His work helped transform the genre of animated film into one capable of communicating the most complex, difficult and serious messages. He was also recognised as an talented graphic artist, set and theatre-costume designer, children's book illustrator, postage stamp designer, art critic and major artist of the Polish poster school.
Jan Lenica was born in 1928 in Poznań, the son of musican and painter Alfred Lenica. He died 2001 in Berlin. He graduated from a secondary school of music in Poznań in 1947 and from Warsaw Polytechnic in 1952. He started to contribute drawings to publications in 1945, published critical assessments of drawings, prints, posters and cartoons from 1948, and took over as art editor of the satirical journal Szpilki in 1950. He was appointed Assistant at the Chair of Poster of the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts in 1954.
In 1957, with Walerian Borowczyk, he made his first animated film. Having made several more, and having experienced problems with their release, he settled abroad, in Paris. He lectured on poster art at Harvard University in 1974. From 1979 to 1985 he was head of the Chair of Animated Film at Kassel University in Germany, and from 1986 to 1994 he was Professor of Posters and Graphic Arts at the Berlin Hochschule der Kunste.
Lenica took an interest in many arts. A noted director of animated films, he stood out as one of the finest artists of the Polish school of posters, and made satirical drawings and book illustrations and designed theatre costumes. His posters, prints and drawings were shown at exhibitions in Poland and abroad. His art earned him awards including those of the Warsaw Poster Biennial, Karlovy Vary Film Festival and the Jules Cheret award in Annecy. His lifetime achievement was recognized with the Alfred Jurzykowski Foundation Award in New York City in 1987 and with the Smok Smokow Award of the Kraków Short Film Festival in 1999.
No record of the top international achievements in animated film would be complete without mention of two Polish artists, Lenica and Borowczyk. Their joint film from 1957, Był sobie raz / Once Upon a Time, followed by Dom / House from 1958 and Lenica's individual films triggered a revolution, turning this peripheral genre into an art capable of communicating the most complex, difficult and serious messages. Lenica said that,
I have always liked to move at the periphery of Art, at the crossing of genres. [...] I have enjoyed [...] combining elements which were seemingly distant, if not quite foreign, blurring the borders between adjacent areas, transplanting noble qualities to "lower" genres, in other words - quiet diversion.
Before Lenica and Borowczyk's films appeared, the animated film was such a less valuable genre in Poland. Considered to be addressed to children, it was devoid of major artistic let alone philosophical aspirations, and was ideology-driven in addition. Marcin Giżycki writes that,
Lenica and Borowczyk's brilliance did not reveal itself in technical innovation or inventiveness; on the contrary, it was demonstrated in their nonchalant approach to existing techniques and conventions. [...] Their films made no secret of the simplicity of means they utilised, camouflaged nothing, their movement and montage as simplified as possible. Just a few pieces of coloured paper, old photographs, junk objects, fragments of found drawings.
When asked about the innovativeness of their first joint films, dubbed experimental by critics, Lenica ascribed it to their unfamiliarity with previous achievements in the genre. The fact is that the cutout technique used by Borowczyk and Lenica in their first films, and then by Lenica in several of his subsequent film, successfully produced effects that were funny and satirical, surrealistically grotesque, and as absurd and horrific as Ionesco and Kafka. Lenica did not find this formula satisfying for long, however, and having parted with Borowczyk, he went on to make combined films, live films, films with photographic stills and, finally, cartoons.
Let us consider the philosophy of Lenica's films. They involve an artistic game, patterned on experimental films made by Ferdinand Leger, a serious, Melies-like treatment of the picture, references to Chaplin (a man in a bowler hat appears in Lenica films including his debut), a ridicule of cultural clichés - as found in Nowy Janko Muzykant / New Janko the Musician, and in Fantorro - Le dernier justicier a - and surrealist games, as found in Stilleben. Yet there is a deeper message in almost all of them. A, Lenica's simply structured tale of the struggle of a lonely man against the terror of the first letter of the alphabet, can easily be interpreted in terms of a conflict between an individual and the machinery of the state. This interpretation also fits Monsieur Tete, Adam 2, Die Nashorner and, particularly, Lenica's last film, Wyspa R.O. / Island R.O. No wonder his films are considered pessimistic and catastrophic, and he admitted to balancing "between grotesque and drama".
However, this interpretation narrows the full range of readings of Lenica's work. He invoked the myth of Icarus (Labirynt / The Labyrinth) and myths of low culture,such as Fantomas (Fantorro). He mitigated the absurdity of existence, both the Kafka-esque (Labirynt, A, Adam 2) and Ionesco-like (Monsieur Tete, Rhinoceros), with Max Ernst-like, surprising, surrealistic juxtapositions of objects (Monsieur Tete, Nowy Janko Muzykant, Labirynt). The beauty and order of the world of Art Nouveau (Labirynt) contrasts with the monstrous shapes of skeleton-like dream beasts (Landscape, the film invoking Lenica's wartime experience during the German occupation) or the grotesque, dangerous characters in his adaptation of Alfred Jarry's Ubu Roi. Despite the variety of techniques, themes and genres, Lenica's style is quite easy to recognize. Zdzisław Schubert wrote in 1999 that Lenica's work is very expressive and at the same time has a discernible intellectual dimension, each film conveying a personal message "revolving around the dilemmas of human existence".
