Bronisław Zelek, born 1935, was a graphic designer, poster artist and author of acclaimed typefaces. Died on February 28th 2018.
Graphic designer, poster artist and author of acclaimed typefaces.
Zelek was born in 1935. He graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw under Henryk Tomaszewski in 1961. In 1967, he received Tadeusz Trepkowski‘s prestigious WAG Award and from the 1970s he worked as his former tutor Hernyk Tomaszewski’s assistant at the Academy of Fine Arts. Since 1971 up until his death in 2018, he lived and worked in Vienna.
Original and captivating film posters were Bronisław Zelek’s trademark. His very characteristic way of implementing stills and ascetic colours and his perfect blending of images and typography have made him widely recognised as the no. 1 specialist of portraying horror films in posters. Nevertheless, he was equally comfortable in other fields, preparing much brighter projects for the Polish Jazz Association as well as a splendid poster for the 8th International Chopin Piano Competition.
Zelek’s style was partially shaped by historical circumstances. During the communist era of PRL (People’s Republic of Poland), western graphic designed was often mocked and used as an example of what to avoid, because of its capitalist origins, artistic mediocrity and triviality. Communist authorities wanted Polish artists to create their own ambitious and alternative style.
These authorities sometimes asked more than one artist to create a poster for a single film, which added an element of rivalry to the creative process and forced them to come up with the most original and innovative ideas – something that would never happen in the commercial world. Moreover, stills were almost inaccessible and designers had to make do with a very limited number of often out-of-date portraits of film stars. This is why the presence of photography in Polish poster design is so limited.
Bronisław Zelek, however, was an exception. He used stills as often as possible, but always modified them to such an extent that they became only an abstract element or background.
In the poster for Cartouche from 1964, he put the actor’s greyscale photo on an abstract white background and split this figure horizontally with a large text box. Jean-Paul Belmondo, the main character, took almost its entire surface, but contrariwise Zelek chose against using Claudia Cardinale’s photo. Given that she was a sex symbol of those days, he managed to take his poster far away from such banal clichés.
The poster for There is Such a Lad by Vasily Shukshin presents the actor’s picture, leaning heavily on a big steering wheel, presented from an oblique angle, making the viewer’s head tilt by 90o. The photography is firmly contrasted, limited to Zelek’s favourite interaction between black and white.
Intense interweaving of typography into illustrations is a characteristic feature of his composition. These layers are so strongly combined that one cannot exist without each other. Jean-Luc Godard's words were used to describe this phenomenon in Zelek’s works:
The relationship between text and image is similar to that between the chair and the table: to sit at the table, you need both of them.
polish school of posters
graphic and poster artist
His Silence (1965) poster is dominated by the monumental inscription, which is hammered above the actors’ heads.
In the poster of Czechoslovakian film The Anxiety (Polish title: ‘Lęk’) the title is strongly united with the theme of the illustration. A rotated ‘ę‘, together with oblique letters, builds strong tension. The photograph is split into panels. Cracks between them make up thin lines, reminiscent of prison bars. The still that served as a base for this project was, as usual, strongly modified.
Posters addressed to those who are not faint-hearted were definitely Zelek’s speciality. The Hunger poster is a perfect example. It refers to the primeval anxiety which comes from beyond people’s consciousness. The etching expresses the essence of starving, which makes people lose their sanity and exposes their deepest and wildest instincts. This state of mania is symbolised by the word ‘hunger’ being hammered into the stark, brainless, anatomical image of a human skull.
The poster for The Birds by Hitchcock, which was Zelek’s debut at the Warsaw Biennale in 1968, was another example of the dark side of his creativity. The ominous flapping of letters and mishmash of various fonts engages the viewer with its synaesthesia. The empty, wide field in the lower part of the composition enhances the effect of an emerging threat, as it is obvious that it will be inevitably filled with incoming black wings. The viewer has to stand face to face with terror and his own fears.
You can find a much more relaxed atmosphere on the In the late afternoon (1964) poster for the Andrzej Ścibor-Rylski film. Actors’ photos are inter-weaved into the text, looking like additional letters. The dense upper part is contrasted with the deserted bottom, creating an intriguing contrast.
There always seems to be a certain idee fixe around which every project is built. First Cry is based on a contrast of black and white and the impression of eavesdropping on the lovers’ whispers. Two Weeks in September's project is entirely set around a diagonal line between two hands. The poster for Polish Film Days is dominated by the idea of asceticism and film reels imitating trains arriving at a platform.
Finally, the poster designed for the 8th International Chopin Piano Competition is one of the most recognised of Zelek’s works and the quintessence of his early style. It is classy, elegant and based on black and white. His later works, however, tend to be more colourful, following the fashion for psychedelia. Their Polish titles are: Popierajcie swego szeryfa (1970), Noc poślubna w deszczu (1968), Wielkamiłość (1970), Chłodnym okiem (1972), Che (1973).
Bronisław Zelek was also a creator of acclaimed typefaces. In the early 1970s, he designed the famous Zelek MN font, which has a few types: contour, black, 3D. A few years later he invented Zelek New – a font formed as if it was written with folded ribbon. His fonts were never officially digitalised despite numerous requests and many copies being available on the market (for example, the Cyrillic version by Viktor Kharyk and Lidia Kolesnichenko). This strange-looking slanted font is the most popular of Zelek’s imitators.
Author: Sylwia Giżka, Novomber 2010, Translated by WO 3.02. 2014