs of the Blind, an exploration of the images of non-seeing in the museum’s vast collection displayed in the Napoléon Hall in 1990-91. Classical mythology and the Bible have provided dozens of instances of blindness – usually as divine punishment – for artists to envision. In the accompanying publication, the philosopher placed particular attention on drawing, arguing that even those artists who draw their subject d’après nature face two orders of blindness. Attentive to the drawing in hand, he or she is blind to the subject, and when gazing on the subject, is blind to the drawing. What holds these activities together is the resort to memory and experience – forms of what Derrida calls ‘autoreflection’. A drawing of blind person – perhaps using touch to ‘see’ the world – is a kind of doubling too: ‘if to draw a blind man is first of all to show hands, it is in order to draw attention to what one draws with the help of that with which one draws, the body proper (corps proper) as an instrument, the drawer of the drawing, the hand of the handiwork, of the manipulations, of the manoeuvres and matters, the play or work of the hand – drawing as surgery.’[5]

Klimowski has in recent years spent much of his time drawing, not least the frames of the graphic novels he has authored since his first, The Depository, in 1994. But his posters continue his long-standing practice of photomontage, involving the excision and combination of images from existing printed sources. This is its own form of ‘drawing as surgery’; one in which different orders of image – whether wood-engravings in medieval bestiaries, halftones from the illustrated press, or plates from the Victorian illustrator Gustav Doré’s books – are sutured together and then photographed for reproduction. Photomontage allows for repetitions and collisions, as well as abrupt shifts of perspective and distortions of scale. It has a long tradition in the visual arts and cinema, but Klimowski’s points to the special impact of reading Latin American writers in the 1970s, not least Argentinian writer Julio Cortázar’s short stories in Zofia Chądzyńska’s brilliant translations. For instance, in Cortázar’s ‘Las babas del diablo’ (which provided the original idea for Antonioni’s movie Blow Up), a French-Chilean translator and amateur photographer called Michel captures on film a selfish attempt by a woman to seduce a boy on the streets of Paris on a bright November day. Only after he blows up his photo to the size of a poster one month later, does he realise that he had actually witnessed the efforts of a man to trap the boy. Perhaps this man is the devil suggested by the story’s title. By making the print, Michel gives the boy a chance to escape, at least in his imagination.

Shifting perspective, this fragmented short story moves back and forth between first and third person: sometimes Michel explains his actions using the personal pronoun, and, at others, we observe him from afar. What begins with the bright confidence of photographer in his ability to reveal the lines of beauty and order that run through Paris, ends in breakdown. Michel enters the photograph on his apartment walls:

… I realized that I was beginning to move toward them, four inches, a step, another step, the tree swung its branches rhythmically in the foreground, a place where the railing was tarnished emerged from the frame, the woman’s face turned towards me as though surprised, was enlarging and then I turned a bit, I mean that the camera turned a little, and without losing sign of the woman, I began to close in on the man who was looking at me with the black holes he had in place of eyes, surprised and angered both, he looked, wanting to mail me onto the air, an at that instant I happened to seeing something like a large bird outside the focus that was flying in a single swoop in front of the picture and I leaned up against the wall of my room and was happy because the boy had just managed to escape …

A human camera, he then frames and focuses the boy’s tormentors:

Out of breath, I stood in front of them; no need to step close, the game was played out. Of the woman, you could see just maybe a shoulder and a bit of the hair, brutally cut off by the frame of the picture, but the man was directly centre his mouth half open, you could see a shaking black tongue, and he lifted his hands slowly, bringing them into the foreground, an instant still in perfect focus, and then all of him a lump that blotted out the island, the tree and I shut my eyes, I did not want to see any more … [6]

Michel then breaks down into tears, another kind of blindness.

