Vintage posters from Western Europe have become a familiar sight in design stores. Less common are those from the Communist bloc – more specifically, those from Poland. This is Sam and Gina Rosenberg’s field of expertise. Over the past 12 years the Melbourne couple has amassed close to 1000 posters dating from post-World War Two Poland to the mid-1970s.
The Rosenbergs stumbled on a handful of posters while on a family trip to Poland in 2003. They quickly became obsessed. Unlike classically beautiful French or Danish posters, Polish posters from the 1950s to mid-1970s are distinctly gaudy in comparison, and laced with political commentary from the times.
Neither Sam nor Gina, whose parents both immigrated to Australia from Poland in the late 1940s, knew anything about the genre until they started talking to shop owners and private collectors. They started to build up their own picture of Communist Poland.
“The Polish School of Poster Art was made up of fine-art students and graduates. They were given the job of livening up Poland,” Sam explains. “There was no form of advertising allowed then, so they were commissioned by the government to do artwork for foreign movies, theatres, the circus and sporting events. There were also the political posters and propaganda based around how to conduct yourself in Poland.”
Each poster had to be approved by government censors, but Sam describes the posters as quite edgy in comparison to those of Western Europe. “They were amazingly controversial and adventurous,” he says. “The artists were let loose to do what they thought would encourage people to go see a movie or get people’s attention.”
He cites a poster for the Australian movie Ned Kelly, which features a psychedelic image of Mick Jagger’s head – an image completely unrelated to the movie. “There was also a series of anti-alcohol posters having a go at the Russian influence in Poland,” he says. “There would be a picture of a bottle in the shape of a noose’s neck, basically saying that if you drink too much, this is what you’ll do to yourself.”
Posters from this period in Poland are increasingly rare. Sam and Gina have no idea how many are left in Poland. They were printed en mass at the time to be stuck on walls and in windows, but once films, exhibitions and shows left town, the Polish authorities collected and pulped them. Any surviving posters were probably saved and kept by locals before the authorities took them down.
The couple’s obsession with collecting takes them to basements in Polish apartment blocks and to private cellars. “We’ve only got four people we consistently see in Poland. Despite how much we ask, the only other people who have the posters are private collectors you can’t make contact with,” Sam says.
The posters are pieces of living history (some artists from the period are still alive) that most Poles can’t afford to buy or see. Sam believes most buyers are from outside of Poland, where the posters are more revered. A small percentage of Sam and Gina’s customers in Australia come from a Polish background. For the older Poles, seeing the posters is a reminder of their childhood. “They’re totally surprised,” says Sam. “Some people never thought they’d see these posters in Australia – they tell me they remember seeing a particular movie when they were a kid.”
Sam and Gina didn’t start selling their posters in Australia until 2013. And while they sporadically sell parts of their collection, there’s a number of anti-fascist and anti-Nazi posters produced in the ‘50s and early ‘60s that they reserve for their private collection. As children of Poles who came to Australia as Holocaust survivors, they hold these posters particularly close to their hearts.
“Each of these posters tells a story,” Sam says. “If you get a French poster that says ‘Bally shoes’, there’s not much more you can talk about and say, other than it’s Bally. But when we open our collection to the public, people become totally absorbed in the whole story, the history and what each poster represents.”
“It’s wonderful because we can talk about the artists, too, and show photographs of the artists,” he continues. “If you took the words off some of them, they could be paintings on the wall. We love them because they’re genuinely art – they weren’t printed to be sold. There’s no commercial factor driving the production of these posters. They’re beautiful and quirky.”
Sam and Gina Rosenberg are selling approximately 800 posters from their pop-up shop, Sklep (Polish for “shop”) in Northcote until the December 24.