Back to Basha: the enigmatic star of the Polish Poster School who shunned the spotlight

Back to Basha: the enigmatic star of the Polish Poster School who shunned the spotlight
Barbara Baranowska's poster for Do widzenia, do jutra, (1960)

As Possession, the subject of her seminal work is re-released in the United States, we look back on the life and career of Barbara Baranowska: actress and one of the leading members of the Polish Poster School.

5 October 2021

In communist Poland, the state controlled almost every aspect of society. Censorship dictated the types of films that were made, the books that were printed, and the music that was played. Yet in this stifling creative atmosphere, one unexpected creative outlet remained free from both socialist and capitalist constraints: movie posters. By illustrating adverts for the latest releases, Polish artists suddenly had full control and endless creative scope.

This unique cultural phenomenon led to an explosion of hand-painted, highly expressive film posters that flooded the nation’s streets; bringing art to the masses, hope to citizens, and leaving an indelible mark on graphic design history.

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But read anything about the so-called Polish School of Posters — and you’d be forgiven for assuming its protagonists were exclusively male. While luminaries such as Jan Lenica, Waldemar Świerzy or Roman Cieślewicz are well-known in design circles, their female counterparts remain consistently overlooked.

One such artist is Barbara Baranowska, otherwise known simply as Basha. One of many women to graduate from the Academy of Fine Arts in Krakow in the 1950s, she produced several designs that are still celebrated today. “I would even be tempted to say that she is a forgotten designer,” Professor Izabela Iwanicka-Dzierżawska, from the Poster Museum in Wilanów, tells me over email. “And yet she made very good posters.”

The museum has 21 of these “very good posters’’ in its collection, while more are held in private collections around the world. Harriet Williams and Sylwia Newman of Projekt 26, a specialist Polish School of Posters store based in the UK, admit they have no plans to part with the original Baranowska they snapped up in one of their first lots. Created for the cult 60s Polish film Spotkanie w Bajce, the poster has “a layer of sensuality and tenderness to it that created an instant emotional connection with us,” the pair say, via Zoom.

Barbara Baranowska's poster for the French release of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, (1971)
Barbara Baranowska's poster for the French release of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, (1971)
Baranowska's poster for The Sugarland Express, (1974)
Baranowska's poster for The Sugarland Express, (1974)

Work and Style

Baranowska’s impressive body of work encapsulates 20th-century visual culture at its peak. In addition to her cult Polish film posters from the 1960s, Baranowska produced posters for classic 70s movies, including Steven Spielberg’s The Sugarland Express (1974) and the original Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971). Add to this her book illustration work, her packaging design (packets of butter bearing Baranowska’s mark can be found in Poland’s supermarkets today), plus the portraits she painted for the likes of Sir Alfred Hitchcock, and the breadth of Baranowska’s artistic abilities is astonishing.

“She employed an entire palette of methods of visual assault to achieve an immediate impact,” says Dr. Dorota Folga Januszewska, head of the Graphics Faculty at the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts. “Her code consisted of combining photography with a metaphorical, staged background, but she was also very close to the poetic cut-outs that characterise much of the work of the Polish School of Posters in the 1960s. Later, in the 1970s, I feel that her work became much more spontaneous; eclectic, in a way.”

And yet, despite the high calibre of her work, Baranowska has shunned publicity. Born into nobility in Katowice in 1934, Baranowska has lived in Paris since the 1970s (with a few transatlantic intermissions along the way). Nowadays, she’s impossible to track down, although back in the 1950s and 60s she was incredibly popular amongst Poland’s cultural circles.

Baranowska's poster for Posession, (1981)

Like many of her contemporaries, Baranowska’s work is inextricable from her personal life. At the time, artistic society in Poland was thriving despite state oppression and censorship. Artists of all stripes shared assignments, apartments, and even partners. Ewa Gargulinska, who studied at the same school a few years after Baranowska and mixed in the same creative circles, recalls a “melting pot of different imaginations coming together.”

“In those days, artists of various professions were meeting,” Gargulinska tells me. “We knew film people, actors, directors, writers, poets, singers; we all mixed together. In Warsaw, we met at the House of Literature, where we made all kinds of contacts, which then expanded when people left the country and introduced us to new connections.”

Despite the high calibre of her work, Baranowska has shunned publicity ... Nowadays, she’s impossible to track down

The extent to which this free exchange of cross-disciplinary experiences was able to flourish was totally unique to Poland at the time, and is crucial to understanding the context in which Baranowska created her work. But what’s also striking about her output is just how entangled her work was with that of her three, quite extraordinary husbands: the author Adolf Rudnicki, film director Andrzej Żuławski, and film producer Christian Ferry.

