The French Dream: A Roman Cieślewicz Retrospective in Paris
#photography & visual arts
default, Photo from the ‘Roman Cieślewicz: La Fabrique des Images’ exhibition at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, 2018, photo: Luc Boegly, cieslewicz_005flesz.jpg
The desks in the small studios of the artists of the Polish School of Posters were the birthplace for Polish modernity of the second half of 20th century. Artists from this circle shaped the visual identities of state-owned companies, popular magazines, films, books and theatre performances. One of them became an architect of modern European culture – but was from the other side of the Iron Curtain. His name was Roman Cieślewicz.
A tribute to this great Polish graphic designer is on until 23rd September 2018 at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris. One would be hard-pressed to find a better place to exhibit works created by the artist who spent most his life in Paris. During almost four decades, he created an impressive number of works, which later formed the basis of modern visual art.
The Roman Cieslewicz: La Fabrique Des Images exhibition in Paris – Image Gallery
Talented and lively
When Roman Cieślewicz was growing up, the political situation in the world was very unstable. His artistic education begins in his hometown, Lviv, which was ravaged by the ongoing war. In the late 1940s, the artist continues his studies in Kraków. His artistic identity is shaped by the first wave of Polish modernists – Cieślewicz learns his technique in the studio of the renowned formist, Zbigniew Pronaszko. Already at this early stage, he devoted his skills and time to posters. Having defended his thesis in the mid-1950s, he moves to Warsaw.
He immediately made his way in the city. Already in 1956, he co-creates a graphic design for Projekt magazine. This is the first step in his long and prosperous career– a decade later he will be working for Vogue. In the meantime, he creates the graphic design for a new Polish magazine entitled Ty i Ja (You and I) and cooperates with many Polish publishing houses, such as the State Publishing Institute PIW or Czytelnik Publishing House. The press comments on Cieślewicz’s exhibition, which opened in the late 1950s, saying that ‘he is talented and lively’ because you can bump into his posters on almost every street corner. Even back then, in his early Warsaw days, he is just as busy as a bee – or four.
Formism (previously known as Polish Expressionism)
He moves to Paris and makes it into the artistic crème de la crème. He is in a romantic relationship with Polish sculptor Alina Szapocznikow, who had divorced Ryszard Stanisławski in the late 1950s. Her ex-husband was an art critic, curator, the director of the Museum Sztuki (Museum of Art) in Łódź, and one of the most influential promoters of Polish art in French cultural circles. Cieślewicz moves in with Szapocznikow in 1963, and a few years later they get married.
Cieślewicz supports his loved one before her international career really takes off. He is already a popular designer at the height of his fame. In her letter to Wojciech Fangor, the sculptor writes:
The Letters of Alina Szapocznikow and Ryszard Stanisławski 1948–1971 - Image Gallery
Romek is blossoming and flourishing in Paris. He ousted Knapp and a few others from ‘Elle’, he is king, surrounded by a flurry of secretaries. He’s in charge and his income is growing but, unfortunately, he’s wasting his money on art (…) nobody wants it here.
In 1966, he gets the position of Elle’s artistic director. At the same time, with Antoin Kieffer, he develops plans for a refreshed graphic identity for the French edition of Vogue.
However, he does not ‘limit’ himself to working for magazines and art institutions. Invited by the Italian artist Eugenio Carmi, who works for the Italsider company, he paints decorative motifs in five Italian steel plants.
Politics and Fashion in a Communist Poland
As king, he reigns in the fashion magazine industry, co-creating the glamourous aesthetics of glossy magazines. Over the course of time, his style evolves into what we know as ‘capitalist communism’. However, Cieślewicz’s take on fashion and his ever-present eroticism are flavoured with formal influences which absorbed during his Polish years.
His collages are soaked with the spirit of surrealism, Soviet constructivist avant-garde, and influenced by the artists of Polish inter-war avant-garde who followed a similar artistic path within the Blok and Praesens circles. Even though he left Poland under the communist regime to go to the west, where he has more opportunities, he never hides the fact that the art of the Soviet revolution is important to him, both in a formal and ideological sense.
Is Roman Cieślewicz real?
In Paris, he becomes friends with the writer Roland Topor, who writes stories about him. One is about the collage exhibition at the Jean Braince’s Gallery and refers to the mythical story about the judgment of Paris entitled Sąd Romana (The Judgement of Roman). In the text, three young girls, Lucette, Roussette and Pousette, watch the sleeping artist. In the end, Cieślewicz wakes up, cuts them into pieces and creates a perfect collage out of their shredded bodies.
In another text, the author describes the incredible strength of the Polish graphic artist who seems to be able to think up hundreds of pictures at a time. Topor recalls an anecdote about Baudelaire, who didn’t believe that Edgar Allan Poe was a real person. He thought that some kind of powerful secret organisation was behind nom de plume. There was a similar story about Philip K. Dick, who suspected Stanislaw Lem of being a group of well-organised anonymous writers from the other side of the Iron Curtain.
Philip K. Dick: Stanisław Lem is a Communist Committee
Avant-garde with retro undertones
The Roman Cieślewicz: La Fabrique des Images exhibition in Paris reflects Cieślewicz’s the compulsive nature of his work, as well as the enormous amount of energy he put into it. Had it been some other artist’s work, the monotonous and almost ‘rhythmic’ arrangement of the exhibition could be considered boring – a dense web of static images hang on the walls with a few glass-cases in the middle of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs' rooms, presenting sketches, archival materials and books. However, in Cieślewicz’s case, the exhibition design emphasises the thematic diversity of his works, as well as the logical and natural evolution of art forms.
At the exhibition, we discover the different faces of Cieślewicz: we know him as the artist responsible for the visual side of famous fashion and avant-garde culture magazines such as Opus International; we know him as an artist that liked to experiment, who learned different techniques and quickly mastered them. He created collages based on mirror images, pictures with pop-art influences, halftones augmented to such an extent that they seemed like quasi-abstract dot compositions and multiplications of one motif woven into a dense net.
Selected posters by Roman Cieślewicz – Image Gallery
There are also thematic segments that reflect what sparked Cieślewicz’s interest at any given time. On one hand, the exhibition is filled with eroticism and a capitalist vibe. On the other hand, it reveals the artist’s political inclinations through the criticism of American interventions in the Middle East, and his sarcastic commentary on Poland’s political transformation. He often went from extreme to extreme – like with his series with Che Guevara, giving the leader of the Cuban revolution the face of a Hollywood film star.
We reach the end of our travels through the artist’s life reaches in the 1990s. This period is marked with pieces that feel a bit retro. Although the digital era was slowly making its way to Cieślewski’s works, the artist remained loyal to his analogue devices – scissors and glue. But his new works are not old-fashioned – they are mature. They shape an image of an artist who had developed his techniques in the 1960s and 1970s.
Polish Design Goes Digital
contemporary polish graphic designers
The colossal number of images evoked and used by the artist is reflected in the last corridor of the exhibition that leads visitors to the exit. Its walls are densely decorated with black and white pictures from many different sources – Cieślewicz drew from the treasures of Polish culture but was also a ‘cosmopolitan communist’ who started his brilliant career back in the People’s Republic of Poland and rose to stardom in France among intellectuals from across the globe.
Originally written in Polish, June 2018, translated by AS, July 2018