Polish posters at the London School of Hygiene

Show Navigation

By | From the Collections

The Wellcome Library has a large collection of posters including a small but distinctive sample of Polish items. Frequently ironic with a grim humour, they are unusual in using solely graphic means without any slogans, as in this example showing opium poppies turning into grave-markers. The appreciation of posters in Poland goes back at least to the first ever international poster exhibition, which was held in Cracow in 1898.

An opportunity to learn more about the history of these works was provided on 16 February 2009 at a workshop on Polish and British posters at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), under the auspices of its Centre for History in Public Health. The workshop arose from an international collaborative project currently underway between the LSHTM Centre and the Medical University of Silesia, funded through a Wellcome Trust History of Medicine grant. This aims to document and analyse public health posters in Poland during the course of the twentieth century.

The first half of the workshop concentrated on the Polish poster, with talks by Krzysztof Krajewski-Siuda of the Medical University of Silesia, Katowice; Martin Gorsky of the LSHTM; and James Aulich from Manchester Metropolitan University. Among the key points were the use of star artists such as Maciej Urbaniec (1925-2004) and Andrzej Pągowski (b. 1953) as the designers of public health posters; the ambivalent position of the state as both responsible for reducing alcoholism and (qua monopoly manufacturers) as a beneficiary from the sales of alcoholic drinks; the questionable efficiency of the poster campaigns and the existence of the posters as symptoms of a crisis rather than as the solution to it.

Emerging incidentally from the presentations was the existence of splendid collections of posters in Poland, especially the Jagiellonian Library in Cracow, the Central Medical Library in Warsaw, and the Wilanów Poster Museum, established in a suburb of Warsaw in 1968. However, it was pointed out that the most collected posters are not necessarily those with the most active street-life: those posters which survive may be the unrepresentative, artistically outstanding ones.

The second half offered for comparison two talks based on the British experience. Catherine Moriarty from Brighton University introduced some posters in the collection of the International Council of Graphic Design Associations. The Council contributed representatives of their respective national outputs of posters and packaging to a central collection now in Brighton. There it joins other relevant posters in the archives of Frederick Henri Kay Henrion (1914-1990) and others. Poland and Cuba were mentioned as the two countries in which poster designers could become celebrities. Finally, Virginia Berridge of the London School of Hygiene described the ever-changing political context in which British health posters were produced from Attlee to Blair: policy swung to and fro between national and local production, leading to the present situation in which health campaigns were either run by government through the Central Office of Information or (for some topics such as alcohol) funded by industry, for example through the Drinkaware Trust. On past form, neither in Poland nor in the UK is the story likely to end with the current status quo.

Above: poster by Andrzej Pągowski (b. 1953) for the TZN (Towarzystwo Zapobiegania Narkomanii), 1987. Wellcome Library no. 646388i

Author: William Schupbach

Comments are closed.

Related Blog Posts