Zygmunt Januszewski (1956-2013) was a renowned graphic artist and head of the Department of Illustration at the Academy of Fine Arts (ASP) in Warsaw. His illustrations have featured in many Polish newspapers and magazines (Tygodnik Powszechny, Rzeczpospolita, Gazeta Wyborcza, Wprost), and in leading publications in Germany (Die Zeit, Die Welt, Die Presse), France (Couriere International, Le Monde) and the UK (The Guardian).
In addition to press illustration, Januszewski was involved in graphic arts, poster design, photography and poetry. Januszewski’s surrealistic drawings, in which he constructed his own symbolic language, frequently show geometric figures in various permutations. Cones, cubes, squares and oval shapes become mouths, eyes, arms and legs; these are surrounded by buildings made of labyrinths, stairs and books, and tiny people wielding pikes and flags.
Januszewski studied at the Faculty of Graphic Arts at Warsaw’s Academy of Fine Arts. In 1981, he defended his master’s thesis on Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude at ASP’s Department of Illustration under Prof. Janusz Stanny. Upon completing his studies, he immediately began his international career, and his work was shown in over a hundred solo exhibitions in Poland and abroad. He designed posters for theatres and opera houses in Germany and Switzerland. In 2000, he began lecturing at the Internationale Sommerakademie für Bildende Kunst in Salzburg. In 2002, he became head of the Department of Illustration at ASP in Warsaw.
Zygmunt Januszewski was awarded numerous prizes and distinctions, the majority of which came from outside his native Poland. Thanks to his impeccable knowledge of German culture and language, his work was highly regarded in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. In 1990, he provided illustrations for the book Die rote Spur, which was named "most beautiful book of the year" by the Book Foundation in Frankfurt. In 1996, Januszewski picked up the Printer of the Year award in Edinburgh for his book Jeder ist ein Künstler. Zygmunt Januszewski. Kombinations-Kunst.
Of all the important distinctions Januszewski garnered throughout his career, perhaps the most notable are the prize he received for his cover illustration of Witness for The Guardian Review, and — for his illustrations in the same publication — an award from the Society of Publication Designers in New York.
Januszewski’s work can be found in the collections of many museums, both in Poland and abroad. Examples of his work are on display at the national museums in Warsaw and Poznań, the Poster Museum in Wilanów, Warsaw’s Museum of Caricature, the Museum of Modern Art in Toyama (Japan), and the Musée d’Histoire Contemporaine in Paris. In Germany, Januszewski became the only Pole to have his work exhibited at the prestigious Wilhelm-Busch-Museum in Hanover, alongside kings of satire such as Roland Topor, Saul Steinberg and André Francois.
Januszewski’s symbolic toolkit has been interpreted in many ways. The artist himself discusses this in his theoretical thesis entitled System, in which he writes about the question of codifying the imagination, and ways of driving this forward through the use of signs, shapes and symbols. The system he describes postulates a world constructed from a closed, definite group of signs which may be used to endlessly create a multitude of meanings and forms. However, in order to create, one needs to know the alphabet. Januszewski spent the first ten years of his illustration career developing this alphabet.
The theme of his illustrations are dichotomies: ‘deconstruction and creation’, ‘equilibrium and deconstruction’, ‘circle and straight’ as ‘closure and infinity’. Sometimes this is a battle of opposites, sometimes a battle of similarities, writes Dorota Folga-Januszewska in the Moje kreski catalogue (1997).
Another frequently encountered phenomenon in Januszewski’s drawings is the dichotomy of freedom and alienation. This unique form of freedom consists of freeing individual elements from a given context.
Eyes, mouths, arms, legs, masks — these are emigrants of the organism, having grown tired of their host. The eye has decided to become a window, a screen, a billiard ball, planet Earth; everything depends on individual ambitions - writes Dorota Folga-Januszewska.
The arm becomes a ship, an authority, a building. Shapes and signs alter the meaning. Mouths are gates, but also hang glider wings; legs are projectiles of matter, windmill sails. Masks usurp the face and allow a safe getaway, but they can also be flags, or scaffolding surrounding the Palace of Lies and Ignorance. Duality and alienation have their favoured settings: stairs, labyrinths and books become buildings. Stairs are most often a life path, a path rushing after itself, a vaudeville scene of triumph or error. Labyrinths and books have a similar meaning: getting lost in a metaphor is a speciality of monastic libraries. And yet, the central figure of Januszewski’s illustrations is always a human: neither good nor bad, but drawn considerably smaller than the surrounding shapes and symbols. This figure is frequently drawn wearing a pointed hat, pointed shoes and striped trousers.
It’s just us facing politics, the devastation of the world of thought, moments of joy, springtime euphoria. The human who is an artist is the only one who senses a way out of the labyrinth, the only one who takes that romantic dive into the universe of brush strokes and splotches, writes Dorota Folga-Januszewska.
[Januszewski] is a man chasing something and being chased by something, wrote Marek Wojciech Chmurzyński, director of Warsaw’s Museum of Caricature, in 1997.
Throughout this constant chase — using symbols, of course — he tries to establish ultimate meanings. (…) His famed pikes, lances, flags and processions, his antithetically arranged faces, the confusing mixture of historical symbols (and sometimes even of specific figures: Marx with Columbus, etc.) with the reality of today — this is his domain. Chase, chase, chase! Because Zygmunt is always chasing something, wants to find something. But what exactly? TRUTH! (…) It may look as though his visions are timeless and universal, but his drawings, placed right next to current and informative newspaper articles, are also an excellent commentary on reality.
Zygmunt Januszewski worked and lived in Warsaw and Zakopane. He died on September 12, 2013, aged 57.
Author: Katarzyna Zacharska, September 2013, Translated by Gary Malloy