Wiktor Sadowski

This world-reknowned Polish artist helped establish a national tradition of poster design excellence.

From a loft studio in his home on the outskirts of Warsaw, Poland, illustrator Wiktor Sadowski gestures toward the city center. He is describing the large poster kiosks that sprout from downtown sidewalks, adding random color to a gray city. “Ten years ago, things were different,” he says. “The streets were an open- air gallery, a display of work by the best designers and illustrators.” Today, Polish poster artists must compete bravely with a flood of advertisements for cigarettes, lingerie and American films; few can demand attention better than the surreal, brooding illustrations of Sadowski.

Sadowski has survived Poland’s turbulent post-Communist years, a time that ended the careers of numerous others, and demand for his work is flourishing. His list of clients expands far outside his native country to include both Europe and North America. He has created posters for theaters throughout the United States, including the New York City Opera, and illustrations for annual reports and publications such as Time, Glamour, the Washington Post and the New York Times.

Sadowski was a child when his family relocated from a small town in northeastern Poland to the capital in 1966. When he was eighteen-years-old, he began studying architecture at a local university. “I knew that I wanted to make something serious, something monumental, he explains. But after a year I was bored.” Ironically, it was Warsaw’s kiosks that inspired him to change direction. “As I walked around the city my view changed. There was a lot of interesting art in museums and galleries but the public wasn’t interested. Graphic art posters for theaters and films—this was art for the people. Poster makers were heroes in a way.” He decided to combine his lifelong fascination with painting with this newfound interest in the commercial arts, and enrolled at the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts.

At the Academy, Sadowski had the opportunity to study under one of these cultural “heroes”, the venerated designer Henryk Tomaszewski. As a professor, Tomaszewski constantly challenged the creative ability of his students. “He would repeat to us a quote from Picasso, who said that if you come up with twenty ideas, you should give them up. The next one that comes to you—the twenty-first— that’s the one that is new.” Aside from the demands of his instructor, Sadowski also felt pressure from his peers. “We all wanted to create a style that was different from this master teacher.”

During his five years of study, Sadowski s distinctive illustration style emerged. It is one of deep shadows, punctuated with areas of intense color. His paintings construct a minimalist stage set, where an idea or concept is played out with a compelling sense of drama. Hand-lettering is characteristic of Sadowski’s posters. He uses a delicate calligraphy, reminiscent of parchment and quill pens. Sometimes, words resemble those written in chalk on a blackboard by a defiant child. Hand-lettering is a common method among many Polish poster makers and, according to Sadowski, it was born of necessity. “We didn’t have computers and the printing quality was poor, so we had to find ways to do our own typesetting. 1 tried rub-off lettering but I would run out of the letter A or E,” he shrugs, then breaks out into laughter. “It was useless.”

Sadowski graduated at a time when poster illustrators were nationally esteemed, competition was fierce and the pay was minimal. At 24, he entered a piece into Warsaw’s 1984 International Poster Biennale. The poster was for a ballet inspired by the embattled Renaissance painter Francesco de Goya, who spent the final years of his life working in near-blindness. Sadowski portrayed an emotionless face with the talons of a raptor sinking cruelly into the eyes. His stirring poster was awarded a gold medal in the cultural division, the most competitive category in the Biennale.

“I was lucky,” is Sadowski’s modest explanation of his success. Aside from capturing a medal, his poster captured international attention—almost overnight, he received assignments from German and French theater companies. And within Poland, film festivals, playhouses and galleries began to offer him steady commissions. “During the final years of Communism we had a surprising amount of creative freedom. The Polish government encouraged us to produce work that would attract international attention. It was like the Olympics. They wanted us to win medals—not for sports—but for our art. Our challenge, our game, was to win with the censors.”

He pushed the limits, creating images that were unpredictable and fresh, but capable of withstanding government scrutiny. Sadowski recalls only two instances when his illustrations went unpublished for fear of censorship. In his 1981 announcement for an exhibition of Polish posters, an ominous, lead brick floats mysteriously in the air and obscures the vision of a frustrated artist. This commentary on government control was inadvertently echoed in a controversial poster for a 1991 performance of Mozart’s Magic Flute. A musician holds a flute before his face and two black fingerholes create eyes. This image was interpreted by censors as a political reference to Jaruzelski, Poland’s former leader who wore dark sunglasses. It is this subtle humor, wavering between irony and parody, which remains evident, in his illustrations today.

Sadowski reflects that while his method of painting has changed little since his formative years at the Academy, the philosophy that guides his work has matured. He still enjoys the challenge of finding something new, the illusive “twenty-first idea from which Picasso drew inspiration. However, he may curtail this search to fall within the parameters set by an assignment. “I used to be more serious, more driven by ideas. Now I work harder to anticipate the needs of my clients.”

He notes a major difference between European and American clients. “Here in Europe there is a theater, an artist and nothing in-between,” he says. “In the United States, clients exercise more control over my finished illustration. An art director will always want to see sketches, and many decisions are based on what they perceive to be the desires of management.”

Recently, an American newsweekly called to assign Sadowski a cover illustration. The magazine wanted him to fax sketches in less than two hours. “It is times like that when I know I can’t take chances,” he says. “I’m safe here in Poland. It’s the art director in New York, who has to go into a meeting in two hours, who is at risk. He has to present my work in front of ten, twenty people.”

To meet with tight deadlines, Sadowski often uses the Internet to transmit digital versions of his work directly to clients. This technology has enabled him to circumvent the red tape of shipping art over international borders. “Right now I am interested in the Internet, not only because it is new, but it is rough.” He compares the bitmapped texture of the Internet to the imperfections of paint on a canvas. Despite his interest in computers, Sadowski remains committed to traditional methods to produce his work: “I like moving paint around on paper,” he says. “It’s like eating—it’s something I have to do every day.”

This article was originally published in Communication Arts Magazine. © Philip Krayna.