Jan Sawka was a graphic artist and member of the so-called ‘illustrators’ generation in poster design. He was born on 10 December 1946 in Zabrze, and died on 10 August 2012 in New York.
The young poster artists that debuted in the 1970s changed the way Polish poster art developed. They rejected the ideals of a brief, lapidary and almost abstract image in favour of longer, illustrative narration. However, they did not refrain from using allusions, hints and intellectual rebuses. Sawka’s posters undoubtedly drew from the British animated film Yellow Submarine (art direction: Heinz Edelmann, direction: George Dunning), which was iconic for the generation and, according to Tadeusz Nyczek, from the oeuvre of Seymour Chwast’s studio Push-Pin (www.pushpininc.com). Thin layers of gaudy colours, psychedelic, winding contour and dreamy atmosphere are certainly results of his contact with these works.
Sawka’s posters were scathing. Behind seemingly banal topics, the artist would often hide horrifying depictions referring to the situation of a citizen in a totalitarian country. The poster for the STU Theatre called Pacjenci (editor's translation: Patients, 1976) shows lonely people in a void, crowded in a quasi-bus. In the poster for The Operetta (1976) we can see an en pied portrait of a man without face, his head crossed out in red ink. Cyrk (The Circus) is a red and yellow pyramid of acrobats – none of them can escape, as one person controls the other in the name of maintaining this odd and absurd construction.
Tadeusz Nyczek wrote about Sawka’s works in the text about the award winners of the 7th International Poster Biennale:
Sawka’s posters were not only clear, seemingly familiar, artistic, aggressive stains, differing from other neighbouring posters. They were also fireworks of wit, presenting excellent ideas with the use of numerous allusions and anecdotes.
From 1964 Sawka studied at the Faculty of Architecture of the Wrocław University of Science and Technology. From 1967 he simultaneously studied painting and graphic arts at the Higher School of Visual Arts in Wrocław (the Ministry agreed for an individual programme including industrial design, conservation and restoration, and history of art). At that time, Sawka was also working in Kraków, where he was the graphic manager of the STU Theatre. He graduated in 1972 (diploma at the Wrocław University of Science and Technology titled ‘Adaptation of a Baroque Fortress for Exhibition Purposes’).
Having finished studying, Sawka moved to Warsaw (where he was responsible for the graphic identification of the Stodoła club) but only for a short time. In May 1976 he received a grant and was invited to Paris by Centre Pompidou. The invitation was a result of the awards that Sawka received: the ‘Oscar de la Peinture’ award and the Special Prize of the President of France at the 7th International Festival of Painting at Cagnes-Sur-Mer. It gave Sawka the possibility to leave communist Poland, where his ambiguous art began to be regarded as dangerous. However, Sawka’s works did not gain recognition in Paris and, worse still, he couldn't make a living off his art. In order to avoid deportation (the Polish embassy invalidated the passport) Sawka moved to the United States with his wife Hanna, little daughter Hanna Maria and 52 dollars in his pocket. They moved into a little flat in Manhattan.
In America he made a meteoric career. After only three weeks he was already working as an illustrator for the New York Times and after half a year he opened his own painting gallery. In 1985 Sawka and his family moved to High Falls in the Catskill Mountains region in the state of New York. Their strory is interestingly described in the cookbook by Hanna and Hanna Maria, At Hanka’s Table, illustrated by Jan.
Sawka is mainly associated with poster and illustration. Nevertheless, he was also a painter, creator of artistic banners and sculptures (luminous and calligraphic towers, sculptural interpretations of everyday life objects: stairs, 1985, phone box, 1983, chairs, 1984), memorials (design of the Gaza monument in Palestine for Yasser Arafat, The Jerusalem Peace Monument), architectural designs (public buildings for Palestine), space installations, elements of visual identifications (system of visual identification for Palestine) and essays. He also worked for theatres (cooperation with the Samuel Beckett Theatre), created set designs (concerts of Greatful Dead, 1989, 25th anniversary of the band) and multimedia (The Tower of Light for Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates). Because of the oneiric atmosphere and the spiritual load of his works, Sawka was called a ‘visionary of our times’. His ‘theatre’ friend, Jack Garfein, said that Sawka had a ‘bomb full of energy’ inside him. This artistic energy, resulting in the multiplicity of works in different areas of art and design, was contagious and spread on his colleagues.
As he himself wrote about his works: 'I want to express my feelings, dreams and frustrations'.
polish poster school
Apart from the aforementioned institutions and partners, Sawka also worked for the Art and Graphic Publishing House, the National Publishing Agency, Polish Recordings, the Kraków-based ‘Młoda Kultura’ (1971), ‘Konfrontacja’, ‘ITO’, ‘Szpilki’ (he received the ‘Złota Szpilka’ award in 1972 for his drawing To Be a Bird), ‘Literatura’, ‘Projekt’; Wydawnictwo Literackie, the Poster Museum in Wilanów (1975), Centre Pompidou, Darien House, Sumitomo Corporation, Nippon Sheet Glass, Toho Studio, ‘L'Expansion’, ‘Harvard Business Magazine’, ‘Boston Globe’, ‘Oarien House’, ‘Summers Productions’, ‘Westways’, ‘San Francisco-Chronicle’, ‘CBS-Newsletter’, the International Jazz Federation, The Marsh & Mc Lennan Inc., ‘The Rolling Stone’, ‘U & Ic Magazine’, the Harold Clurman Theater and the Jean Cocteau Repertory Theater.
Sawka exhibited his works in Hungary (1971, 1995), Great Britain (1971), in Palermo (1971), Switzerland (1972), Helsinki (1973), Berlin (1977), United Arab Emirates (1995), Italy (1988, 1992), Brno (1990), in Prague (1992); on numerous occasions in France, the USA and Japan (since 1992). A retrospective exhibition of Sawka’s works titled ‘Powroty’ ('The Returns') was organised in 1991 in Kraków.
The most important prizes that Sawka was awarded include an honorary award of the magazine ‘Student’ and the General Board of the Socialist Association of Polish Students for his lifetime achievements (1976), an award in the Eyes&Ears National Competilion ‘Art on the Billboard’ in Los Angeles for Lody (translator’s note: Ice Cream) (1979), an honorary award at the 3rd Lahti International Poster Biennial for the poster Pacjenci (translator’s note: Patients), a golden medal at the 7th International Poster Biennale in Warsaw (1978) for the poster Pojazd Roku (translator’s note: The Vehicle of the Year), a silver medal at the 14th Biennial of Graphic Design in Brno (1990), awards at the poster exhibition in Colorado (1991, 1995), the prize awarded by the Japanese Cultural Agency Award (1994), the OSAKA prize awarded for achievements in design (1996) and the award for the multimedia project at the 6th International Biennial of Contemporary Art in Florence (2003).
Visit jansawka.com for the artist's portfolio, more information and essays about his career.