Basha: The Polish Poster School's Most Reluctant Member
#photography & visual arts
full-width, rgba(133, 131, 131, 0.38), Basha: The Polish Poster School's Most Reluctant Member, Barbara Baranowska's poster for the film L'Alliance, photo: courtesy of the artist
Who is Barbara Baranowska? Despite the so-called Polish Poster School’s fame, certain people were seemingly forgotten. Perhaps they even wanted it that way... Daniel Bird uncovers what little we know about the life of one secretive artist and how her quiet career is tied into the lives of other movers and shakers from both cinema and visual arts.
Go into any Polish supermarket and head to the dairy section. In this most unlikely of places, you will be confronted with a design classic. Since the 1960s, the packaging of a particular brand of Polish butter features a simple cow logo. The designer? Barbara Baranowska.
Baranowska is as elusive as her artwork is distinctive. During the 1960s, she made an indelible impression designing Polish book covers, film posters and illustrating books for children. In the 1970s, she relocated to Paris and designed now iconic poster images for a roll call of cult films: Taking Off (1971), The Parallax View (1974), Grandeur Nature (1974), Possession (1981)… Then, during the 1980s, Baranowska seemingly disappeared.
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In late 2016, a podcast dedicated to film posters run by two graphic designers devoted an entire episode to Baranowska’s artwork. For them, Baranowska’s artwork ranks alongside Saul Bass. Yet in Poland, she is far less well-known than her famous male peers such as Jan Lenica, Jan Młodożeniec, Waldemar Świerzy… Alongside Teresa Byszewska, Baranowska was one of only a handful of women associated with the so-called Polish poster school of the 1950s and 1960s.
Isn’t it time we started speaking of Baranowska in the same breath as, for example, Roman Cieślewicz or Wojciech Zamecznik?
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An introduction to Basha
Born in Katowice in 1934, Baranowska studied painting at the Krakow Academy of Fine Arts during the 1950s. She first came to prominence during the early 1960s, with her book jacket designs and film posters – in particular, a series of covers for works by Adolf Rudnicki (1909-1990), to whom she was briefly married. Rudnicki, whose work Czesław Miłosz ranked alongside both Jerzy Andrzejewski and Witold Gombrowicz, began his career in the 1930s with works such as Żołnierze (1933), Szczury (1932) and Lato (1938). The first two listed here (translated as Soldiers and Rats) combined reportage and introspection to tell stories about military service. Lato (Summer), on the other hand, presented tales of shtetl life, which was about to vanish.
When it came to her book jackets for these titles, Baranowska adopted a range of graphic approaches. Żołnierze reduced the human form to something like a hieroglyph. Crudely torn out of opaque coloured paper, a generic faceless individual features cross-hairs on his chest, besides a bright red heart. For Szczury, Baranowska offered a more abstract image. These patches of white against a grey background… are they cavalry officers? Are they charging… or scuttling? For Lato, Baranowska didn’t just create the cover, she also produced a series of illustrations in pen and ink. With her covers for Rudnicki’s books, one does not get the impression that Baranowska was working towards a singular style. Rather, style was always a function of content.
Baranowska’s cover for Rudnicki’s novella Niekochana (Unloved) is nothing but abstract, an almost folkloristic coloured pattern. Kupiec Łódzkie (The Merchant of Łódź), a volume of stories named after Rudnicki’s recounting of the fate of the leader of the Łódź ghetto, Chaim Rumkowski (1877–1944), is a simple, monochromatic photo of the inside of a door and lock.
What binds these diverse covers is a modernist sensibility, a tendency towards collage and photography, and a simple, elegant feeling for typography. These are qualities that also run through Baranowska’s film posters from the same period.
Why wasn’t Basha prolific?
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Barbara Baranowska's poster to the film Do Widzenia, Do Jutra (See You Tomorrow), 1960, offset, 58 x 85.5 cm, photo: Galeria Grafiki i Plakatu
Barbara Baranowska, plakat do filmu "Do widzenia, do jutra", 1960, offset, 58 x 85,5 cm., fot. Galeria Grafiki i Plakatu
Often, Baranowska presents a single black and white image from the film, which she has in some way subtly manipulated. Take, for example, her poster for Janusz Morgenstern’s Do Widzenie, Do Jutra… (1960). Here, Baranowska introduces just two simple collage elements: stylised railings and a yellow cut-out paper moon. She mounts the image on a blue background, off centre. The result is both elegant and, above else, effortless.
Baranowska did not just design the poster for Do Widzenie, Do Jutra…, she also featured on screen in a small cameo alongside none other than Zbigniew Cybulski. Baranowska, however, had no acting aspirations. Rather, her small but noticeable turn in Do Widzenie, Do Jutra… only came about because Morgenstern was a friend.
