Maciej Urbaniec was a graphic designer, poster artist, and one of the pioneers of the Polish Poster School. He was born on 1 September 1925 in Zwierzyniec Lubelski near Zamość, and died on 19 May 2004 in Nowy Sącz.
His father, Jan Zdzieblan-Urbaniec, was a diplomat. In 1935, his work required him and his family to move to Warsaw. Maciej attended middle school in the capital, and he took his mała matura (middle school exit exam) under the Nazi German occupation. He took his first steps in art under the guidance of a sculptor, Alfons Karny. He was taught how to draw by Zygmunt Kamiński – a poster artist who was often accused of excessive detail, deemed inappropriate for modern posters. Maciej turned out to be an excellent student – he often committed the same ‘sin’.
The artist’s father died in Lebanon in 1949, and his mother, active in the resistance movement (like her children) in Auschwitz in 1943. The latter death re-emerged in Urbaniec’s posters – extremely tense, staggeringly void, with a significant lone red detail (Auschwitz 1945-1965 and Pamięci Ludzkiej Tragedii from 1976; editor’s translation: In Memory of the Human Tragedy).
Maciej Urbaniec’s post-war fate was marked by journeys across the country: he stayed in Silesia for a short time, then he returned to Warsaw to complete his education – he graduated high school with a matura (high school exit exam) in 1951. In 1952, he married Maria Kotarbińska which led to further journeys: Maria was a lecturer at the Agricultural Academy in Olsztyn, Maciej was a student at the Higher Social and Life Sciences School in Wrocław, and later at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw. He was one of the first students of Professor Henryk Tomaszewski. He graduated cum laude in 1958. At that time, he already had his debut: the 1958 Nie Moje poster which appeared in print and was awarded by WAG (Wydawnictwo Artystyczno-Graficzne; editor’s translation: Artistic-Graphic Publishing House). His other success was the publishing of his Festiwal Młodzieży w Moskwie (Youth Festival in Moscow) in GRAPHIS, a Swiss monthly monitoring movements in Polish graphic art.
Having finished his studies, Urbaniec was offered a job of the artistic director at the publishing house owned by Centrala Rolniczo-Spożywcza Samopomoc Chłopska (Agricultural-Alimentary Centre Peasant Selfhelp). He also collaborated with such publishing houses as Czytelnik, Iskry, PIW, which led to him receiving medals in Leipzig and Brno. It was for PIW that he designed the famous book covers with the infinity symbol. He claimed that ‘a book cover is, in fact, a small poster.’ In the 1970s, he worked for the American publisher Jack Rennert. At that time, he started working with theatres in Warsaw: the Wielki, Narodowy, Mały, Ateneum, and Na Woli theatres. Thus, theatre as a subject started filling his portfolio.
In 1970, he returned to Wrocław where he was appointed a lecturer. He led a workshop, then a department where he trained future masters (Jan Jaromir Aleksiun, Eugeniusz Get-Stankiewicz, Jan Sawka). From 1975, he continued teaching in Warsaw, where he rejoined his old teacher, Henryk Tomaszewski, as co-managers of a workshop. He was the director of the Design Department, he received the title of professor. Urbaniec spent his final days in Łąck in the south of Poland.
Describing Urbaniec’s posters with a few words and finding their common denominator and a subject requires a closer inspection of the dramatic tension interwoven through the perfect arrangement of details and emptiness, the contrast between dark, pensive jokes and the joy of working with all graphical tools and styles.
Urbaniec was a graphical time traveller. We can interpret his posters in various ways: as motives entangled in jokes, as style clashes, as courageous shocking with kitsch and simplicity, as playfully reworked postcards from different historical periods.
His Wieczór Trzech Króli (1973, Twelfth Night) blends a story with a gag à la Duchamp. His promotional poster for the 5th International Biennale in Warsaw (1974) incorporates Botticelli’s shell which has the event’s logo in the place of Venus. He employed Leonardo da Vinci’s donna Gherardini for his award-winning Cyrk (the so-called Mona Lisa, The Circus) created in 1970. The master of persiflage substituted sfumato with sharp outlines accentuated by clashing colours. However, that is not the end of his antics: donna Gherardini performs an acrobatic feat with a telling smile on her face! Equally outlandish is his Iredyński: Teatr Mały (1975, Iredyński: The Mały Theatre) based on the baroque idea of a portrait.
In other posters, the artist decorated a white abstract background with a basket maintained in the historic Dutch style of still life. The vague shadow of the decoration is the only element grounding it in the material world. Additionally, the pop font with its colours perfectly fitting in with the motive grabs the audience’s attention to the stratum of the poster (1973/1975 Ogólnopolski Festiwal Teatrów Amatorskich, 1974, The 1973/1975 National Polish Festival of Amateur Theatres).
Urbaniec would often subversively play with styles of the typography on his posters, on which he could apply his own font designs. He used shocking juxtapositions in Un Caprice: Alfred de Musset (1971) where he contrasts a historical Easter egg with the extravagant font of the title. Biblioteka Narodowa: 25 Lat w Służbie Nauki (1970, The National Library: 25 Years of Serving Science) involves myriad different fonts and formats.
