In Christopher Nolan’s new short film about the Quay Brothers (titled—with Nolan’s predilection for mono-nomenclature—simply Quay) he gives us a clue to some of the twin animators’ influences in the film’s opening shots. After drawing back the curtains in their curiosity shop of a studio, Timothy Quay opens a glass cupboard to remove a book. Blink and you’ll miss it, but on the shelves are books on Marcel Duchamp, Spanish sculptor Juan Muñoz, Czech artists Jan Zrzavy, Vlastislav Hofman and Jindrich Heisler, and—most prominently—a book on Polish artist Franciszek Starowieyski.
I wrote a few years ago about the Quays’ love of Polish film posters and Franciszek Starowieyski (1930-2009) is one of the indisputable later masters of the Polish school. From the mid 50s until the late 80s he produced some 100 film posters (and as many theater posters) and developed one of the most instantly recognizable styles in Polish design. In fact, Starowieyski is what we talk about when we talk about Polish movie posters. Surreal, perverse, shocking, grotesque, peopled with skulls, bizarre bird-headed creatures and voluptuous naked torsos, Starowieyski’s work is what people most expect from Polish posters, partly because his images are so indelible.
The first Polish artist to have a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art—in 1985—Starowieyski was a superb draughtsman and fine artist who studied 17th century painting. His colorful early work has a crude, expressive figurative look, but by the early 60s he had started to find his style in increasingly surreal tableaux. In the late 60s his work turned mildly psychedelic, but Starowieyski soon adopted a more and more muted palette until his later and most characteristic posters typically consisted of bone-white figures on black backgrounds.
If proof was needed of the high regard in which artists are held in Poland, this unlikely early 1980s television program called Sam na sam (One on One) featuring Starowieyski, which I came across recently, should be exhibit A. Regrettably unsubtitled, it shows the artist sitting at a desk surrounded by his works, flanked by two august figures sitting on what look like thrones, and answering questions from a studio audience while a bank of telephone operators field calls as if for a Telethon.
Daga Samitowska Oh of Posteritati explained to me that the two men sitting in judgment of Starowieyski are Szymon Kobylinski (a noted cartoonist and illustrator) who is acting as Starowieyski’s ‘prosecutor’ and an art critic who represents Starowieyski’s ‘attorney.’ Over the course of an hour Starowieyski discusses his inspirations and responds to various accusations from Kobilinski and others that he steals from the Surrealists or from Hieronymus Bosch, or that his work is repetitive (which he answers by saying that having a recognizable style is not the same as being repetitive). At one point he denies that he has a fascination with skulls and death but he admits that the human face without skin is beautiful. And then at the end of the show differences are put aside and everyone agrees that Starowieyski is one of the greatest of Polish graphic artists and a source of great Polish pride. There are three further videos after this one on YouTube in case anyone wants to see more.
Below are some of my favorite and most characteristic of Starowieyski’s indelibly striking film posters, presented in chronological order. The first of these—one of his very best—was featured in the Quays’ own MoMA show in 2012.
The Quay Brothers have been working for the past few years on a mostly animated adaptation of Bruno Schulz’s Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass. The book was filmed once before, by Wojciech Has in 1973 as The Hourglass Sanatorium, a film for which Starowieyski also made the poster.
Christopher Nolan’s Quay is playing around the country with three of the Quay Brothers’ films in new 35mm prints.
Posters courtesy of Heritage Auctions and Terry Posters. Many thanks to Daga and Stan.