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Barbara Baranowska in the film Do Widzenia, Do Jutra (See You Tomorrow), directed by Janusz Morgenstern, 1960, photo: Wiesław Pyda/Studio Filmowe "Kadr"/Filmoteka Narodowa/www.fototeka.fn.org.p
According to the French producer Christian Ferry, Roman Polański approached Baranowska about playing one of the three characters in his feature debut Knife in the Water (1961). Politely, she declined. Baranowska’s legs make a brief on screen appearance at the very end of a short film by the animator Witold Giersz, Oczekiwanie (1962).
According to Baranowska, an artist must possess both passion and ambition. She claims she had neither, and only worked when she had to. This goes some way to explain the paucity of Baranowska’s graphic output. Nevertheless, while not a prolific artist, Baranowska’s book jackets, film posters and illustrations for children’s books mark her out as a major Polish graphic talent.
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It was during this period that she created her iconic dairy packaging design, one that would quietly remain within eye-view of millions of Poles for decades to come.
Relocation to Paris
In 1968, following in the footsteps of Roman Cieślewicz and Jan Lenica, Baranowska relocated to Paris. Like all emigré artists, Baranowska’s work falls into two distinct chapters.
During the 1970s, Baranowska created French posters for a string of classic films from the 1970s: Milos Forman’s American debut, Taking Off, the Woody Allen vehicle Play it Again, Sam (1972), the film adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s time-travel fantasy Slaughterhouse-Five (1972), Steven Spielberg’s chase movie The Sugarland Express (1974), Alan J Pakula’s conspiracy thriller The Parallax View (1974), Billy Wilder’s The Front Page (1974) and the original film of Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971).
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Unlike her Polish works, Baranowska signed these French posters using the diminutive ‘Basia’. Pre-empting the pronunciation hurdle posed by the Polish language for French speakers, Baranowska thoughtfully translated her name as ‘Bacha’, or ‘Basha’.
Given free reign, Baranowska’s approach marked a sharp contrast to her American counterparts. With these posters, Baranowska moved away from the collage approach that typified the best of her Polish book work towards surreal and often psychedelic paintings. There are, however, some points of continuity: her posters for Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and L’Alliance (1971) belong to the same ‘universe’ as the children’s books Baranowska illustrated in Poland ten years prior.
Perhaps Baranowska’s most outrageous poster is for Luis García Berlanga’s Grandeur Nature, a Michel Piccoli vehicle, which presents a man betraying his wife with a life size doll. Berlanga contrasts Piccoli’s literal hollow girl with doll-like women in a manner which would have contemporary gender aware critics liberally dropping the word ‘problematic’ in their reviews. However, they needn’t have, as Baranowska’s poster both sells the film and playfully divests its none too subtle subtext: a naked female torso, complete with an empty head and a photograph of Piccoli square between her legs…
Enter, Christian Ferry
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How did Baranowska come to created posters in France for some of the most iconic American films of the 1970s? It has something to do with Christian Ferry, a now legendary character in European cinema of the 1960s and 1970s. While Ferry shunned publicity, he nevertheless played a key role in the history of French cinema in particular.
The son of a script supervisor, whose films included Hitchcock’s Topaz (1969), Ferry began his career as an actor before working his way up the rungs of the French film industry. He worked as a location scout for the likes of Howard Hawks, befriended Billy Wilder, and won the confidence of legendary producer Daryl Zanuck while working on World War II epic The Longest Day (1962). Having produced John Guillermin’s The Blue Max (1966), Ferry set about location-scouting what was to be Guillermin’s next project: The Fall of Berlin.
Ferry crossed the Iron Curtain in search of an Eastern Bloc country whose military could feasibly double as the Red Army. Filmmaker Anatole Litvak suggested to Ferry that should he find himself in Warsaw, he should meet a young director’s assistant, Andrzej Żuławski. Żuławski had served as Litvak’s assistant during the Warsaw shoot of Night of the Generals (1967), a World War II drama starring Peter O’Toole, Omar Sharif and Tom Courtenay. Ferry followed Litvak’s advice. In Warsaw, Żuławski explained to Ferry why the Polish military might be somewhat reluctant to play Russian soldiers. While the film never happened, Ferry was impressed by Żuławski.
At this point in his career, Żuławski had been serving as the assistant to the great Andrzej Wajda. He dreamed of being a writer, and had recently completed his first novel, Kino. It features a romance that takes place during the shooting of a film in Warsaw. It features a director (not unlike Wajda) who is adapting a story about the Warsaw Uprising written by a novelist (not unlike Rudnicki). Even before making his directorial debut, Żuławski had made a name for himself as a troublemaker: while Kino went to the printers, the novel was promptly banned before copies could hit book stores. After directing two television films based on literary classics by Ivan Turgenev (Pieśń Triumfującej Miłości) and Stefan Żeromski (Pavoncello), Żuławski took up an invitation by Ferry to work in Paris. Żuławski moved to Paris with his first wife – Barbara Baranowska.