The mysterious symbols in Cortázar’s short story as well as a kind of suspicion of claims on objective reality bind Klimowski to the Argentinian writer, but it is perhaps the affinities of technique, despite the differences in medium, which are most revealing. ‘Sometimes within a short story, just four pages long’, says Klimowski, ‘Cortázar could shift reality totally. So, a character being observed is, at the end of a story, waiting to being observed. It is a sudden shift. And that shift of two realities is what happens in collage or photomontage’. Sometimes these shifts are between worlds, as Michel’s step into a photograph taken one month earlier proposes. And, at others, they are shifts in time. Combining both an endless present and a vertiginous sense of the past, this is one of the chief effects of the photograph. (Of one print showing ‘two little girls looking at a primitive aeroplane above their village’ Roland Barthes writes in Camera Lucida ‘how alive they are! They have their whole lives before them; but also they are dead.’[7]) The possibility of folding different orders of time together also explains the deep interest in photomontage in communist Poland. So many of the brilliant image-makers working in the country in the 1960s – Roman Cieślewicz, Jan Lenica, Walerian Borowczyk, Daniel Mróz and others – reactivated imagery from the past in their posters, illustrations and animations, often from the lost worlds of their childhoods or even earlier. Eschewing activism and agitation, this is the closest that these artists came to contesting state ideology. Irrational, ‘obsolete’ and yet highly-charged images – portraits of film-stars, family photographs, religious imagery and so on – offered the means to tap suppressed values in a socialist society which endlessly trumpeted its rationalism and progress.

Klimowski’s poster for ‘The Omen’.

Klimowski had close affinities and, in the case of Lenica and Cieślewicz, good relations with these artists but he belongs to a younger generation. He also brought a strong fascination with patina – the marks of age and time – in his poster designs and other images. In a memorable scene in Martwy Cień, the camera tracks right to left across a cityscape composed of photographic images. Neoclassical temples turn into modernist housing. Once pristine, they now seem marked by age. Crumbling walls bear graffiti and torn posters from different times and places: a piece of propaganda in Russian, a French ad, and a contemporary poster designed by Klimowski himself (for Richard Donner’s film The Omen). Similarly, his posters feature imperfections – surfaces are blemished or marked by signs of their making. This was, in part, a matter of necessity. The faulty materials available to artists in Poland in the 1970s and the need to improvise by, say, converting a bathroom into a darkroom had both aesthetic and intellectual effects: ‘Grit is important’ he says. ‘This dawned on me when I was in the darkroom and I could not get the dust off. I could not avoid getting negatives scratched. So, I thought that this is part of it … these bits of hair floating in amongst the half-dot screens and the scratches. That’s texture.’

For some commentators sensing the breakdown of the material world of real existing socialism, Poland was too full of texture. Setting the scene for his short story, ‘A sense of … , Janusz Anderman wrote:

Silence and mist covered the vast square: its houses lay in decay, unreal as a stage backcloth; jutting balconies stacked with discarded objects, broken chairs, faded children’s toys, scraps of refuse, dusty jars and bottles, saucepans with holes and cracked enamel, voiceless TV boxes, old-fashioned chandeliers, rotting picture frames, rusty bikes, strung-up bundles of old newspapers.[8]

But one suspects that the attraction of grit to Klimowski was not simply a sign of the times: but that in these blemishes and marks signs of vital life were to be found too.

Klimowski celebrates the power of images to elude precise definition. He freely admits that he does not know what the images in his posters and illustrations might mean or even why they recur with such frequency. This is perhaps where their uncanny power lies. And like the woman who haunts the sleeping man in Martwy Cień or the devil in Cortázar’s short story, it is not clear whether Klimowski sought out his images or if they have found him.


Dublin, 23 October 2017


[1] Andrzej Turowski, Existe-il un art de l’Europe de l’est? Utopie et idéologie (Paris 1986) p. 265.

[2] Andrzej Klimowski and Danuta Schejbal, Behind the Curtain (London, 2015).

[3] Cassandre cited in David Crowley and Paul Jobling, Graphic Design: Reproduction and Representation since 1800 (Manchester, 1996) p. 149.

[4] This quote and all others from an interview with Andrzej Klimowski, London, August 2017.

[5] Jacques Derrida, Memoirs of the Blind: The Self-portrait and Other Ruins (Paris, 1993) pp. 4-5.

[6] Julio Cortázar, Blow Up and Other Stories, translated by Paul Blackburn, (New York, 1968) pp. 114-15.

[7] Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, translated by Richard Howard (New York, 1981) p. 96.

[8] Janusz Anderman, ‘A sense of’ in The Edge of the World (London, 1988) p. 72.


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