For Urbaniec, exploiting old styles didn’t have to be a part of the dadaist mocking of high art. Depending on the subject matter, he swiftly juggled appropriate historical styles. The poster Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder (1978) resembles the gloomy artworks of German expressionists. The poster for the Architektura Drewniana i Zabytkowa ZSRR (1976; Wooden and Historical Architecture in the USSR) exhibition is flat like an Orthodox icon and permeated with suitable sacral tension, red is the focal colour. In the whimsical Uważaj – Głowa Nie z Gumy (1963; Watch Out – Your Head is Not Made of Rubber) Urbaniec continues the futurists’ experiments: he depicts motion through trajectory, and the effects of collision deform the photographic self-portrait of the author. In Człowiek Kulturalny Nie Upija Się (1965; A Well-Mannered Man Doesn’t Get Drunk) he uses futuristic stop-motion and also winks at the Interwar avant-garde artists: he blends geometry and photography, uses sans-serif fonts and reduces the colours to black, white, and red.
Urbaniec’s graphical palette is sometimes saturated with the bitter-sweet, kitsch aesthetics, and funfair diversity, and, at times, overcrowded. An example is the banal depiction of social customs in Choroby Weneryczne Grożą (1966; Venereal Diseases Are Dangerous) in which the ludic air is additionally emphasised by the colours gold and raspberry. His 1976 collages Województwo Płockie Zaprasza! (Płock Voivodeship Invites You!) and Jarmark Pułtuski (The Pułtusk Funfair) are almost naïve in their simplicity.
Worth noting is Urbaniec’s skilful use of synaesthesia. Examples: Nie Hałasuj Niepotrzebnie (1961, It Is Forbidden to Produce Excessive Noise), Na Co Czekasz? Zgłoś Się do Poradni Dermatologicznej (1982, What Are You Waiting for? Go to a Dermatology Clinic), Chroń Ręce (1960, Protect Your Hands). Urbaniec clearly knew how to stimulate not only vision but also the sense of touch (a red pimple causes itching, a razor’s edge slices through the brains of the audience) and hearing (boom! goes the balloon) and so on. His posters are also characterised by his broad craft and technical pluralism. Urbaniec’s skilful contrasting of techniques pronounces the synaesthesia effect.
Urbaniec’s unique dramatic medium was the empty homogeneous space. White generates dynamism in sports’ posters: it gives the unidentified athletes take-off run and it describes the last part before the ‘finishing line’ – the line introducing the text XVII Międzynarodowy Kolarski Wyścig Pokoju (1965, The 17th International Cycling Race of Peace). Thus, it introduces the dimension of time to the poster. In a different poster, the void allows the audience to concentrate on the seconds before the final whistle (50 lat Polskiego Związku Piłki Nożnej 1919-1969; 50 Years of the Polish Football Association). However, the audience’s perception is never left alone with the free space – Urbaniec carefully placed accents and details.
Suspense and concentration in his posters emerge not only from Urbaniec’s austerity but also his axial, almost symmetrical composition (Polski Związek Motorowy, 1969, Polish Automobile and Motorcycle Association; Finał I Ogólnopolskiej Spartakiady Młodzieży, Poznań 1969; The First Polish Youth Spartakiad).
Some of his posters are packed with details, they feel almost crowded. However, Urbaniec is far from exaggerating, since he adores fine spots. When he occasionally employs details in abundance, he does it with great care and dreaminess, like in his renaissance-surrealist poster Międzynarodowy Dzień Dziecka (1973, International Children's Day) in which the plenitude of details doesn’t break the silence and concentration.
Maciej Urbaniec was a member of Alliance Graphique Internationale, the artistic jury of WAG, a jury of the International Poster Biennale in Warsaw, the director of Towarzystwo Grafików Projektantów (Association of Designers and Illustrators). When Klub Kolekcjonerów Plakatów (Poster Collectors Club) which organises the Poster Exchange in Poznań chose the top 100 posters in 1985, Urbaniec’s ABC abc, Wesele (Wedding) and Cyrk (1970) made it to the list. His works also appeared on the Tokyo list of the best posters from 1945 to 1990. Urbaniec also received the Polonia and the Global Solidarity medals, T. Trepkowski Award (1958), 2nd prize of the Ministry of Culture and Art (1961), many medals in Leipzig (1963, 1970, 1971, 1980), a distinction for a tourist poster in Moscow (1963), an award in Belgrade (1968), prizes (1968, 1970, 1980), honorary distinctions (1970, 1974) and a golden medal (1973) during the International Poster Biennale in Warsaw, a Bronze Mermaid in Milan (1969), an Olympic Laurel Leaf (1969) and two silver medals (1970, 1973, 1974) in Brno, a Golden Grape in Zielona Góra (1973), the Museum of Poster award (1977), an award at the Poster Biennale in Lahti (1977), numerous awards for Warsaw’s best poster, and, finally, six medals and honorary distinctions for his oeuvre (1997) at the National Biennale in Katowice.
As he would say:
Sports and art are united by one of the most beautiful humanist ideas. The idea of striving for perfection, reaching and surpassing human capacities.
Originally written in Polish by Sylwia Giżka, Nov 2010, translated by AP, 28 Nov 2017
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