How Warsaw’s Syrena is Dressed

The final voting for the Miss World pageant took place at the end of September this year. On September 30th in Warsaw, the title went to a Czech woman, with a representative from Romania chosen as first runner-up, and a representative from Australia chosen as second runner-up. Throughout all of September the young women, in the company of reporters, photographers, and the event’s organizers, visited Poland. Each year the demands on these young women increase. It’s no longer enough to be beautiful with a flawless figure and long legs; each contestant must also show intelligence and knowledge. Musical, vocal, and physical talents like dancing are also important qualities.

After arriving in Poland, before the final contest, the contestants for Miss World received a version of an English text of a Polish song, composed especially for the occasion. The best renditions of „Beautiful World” would be recorded on teledisk and make their way to other countries, but the words of the song would relate to Warsaw. In this way beauty would not only be seen but also heard.

Last year, at the initiative of a representative of Warsaw’s city hall, the world famous graphic artist Rafał Olbiński was commissioned to do a poster advertising Warsaw and promoting the Miss World contest. The artist presented his project, Warsaw’s Syrena (half woman, half fish) sitting on a swing. Behind Syrena can be seen a view of the palace and the panorama of the old town. Olbiński’s work appeared in August of this year and caused quite a controversy. The human part of Syrena’s body was only half dressed. Her blouse fell to one side, revealing a realistically enough painted breast. And this was the problem. The poster was deemed too erotic and frivolous; Warsaw’s symbol was supposed to be clothed, so nobody would be shocked. The artist had to paint on a wide sash in order to satisfy the censor.
This minor incident was an excellent advertisement for the artist, since such situations always create publicity for an artist and his work. But additional publicity for Olbiński, born in 1943 in Kielce and a graduate of the Department of Architecture at the Warsaw Polytechnic, was certainly not necessary. He is an artist known abroad as well as in Poland.

Since 1982 he has lived in New York, creating illustrations for many magazines and realizing commissions for posters and paintings. Theater performances, opera companies, and other groups and events in need of promotion often turn to the work of Olbiński. His works have earned him many prestigious prizes from Paris, New York, San Francisco and elsewhere. His images are known in Japan, Australia, England, Canada, and Europe, and, of course, in Poland. He has also done scenes for operas in Cincinnati. In 1995 Olbiński won a contest for an artist advertising New York City as the capitol of the world, besting eleven other artists.

Nearly every two months Olbiński has works on exhibit in different parts of the world. The exhibits are inspired by his favorite motifs. Often near the figures of stylized women the author paints birds, trees, clouds, light fabrics, somehow secretly hidden. His works show a certain delicate poetic humor. His works take the viewer to a magical world of unlimited space, a world of visions and dreams.

For more than ten years now I have been the owner of an Olbiński done for the theater in New York for the play „She Stoops to Folly”. I love this image; framed, under glass, it decorates my hall. It shows a partial profile of a slender woman, apparently full of peace and dignity; on her shoulders, drawn on the folds of her dress, are two masculine profiles – the same person. He is her obsession. The image is composed in colors of bronze and toned whites, reminiscent of the portraits of Rembrandt. The stylized forms, symbols and allegories are the domain of Olbiński. This style approaches that of the leading representatives of surrealism.

Along with the work of Olbiński, it is worth mentioning other graphic artists from Poland, of whom we can also be proud.

Already in the 1950s there existed a Polish school of poster art. Artists based in Warsaw and Krakow were most important to the development of poster art in Poland. Their work provided models for the creations of many young talents, inspiring new tendencies and trends. Postwar Polish poster art developed in the climate of two great figures: Tadeusz Trepkowski (1914-54) and Henryk Tomaszewski (1914-2005). They developed a style recognizable at a glance.

Postwar residents of Warsaw will remember the Tadeusz Trepkowski poster from 1952: „Never again war”. The image showed a flying bomb and in its interior the fragments of a ruined home and the shortest word: „NO”. The poster, enlarged to huge dimensions, was placed on one of the remaining walls of the Kronenberg palace (on the site of today’s Hotel Victoria). The poster was an impressive and eloquent protest amid the ruins of Warsaw. Fifty years later, I still remember the eloquence and strength of the image.

A number of Polish graphic artists did street posters for theatrical works, operas, often with political themes. There are also special works dedicated to the bienniale of the poster and contests involving distinguished artists. Among hundreds of names we can mention only a few: Jan Lennica, Jan Młodożeniec, Franciszek Starowiejski, Aleksander Kobzdej, and Wojciech Fangor. They were all graduates of art and architecture schools.

The more contemporary artists present multicolored images, however always with a great emotional charge and the individual treatment of hidden themes in symbols. In this group we can mention the following: Rosław Szaybo, Stanisław Zagórski, and Bronisław Zelk.

In Wilanów, near Warsaw, before the main gate of the residence of King Jan III Sobieski, can be found the Poster Museum. Many other artists, whom I have not mentioned, can be found there; their work is certainly worth seeing.

Moving from Wilanów to New York, we can mention still other graphic artists like Janusz Stanny, Janusz Kapusta, and Andrzej Dudziński, the author of the famous bird DUDI.
In the field of poster art, we certainly have much of which we can be proud.

Dr Elżbieta Ulanowska
Translated by Sean Martin

Forum, 10/2006