Friday, 6 August 2010

Roman Cieślewicz Retrospective @ RCA

The RCA is showing a major retrospective exhibition of work by the extraordinary Roman Cieślewicz. An extremely significant designer in Eastern Europe and France, Cieślewicz has strangely had little attention in the UK. Curated by David Crowley, Andrzej Klimowksi, Jeff Willis and Anna Grabowska-Konwent, the exhibition features a broad cross section of work from the 1950's right through to the end of his life in 1996.

Curated in chronological order, the show begins with a significant selection of Cieślewicz' poster work produced during his time in Soviet Poland circa 1955.

"Producing work in Soviet Communist Poland during a period where there was no commercial pressure resulted in a surprising amount of artistic freedom," explains David Crowley, curator and Head of Department of Critical Writing at the RCA. Given our preconceptions of Communism, it's surprising to hear that there was much room for artistic expression in a totalitarian government. Yet it is clearly evident when we view the examples of Cieślewicz' early poster work that he was given the freedom to openly reject the conventional design clichés of that period: in the East there was the Soviet Communist propaganda and in the West, Hollywood posters where the star of the film was the driving force behind the promotion.

For his theatre and cinema poster designs, Cieślewicz combined reproduced images from the media with painterly fine art techniques, often hand-painting the typography. Poster designs on display such as his designs for Katastrofa, Nafta and Vertigo are perfect examples of his juxtaposition of minimalist photo-montage and painting, all of which hint towards strong Surrealist influences.

There is a lot of evidence throughout the exhibition which shows that Cieślewicz's self-initiated work regularly informed his commissioned pieces - particularly his experiments with photomontage. Cieślewicz commands a very minimalist approach to collage

"By the 60s, surrealism was pretty much bankrupt in the Western art scene, yet it thrived in Eastern Europe," explains co-curator and RCA Professor of Illustration Andrzej Klimowski. "The core vocabulary of surrealism thrived and expanded. Lots of ambiguous images are played out by Cieślewicz and we chose many images which play out these surrealist games."

But why was Surrealism so potent?

"Surrealism was almost realism at that time in Eastern Europe," reminisces Klimowski. "You would go around the shops and there would be nothing in them. You would visit a a shoe shop and inside there would be one box with a single heel inside. Life was absurd so surrealism was the perfect vehicle to express that period."

As the exhibition progresses and we approach his work from the 1970's we witness how life turns from the absurd into something much darker. The main body of work from this period was produced while Cieślewicz' wife was dying of cancer and by looking at these pieces you get a real sense of the tragedy which was playing out. The mirky, inky darkness of Bloomusalem and Diably z Loudun (1974) testify to the torment Cieślewicz was suffering in his personal life. The images are dark, brooding and often unsettling, highlighting Cieślewicz's clever understanding of the capacity of an image to provoke and upset people.

Working with lines of symmetry Cieślewicz composed mirror images reminiscent of Rorschach ink-blot tests. Bodies form frightening, headless shadows, other's become grotesque amputees or cycloptic demons. Many of these experiments in mirror imagery have been reworked into designs for magazines and posters; the Wiestaw (1971) screenprint can be seen to directly inform the Sprawa Dantora theatre poster produced 3 years later.

A broad range of editorial and book designs add further dimensions to the exhibition, giving us a broader insight to Cieślewicz' working practise. Highlights included his series of 26 designs for Ann Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho, for which Cieślewicz combined details from old Renaissance master paintings alongside imagery from glossy magazines to create a contemporary response to the gothic romance novel.

Another highlight was the third and final issue of Kamikaze, published posthumously in 1997. Filled with strikingly stark reproductions of black and white images from the media juxtaposed with laconic captions. The real highlight, however, was the issue of Ty I Ja on display. Essentially a women's magazine, Ty I Ja was produced entirely out of recycled materials with the majority of the layout being created using a simple cut and paste technique, appearing almost like a scrap-book.

Running consistently throughout, the Roman Cieślewicz exhibition highlighted work which continued along the artist's pre-occupation with the themes dignity and the individual. We see his double life, working as a commissioned designer for the likes of Elle and as an independent, producing startling work under his own steam. Most importantly, we witness how his personal, self-initiated work informs his commissioned pieces and how he turns tragedy in his personal life into extraordinary art.

Article published by ARTS thread