Book Illustration

Baranowska’s marriage to Rudnicki first established this pattern of mutual creative exchange, and the artist produced several book cover illustrations for her husband’s seminal works. Twenty five years her senior, Rudnicki’s experiences of the Holocaust permeated his work. To match the fusion of fiction, documentary and autobiography that defined his prose, Baranowska adopted strikingly simple compositions that leave ample room for the imagination — not unlike Rudnicki’s writing itself. By mirroring his style with her own, she created an instant connection between book and reader; drawing them into the story before they had even lifted the cover.

But Baranowskas life would take a new turn when she met Andrzej Żuławski, then the ambitious young assistant to the great Polish film director Andrzej Wajda. After leaving Rudnicki for Żuławski, Baranowska suddenly became the older party in the relationship. It was a messy transition, and when Rudnicki would see Żuławski on the streets of Warsaw, hed often shout: Youve got blood on your hands!”

Despite now being heralded a genius by critics, at the time Żuławski was struggling to make his mark. The filmmaker Daniel Bird, who worked closely with Żuławski in his later years and maintains contact with Baranowska, describes him over the phone as “exceptionally driven,” with a “huge ego.” All the same, says Bird, the director was “one of the most, if not the most, interesting people I’ve ever encountered.”

Cult Polish Film Posters

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By the time Baranowska married Żuławski, she already had many friends in Poland’s homegrown movie industry. The world of film posters became a natural next step for her artistic talent. One of the first posters she created was for her friend Janusz Morgenstern’s directorial debut, Do widzenia, do jutra (1960). Employing the paper cut-out and photomontage style typical of the era, Baranowska effortlessly conveys the film’s central theme; the youthful optimism of falling in love — although the prominence of the stylised gate warns us that something will stand in the young lovers’ path. Baranowska also made an appearance in the film. Director Roman Polański would later ask her to star in his own feature debut, Knife in the Water. (Baranowska politely declined).

Ultimately, it was Baranowska’s second husband who introduced her to her third: film producer Christian Ferry. Given that several of Żuławski films revolve around love triangles, we are left wondering whether art in this case was imitating life — or perhaps vice versa. Either way, Baranowska’s life shifted again when Ferry invited Żuławski to Paris to work on several new films. Eventually, Żuławski returned to Poland to work on his own projects — but Baranowska remained with Ferry in what Bird calls a “reconfiguration” of their relationships. She went on to adopt the nickname “Basha”, signing her posters with the new moniker.

“Ferry was like Basha in that he didn’t seek the limelight but withdrew from it almost entirely, not seeking to prove himself to anyone,” Bird speculates as to the endurance of their relationship. As president of the French division of Paramount Pictures, Ferry had a hand in the success of many of the classic films of the 1970s. Naturally, Baranowska was commissioned to design the posters, and it is here that her sharp wit, clever use of colour, and formal sophistication really shine through.

Baranowska's poster for Grandeur Nature , (1974)

Classic 70s film posters

In the 1970s, posters became increasingly surreal in their treatment of subject matter. In her poster for Grandeur Nature (1974), Baranowska plants a photograph of Michel Piccoli over a mannequin’s crotch, while the top of its head is sliced off. Meanwhile, in the poster for Pic et Pic et Colegram she shows greater restraint; although the substitution of snowflakes for swastikas still packs a punch.

Out of all of Baranowska’s film posters, arguably the most widely circulated is her iconic design for Possession (1981); directed by Żuławski, facilitated and financed thanks to Ferry. With a colour palette that reflects the film’s blue-hued cinematography, the poster shows a naked woman entangled with an octopus. Baranowska’s work effortlessly unites the film’s many layers of literal and metaphorical meanings, matching the intensity of its psychological drama. Given the many twists and turns in her life, the poster is a fitting representation of Baranowska’s legacy; intertwined as it is with that of her husbands’ — but boldly telling its own story, too.

Baranowska hasn’t created anything in the public realm since the mid-1980s, and following Ferry’s passing in 2011, little else has changed in her day-to-day life. According to Bird, she still goes to the cinema every day, devours books, and is just as perceptive today as she was 40 years ago.

There is a myriad of reasons as to why Baranowska’s name is not celebrated alongside many of her contemporaries. But what singles her out as one of the Polish School of Poster’s best kept secrets is an astonishing admission for someone with so much talent: she claims she had neither the passion, nor the ambition to call herself an artist or even to produce more work than she had to. Baranowska’s posters were not born out of the pursuit of a singular creative path, but as an innate, authentic expression of her life at the centre of Poland’s artistic society during a unique moment in time. And that is precisely what makes them quite so extraordinary. As Projekt 26’s Harriet Williams puts it: “Her unique attitude of only working when she needed to makes it all the more incredible that when she did apply herself, she threw out these genius works that are all amazing.”

This article is part of our series Women, Recollected, an ongoing project shining a light on the forgotten women pioneers of 20th century culture.

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