Author: Jan Strękowski, July 2003.
Lenica graduated from a secondary school of music in Poznań in the piano class before studying architecture at Warsaw Polytechnic in 1947-52. In 1954 he was appointed assistant to Henryk Tomaszewski at the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts. He was preoccupied with satirical drawing from 1945, regularly contributing to the satirical journal "Szpilki" as well as with book illustration, and started to make posters in 1950. From 1963 he worked and lived mostly in France and Germany. In 1974 he lectured on poster art at Harvard University in Cambridge, USA. From 1979 he was the head of the Chair of Animated Film at Kassel University, and in 1986-1993 he taught poster and graphic art at the Berlin Hochschule der Kunste, designing sets for the operas in Wiesbaden and Cologne.
Lenica's work makes one of the key chapters in the history of Polish art of the second half of the twentieth century. His fame and recognition in Poland as well as international acclaim was earned by his poster art and animated films, the two areas in which he was considered one of the world's finest artists. He is regarded as a forerunner of modern animation.
Lenica was an extraordinarily versatile artist, working at the meeting points of genres, blurring the borders, juggling with conventions and challenging esthetic standards. His works had a unique poetics. He was always attracted to unrestricted artistic experiments. He was – alongside Henryk Tomaszewski - one of the forerunners of modern Polish press cartoon, contributing to the journals "Szpilki" and "Wiadomości Kulturalne" and to the daily "Rzeczpospolita", and replacing the typical cartoon joke with an artistic feature bordering on the philosophical treatise. His early, abstract drawings were shown at the Modern Art Exhibition in Krakow in 1948.
Searching for his own form of artistic expression, he took an early interest in theatre and film poster. At the time of the Socialist Realism this allowed him considerable artistic freedom, releasing him from the obligation to follow the academic conventions imposed on other fine arts. In the early 1950s he was among the young graphic artists who created the famed "Polish school of poster". Indeed, he is believed to have coined this term when he used it as the title of his story on the Polish poster, published in the Swiss journal "Graphis".According to Lenica himself, three stages can be distinguished in the development of his artistic poster language. The first stage, in 1950-6, was influenced by realism. The works more mostly illustrative and conveyed the climate of the announced films or theatre plays. Then was the stage of "formal search", to use Lenica's term. The artist introduced different, experimental means of expression, such as collages of old drawings and paper cutouts. Around 1962 he started to make posters for the Warsaw Opera and embarked on the third stage of his poster design to develop his own, characteristic "handwriting". Lenica's posters are in fact gouache, watercolour, tempera paintings on paper. Sometimes he would also use cutouts and collage. He created his own, individual and distinct artistic language which used a capricious, flowing, wavy line betraying fascination with Art Nouveau and a simplified, detail-free form. There is no room for decorativeness or ornament in his posters. Conversely, they have a predatory expression and intense, at times monochromatic, colours. Lenica's extraordinary skill created intelligible signs that stood for entire topics and produced a sophisticated, lapidary artistic abbreviation.
"Poster art seems closest to jazz: it is all about being able to play somebody else's theme in one's own way" (Jan Lenica).
Lenica preferred to use two-dimensional forms, the space of his posters having neither background nor perspective. There was irony and absurdity in them, the artist creating a brand new, grotesque reality; he was also a master of poetic metaphor. Most of his posters resemble paintings; many were made in the gouache technique. The people in his posters seem to speak or cry out to the viewer; Lenica himself used to say that "a poster must sing".
Altogether Lenica made over 200 posters. Among his finest works is Wozzeck which was made in 1964 to Alban Berg's opera and won the Grand Prix at the Poster Biennial in Warsaw in 1966. It shows a huge red head with wide-open lips in the middle of the face. One gets the impression that the scream coming out of the throat reverberates, wave-like, in the concentric circles repeating the shape of the lips. Another famous poster, made in 1968 to Giuseppe Verdi's Otello, shows an oval blue and violet form cut through by short, horizontal rhythms of black lines. One can recognize a head seen in profile. From its centre comes out a long, pink vaginal shape bringing to mind erotic associations.
Before leaving Poland, Lenica had illustrated children's books (most notably Julian Tuwim's Lokomotywa [The Train Engine]. He resumed that activity in the 1980s, when he was commissioned by "bohem press", the Swiss publishing house, to illustrate a series of books. Using a combination of gouache and watercolours, he produced a mood which was totally different from that of his other works. His characteristic thick line created a lyrical and warm world of children's tales populated with friendly animals (Biały Niedźwiadek Timo [Timo the White Bear, Mysz i słoń [A Mouse and an Elephant], Kolorowy ptak [A Bird of Colour]).
From the mid-1980s Lenica worked for the German (initially West-German) Post, designing a number of stamps, including the one to celebrate Bertolt Brecht's birth centenary. He drew inspiration from Polish folk art as well as invoking the style of modern children's illustration.
Author: Ewa Gorządek, Modern Art Centre at Ujazdowski Castle, February 2004.