In Paris, Żuławski struggled to make his mark as a director. Thanks to Ferry, he got work as a script doctor on projects by Philippe de Broca and Louis Malle. Żuławski even has a small acting role in Malle’s Le Souffle au Coeur. But when the opportunity arose to make his feature debut in Poland, Żuławski returned to Warsaw. Baranowska, however, remained in Paris, as by this point the couple had split up.
By the end of the 1960s, some of Poland’s most notable graphic artists resided in the French capital. Baranowska had known both Jan Lenica and his first wife, the artist Teresa Byszewska, since the late 1950s. While never a close-knit group, these Polish emigré artists (including both Lenica’s former collaborator Walerian Borowczyk and the painter Jan Lebenstein) shared a preoccupation with a particularly Polish brand of surrealism. In the wake of the anti-Semitic purges that followed the Warsaw student riots of March 1968, Rudnicki also found himself in Paris. Ferry put Baranowska’s talents to use creating film posters for film released by the French outlet of Paramount, Les Films Marianne.
Bluhdorn’s simple tastes
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By the early 1970s, the golden age of the Hollywood studio system had long gone. Paramount Pictures had been bought up by Gulf + Western, a conglomerate founded by the Viennese trader, Charlie Bluhdorn.
Meanwhile, Ferry had established a reputation as a troubleshooter. When Bernardo Bertolucci was having trouble casting the male lead in Last Tango in Paris (originally a Paramount production), it was Ferry who suggested Marlon Brando.
Recognising Ferry’s skills both as a producer and as a diplomat, Bluhdorn invited him to his headquarters in New York. After they moved across the Atlantic, it was in NYC that Baranowska and Ferry became acquainted with another emigré couple: the novelist Jerzy Kosiński and his wife, Kiki. Bluhdorn’s tastes were simple:
Make pictures people want to see, not fancy-schmancy stuff. I want to see tears, laughs, beautiful girls – pictures people in Kansas City want to see.
It was Ferry’s job to pacify the infamously bad-tempered Guillermin during the shooting of Paramount’s 1976 King Kong remake… When Żuławski’s On The Silver Globe was shut down by Vice Minister of Culture Janusz Wilhelmi, Ferry arranged a meeting between the cursed filmmaker and his employer. Żuławski pitched Bluhdorn a script that he had originally conceived of in Poland called Potwór (Monster), keeping the exec’s simple tastes in mind.
It’s about a woman fucking an octopus.
Three years later, Żuławski shot the film in West Berlin as Possession with financing from Les Films Marianne. Baranowska created the now iconic poster.
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The medusa-like image had tentacles in place of snakes entangling a female torso. In some ways, it is reminiscent of a poster Jan Lenica devised for the German distributor of Polanski’s Repulsion. Nevertheless, compared to Lenica’s Repulsion poster, Baranowska’s Possession imagery is bolder and more confrontational. It is an image that persists. In an age when it is the norm to replace hand-painted promotional artwork with photographic imagery, the majority of distributors handling Possession opt to retain Baranowska’s original poster image. It is, without question, a classic.
Film posters move on
Towards the end of the 1970s, Ferry married Baranowska and the couple relocated to the Dominican Republic. At the time, Bluhdorn had business interests in the Dominican Republic, and planned to develop the island as a regular shooting location for Paramount. One such title was Sorcerer, William Friedkind’s unfairly maligned reworking of Henri Georges Clouzot’s Le Salaire de la Peur. For a time, Bluhdorn’s Casa de Campo became a resort for Hollywood’s finest. It was here that Baranowska painted portraits of producer Barry Diller (then a Paramount executive) and one of Paramount’s star employees: Alfred Hitchcock.
In 1983, Bluhdorn died of a heart attack in a plane from the Dominican Republic to New York. Gulf + Western was broken up, and Ferry and Baranowska returned to Paris.
Even if Baranowska had no desire to create film posters, the market place had changed considerably. Rarely were poster artists given carte blanche. Film posters increasingly belonged to a standardised campaign orchestrated by Hollywood marketing departments. It would be another three decades before there was a niche resurgence of interest in hand-painted film poster art.
However, one of Baranowska’s final credits before she retired completely from public life is not for a film poster, but an album cover. During the mid-1980s, former child star (plus Andrzej Żuławski muse) Sophie Marceau made a singular venture into music. With lyrics by legendary wordsmith Etienne Roda-Gil (who penned Joe le Taxi for Vanessa Paradis and authored the bonkers dialogue for Żuławski’s L’Amour Braque), Marceau’s album featured a photographic portrait with demonic green eyes and, on the reverse, a single green tentacle…
the polish poster school
polish poster art
polish emigre culture
polish culture in france
Author: Daniel Bird, Mar 2018