Poster artist born in 1914 in Warsaw. Died in 1954.
Trepkowski was self-taught; he did not graduate from arts or design school. In fact, he did not even have a high school diploma. He has only spent a few months at the Municipal School of Decorative Arts. Despite lack of conventional education, he became one of the originators of the Polish School of Posters.
He completed his first design at the age of 16. In 1933, he was awarded in a poster competition for PKO, in 1935 – for a poster made for Tychy brewery, in 1937 – the Grand Prix in the International Paris Exhibition for the poster Be Careful! It was a design from a 1936-37 series commissioned by the Institute of Public Affairs. With these premonitory posters, he exhibited a mature, original style. While preserving the convention of realism, he got rid of all the redundant elements.
Jan Lenica wrote:
He discards everything that unnecessarily distracts the viewer and wholly focuses on tearing off the adjective, verb, adverb and conjunction from the noun.
In this manner, Trepkowski designed posters that were concise, ascetic and at the same time infused with poetic musing. He created in a difficult time of the ubiquitous socialist realism, but managed to find an artistic loophole. Numerous posters were made at the time – the system needed adequate visuals and agitational tools for all the anniversaries and festivities. Trepkowski designed pathetic posters, readily used the monumentalising 'frog's-eye view' perspective, composed symmetrically and dramatised the image with the usage of skews. However, he also interspersed his works with symbolism and arranged his own alphabet of signs and metaphors, straying away from the Soviet scheme of socialist realist personifications of proletarian ideas. Instead of characters absorbed with the future, he painted objects – attributes of the respective professions, such as rifles, trowels, hammers, pallets and pencils. It is precisely the silent objects alienated from their surroundings that are the heroes of Trepkowski's posters. There are no people and no faces, all the psychological and spiritual functions were relegated to the objects. This lifeless world abandoned by man is a source of great emotion, sadness and nostalgia. The symbols proposed by Trepkowski entered the language of art imagery for good.
A special, sacred approach to the object and its surroundings was characteristic to Trepkowski.
Jan Lenica recollects:
The ambiance in Trepkowski's workshop was that of a doctor's office. Inside, there was only a small table with jars, plates, paint brushes and tweezers, a bigger table and easels. No reproductions, books, sketches or any signs of artistic disarray, which we usually associate with a painter's workspace.
During the war, Trepkowski put his activity as a designer on hold. At the time, he worked in a charcoal storehouse. However, in 1945 he designed a political series for the Polish Army's Main Political-Education Board's department of propaganda. He also created posters for the Ministery of Railway (Trepkowski's father held an executive post there) and pharmaceutical and chemical companies. In the years 1946-47, he was a correspondent for the Głos Ludu (editor's translation: People's Voice) magazine during the Nuremberg trials. In 1951, for a short period of time, he was the artistic director of Świat magazine.
Trepkowski's poster designs were often rejected because they strayed from the ruling socialist realist convention.
Lenica comments on the fate of the rejected designs:
Nothing disappeared from Trepkowski's body of work. Elements cut from one poster appeared in another and scissors played a very important role in the author's modest array of tools. He handled them with great ease.
Indeed, in Trepkowski's works symbolic motifs repeat, as if they were copied from one poster to another again and again.
Lenica recollects Trepkowski's peculiar, lab-like and focused work style:
Aside from some original posters, design sketches were preserved. Small blocks of paper that were on hand, on which he noted some ideas. (…) Trepkowski did not like to submit designs or sketches for approval: he designed a finished poster which was good in his book and only then he submitted it for evaluation.
Political, social and OHS-related posters remained Tadeusz Trepkowski's specialty, but he also designed posters for films (The Last Stage, Hallelujah!, My Universities – in 1948; Battle of Stalingrad – 1950, Lost Melodies – 1953), theatre (Sprawa Rodzinna – 1952, Południk 49 – 1953), sports (Warsaw, 1952), events (Soviet Art Festival in 1949, Polish Visual Art Exhibition in 1951, Poznań Expo in 1954, 2nd Polish Music Festival in 1954) and even advertising (Polish LOT Airlines, 1954 and a poster for the Tyskie brewery which was not preserved). He also arranged exhibitions, designed graphics for the press and did small graphics for advertisement. In total, he designed around 80 posters.
His Nie! (No!) poster from 1952 is currently part of New York’s Museum of Modern Art collection. Its dynamic composition, featuring a bomb flying towards a destroyed city, is a radical protest against the war.
Krzysztof Lenk views Trepkowski's work as an example of posters which he calls thoughtful:
They are thoughtful posters and their reception by the viewer lasts longer than only during the first viewing. This type of creative thinking, proper to poster art, is difficult, necessitating an unique idea and not resalable – it is worth one’s weight in gold (…).
Trepkowski’s post-war awards are (among others): an honorary mention in 1948’s United Nations competition, 1st prize at the Polish Poster Exhibition, post-mortem honorary award at the Polish Poster and Illustration Exhibition in 1955. He also received The Order of Polonia Restituta and The Gold Cross of Merit as a lifetime achievement award. He passed away suddenly, in December 1954, from a heart attack. Post-mortem, in 1955, the previously rejected Nie! poster promoted the Youth and Student Festival in Warsaw. A three-storey-tall reproduction was exhibited at the corner of Marszałkowska and Świętokrzyska streets and became a peace manifesto for the generation and a tribute to the suddenly departed artist. In 1955, the publishing house Wydawnictwo Artystyczno-Graficzne established the annual Tadeusz Trepkowski Award dedicated to young graphic artists (its laureates include Roman Cieślewicz, Waldemar Świerzy and Maciej Urbaniec, to name a few).
Jan Lenica, "Plakat Tadeusza Trepkowskiego", Warsaw 1958.
Krzysztof Lenk, "Tadeusz Trepkowski. Dyscyplina znaku i znaczenia", [in:] "2+3D" III/2005, p. 34.
Selected exhibitions and awards:
- 2009 Polish Posters 1945-89, MoMA, New York, United States 1985 in Memory of Tadeusz Trepkowski.
- On the artist’s 30th death anniversary, Poster Museum, Wilanów, Poland 1982 Tadeusz Trepkowski.
- Designs and posters 2015 After the War, Zachęta National Gallery of Art, Warsaw, Poland 1955.
- Exhibition of Tadeusz Trepkowski’s poster art, Warsaw, Poland.
- The Order of Polonia Restituta and The Gold Cross of Merit, lifetime achievement award.
- Post-mortem: honorary award, Polish Poster and Illustration Exhibition.
Written in Polish by Sylwia Giżka, Dec 2006, updated by AM, Dec 2016, translated by Patryk Grabowski, May 2018