Rosław Szaybo is a graphic designer, illustrator and photographer. He designs posters, exhibitions, and album and book covers. He also does satirical drawings. He was born in 1933 in Poznań.
Szaybo studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw from 1955 to 1961, and obtained a diploma in Henryk Tomaszewski’s poster workshop and Wojciech Fangor’s painting workshop. He won his first poster contests while he was still a student. From 1966 to 1993, he lived in the UK. In London, he was artistic director at the Young and Rubicam advertising agency (1967-1972) as well as creative director of CBS Records (Columbia Broadcasting System; 1972-1988).
He has worked for companies such as Heinz, Yardley, Player’s, Rank Xerox, and has collaborated with the British Film Institute, the Imperial War Museum, the London Zoo, Panther Books, Sadler Welles Theatre, Almeida Theatre, Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith, and London Transport, among others. In England, he lectured at the Chelsea School of Art and at Bath University's Horsham School of Art.
From 1980, Szaybo started designing for Polish institutions (theatre and music posters) again. Since his permanent return to Poland in 1993 he has conducted a Creative Photography Workshop at the Faculty of Graphics of the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw. In 2002 he received the title of professor.
In 1994-1996 Szaybo was artistic director of Czytelnik Publishing Cooperative. He designed the poster advertising Poland’s participation in EXPO'92 in Seville. Among the institutions that have co-operated with the artist over the years, in addition to numerous theatres, are, Polskie Nagrania, Graphic and Artistic Publishers, the National Publishing Agency, the Polish Jazz Association, the Adam Mickiewicz Institute, and the Fryderyk Chopin Institute.
Szaybo studied and created his first projects during the formative years of the so-called Polish School of Posters. With the post-October liberalisation of cultural life, information about current trends in the art world started flowing into Poland, with special emphasis on Tachisme and Surrealism. These trends were eagerly adapted by designers who, as Zdzisław Szubert wrote, also pursued image formulas from the margins of art (including collage of nineteenth-century engravings).
Szaybo was among the artists who experimented with the use of photographic techniques in the creation of posters, shortly after Wojciech Zamecznik. This is demonstrated by the artist's first famous poster: Jazz 60, in which he used a photo taken outside the student club Hybrydy in 1957. The work shows the clash of different trends – the painterliness and exuberance of the image formula attributed to Tomaszewski and a new, ascetic style, based on photo collage and a limited colour palette. Other interesting posters, created in the first Warsaw period of the artist, include the Diaries of Anne Frank (1961), Circus - mortale (1965) and The Lover (1965) for Vilgot Sjöman’s film.g
The quality and quantity of Szaybo's musical projects were determined by his intuition for musical themes (regardless of the type of music, from popular to classical), and the excellent choice of means to capture the essence of its content or the performer’s portrait in the form of a poster image or album cover. The album covers designed by him right after university, before he left for England, as well as later ones, became legendary. It is enough to mention two: Astigmatic: The music of Komeda (1965), considered the Polish jazz album of all time, and The Clash (1977) – the first album by The Clash. Astigmatic belonged to the album covers designed by the artist for the Polish Jazz series (vol. 1-5 and 7), which is ‘an example of a considerate and consistent visual identification of the publishing cycle’ (Michael Ward). The series begins with the album cover for Warsaw Stompers / New Orleans Stompers (1964, designed in 1961), in which the designer, in addition to collage, also used the poetics of suburban folklore and fairground art.
In London, adapting to the requirements of the Western market, Szaybo quickly and brilliantly enriched them with freedom of expression and painterliness, the legacy of the Polish School of Posters, which he combined with the possibilities of access to the latest technology. He could very well 'feel' the specifics of any given design task. One of the legendary projects created by Szaybo's team of designers in CBS is the album cover for Judas Priest's British Steel (1980), with fingers clamped on a razor blade (a photograph showing Szaybo’s own hand). No less notorious was the black John Player Special cigarette pack designed by Szaybo, with its monogrammed gold logo of the initials JPS.
The different, punk style of the aforementioned cover of The Clash (1977) was splendidly designed by placing a black-and-white photo of the band members on a green background, as if it had been torn from a magazine, with the name of the band diagonally ‘stamped’ in the bottom corner as an aggressively red, slightly worn inscription, as if cut from a wall. If we add that punk as a musical and cultural phenomenon was born at the time, it must be admitted that the Polish artist had an important contribution to the creation of its iconography.
The technical perfection and elegance of form acquired in London are reflected in the posters Szaybo designed in the early 80s for the Polish theatre, opera and jazz. The photographic element plays an important, often decisive role in them, even in his present work. The most interesting and evocative posters include: Elton John (1979), Bertold Brecht – the Threepenny Opera (1985), 29. Jazz on the Oder'94 (1994), and Grey in Colour 1956-1970 (exhibition in Zachęta Gallery, 2000). Szaybo’s rich personality gives him the opportunity to handle manifold projects that cannot be reduced to a single style, but always strike with finesse in the handling of photography and its graphic transformation. The artist assembles individual components with unprecedented ease.
At the same time he often uses a classic composition formula modelled on a vertical axis (Miss Julie / Carmen, 1999; Fred Apke – Hen on the Back, 2004). In recent times, Szaybo readily takes advantage of the benefits of computer graphics programs. He is constantly inspired by theatre, jazz and classical music.
The list of awards and distinctions awarded to Rosław Szaybo in half a century of work is very long – from the Szpilek awards for satirical drawings (1959), through many others, including prizes in the Music Week or New Musical Express competitions for the best album covers, and the award of the XIV Photographic Poster Biennale in Płock (2007).
Individual exhibitions of his works took place in London (1977, 1987, 1988), Poznań (1981), Warsaw (1988, 2001, 2003), Stirling (1989), Budapest (1989), Ostrów Wielkopolski (1992), Stockholm (1994), and Lublin (2000), among others.
In 2013 Rosław Szaybo’s work was exhibited at the Kordegarda gallery in Warsaw, together with that of Stanisław Zagórski, another successful Polish graphic designer, working in the United States. Two friends, who met back at the university, have collaborated on such poster projects as 100 lat Państwa Polskiego (100 Years of Poland) or Po ich stronie stoją potężne siły. ( There are substantial forces on their side).
Selected sources for Rosław Szaybo’s work:
• Rosław Szaybo, Posters – Album Covers. Edmund Lewandowski’s Collection, exhibition catalogue, S. I. Witkiewicz Studio Art Centre, Warsaw 1988;
• Michael Ward, Rosław Szaybo, ‘Digit’, pp. 54-61;
• Rosław Szaybo – Documentary, directed by Wojciech Majewski, TVP SA Wrocław 1998;
• Masters of Poster and their Students, developed by: Zdzisław Sczubert, Rzeczpospolita SA, Warsaw 2008;
• artist’s portfolio at the Museum of Fine Arts in Warsaw.
Author: Artur Tanikowski, March 2010, transl. Bozhana Nikolova. Update, March 2016, AM.
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