hard work and pure pleasure

or the other way round

A poster exhibition from the collection of Rene Wanner

Basel, August 21, 1997

On the occasion of my retirement, I decided to show my colleagues what I really did during the last twenty years. Although I tried to keep my two favorite activities - working for my company and collecting posters - apart as best as I could, the posters in this exhibition demonstrate that there was nevertheless some overlap and I selected them to illustrate this point.

The first poster, made long before I joined the company, is included here because it had a major influence on my life. A movie poster about a french film, it was plastered to the walls of Warsaw and caught the eye of a young swiss student who was touring Poland on a bus trip and she took a picture of it. It also won the award "Best Poster of the Month" by the City of Warsaw for July 1964.

1 Teresa Desqueyroux, movie after F. Mauriac
Franciszek Starowieyski *1930
Poland, 1964

For the next fourteen years, nothing further happened, except that I got married to this student and found a job in Basel in 1977, exactly twenty years ago. I was soon after sent to a conference in Warsaw to give a presentation of my work,and before I left, my wife showed me the picture she had taken and said "Keep your eyes open, they have nice posters up there". When I look at the situation in our basement now, I am not sure whether she has come to regret that innocent remark, or fully grasped its consequences at the time.

I gave my talk in Warsaw, soon found a poster shop and was completely swept off my feet by what I saw, and bought the hole selection they had, about 70 posters in all. That was the beginning of my collection.

2 Birgit Cullberg Ballet
Jerzy Czerniawski *1947
Poland, 1975

As time went by, I dreamed about going back to Warsaw some day, but Poland was shut off from the West during the next few years. When it opened up again I could not resist any longer, and during one Easter holiday I drove to Warsaw to visit this poster shop again. I had to wait two hours at the east german border, another five at the polish border, and when I finally arrived in Warsaw, I found out that the shop had disappeared! Feeling quite foolish, I decided to look up the address of the designer Starowieyski in the phone book and ask him for help, only to discover that there were no phone books in Warsaw.

I managed to find him somehow in the end, but he told me that just knocking at the door of somebody without any introduction and asking for posters, was not exactly polite behavior, particularly not on an Easter Sunday morning. But polish hospitality prevailed, of course, and during the next few hours Franciszek Starowieyski turned out to be one of the most fascinating persons I have ever met. On the desk where he designs his posters lies a skull.

3 La balade du grand macabre, play by M. de Ghelderode
Franciszek Starowieyski *1930
Poland, 1965

From then on, I visited him every year, usually in early May, and when Chernobyl exploded on April 26th in 1986, he asked me to bring some milk from Switzerland for his children as he was afraid the milk in Warsaw might be contaminated.

The next poster is a comment on the Chernobyl accident from two designers living in Kiev, 80 km away. The connection is not immediately apparent for west european eyes, but it needs no explaining for an Ukrainian: The gas mask of little Jesus is the type worn by the so-called liquidators, the people who had to cleanup the mess, a dangerous job that many have not survived. The text at the bottom is a quote from the ubiquitous national poet Taras Shevchenko. This poster which looks at first sight like a harmless visual joke is in truth political dynamite, that could well have endangered the career of its creators at the time. No wonder it is not signed. In the Soviet Union of 1988, the red color was the exclusive domain of the Communist Party (as for example in poster 12 and 14), religious symbols were not tolerated in posters, not even Christmas trees, and the ambiguous quote would alarm even the sleepiest censor.

4 Chernobyl poster with quote from Taras Shevchenko "You will tell it to the people once you are grown up, son"
Vitalii Shostia *1942 and Zhanna Kravchenko *1945
Ukraine, 1988

Meanwhile, back in Basel, I became involved in a strategic planning team that had to forecast the future of our activities until the year 2000 and went to Copenhagen to interview one of our customers about this. While walking back to the hotel, I was surprised by a thunderstorm and found shelter from the rain in an antique shop. Much to my surprise they sold indian posters of the same type I had seen in India 16 years ago, and again I could not resist and bought what they had, and from then on I was also including indian posters in my dreams. Some years later, India was the guest country of the Frankfurt Book Fair, and I thought my day had come and I would meet dozens of indian publishers there and bring back a carload of posters. Of course I found all kinds of things in Frankfurt, like czech and german posters

5 Bluthochzeit, Opera by W. Fortner, based on a play by Federico Garcia Lorca
Holger Matthies *1940

but the indian publishers just shook their heads in utter disbelieve about my requests. Fortunately I also met a yellow robed Hare Krishna guru, a swiss guy from Zurich by the way, who said he could bring me what I wanted as he was frequently flying to India, and he would deliver it to my home. I was rather scared and thought he was the type of sectarian missionary you never get rid of again, but over the years we have become good friends and each year my collection of indian posters is growing by as much as he can carry on his trips to India.

6 Shiva in the Himalayan mountains
V. Krishnamoorthy
India, ca. 1990

The next story starts with a trip to a conference in England. I got stuck in London, wound up in a chinese bookstore, found nothing but chinese books, but as I was leaving the shop I noticed that they had covered the wall above the door with a poster. What happened then should be clear by now. At the conference I accidentally run into a chinese colleague who had worked during some time in my lab in Basel, and I proudly showed him my bounty from London. Instead of sharing my joy as I expected, he was shocked and disgusted. How could I spend money on posters shamelessly praising the evil deeds of the Gang of Four? He only calmed down a bit when he discovered one poster among the many with a poem by Mao whom he admired deeply.

7 Mao Zedong celebrates the new spring with peasants from Yan'an
unknown designer
Peoples Republic of China, 1965

When my polish friends heard about the chinese posters they became quite excited as they had never seen one before and suggested that I have an exhibition in Poland. They organized a hall at the National Ethnographic Museum in Warsaw, I wrote a catalogue and they commissioned a poster for the exhibition, by Jerzy Czerniawski, the designer of poster 2. All of this flattered me enormously. However the exhibition stood under an evil omen. The first sign of trouble was that the censor didn't like Czerniawski's design, showing a chinese farmer wearing a big round straw hat so you could see only his pipe sticking out from under it. It was meant to say that most of what is happening in China is hidden from us and we know only very little about it. The censor however thought it was propaganda for opium smoking and he would have none of that. It gave me a taste of life under a dictatorship. Then, three days before the opening, I received a telegram from the Museum saying that much to their embarrassment the exhibition could not take place. Shortly afterwards, my friend Janusz Gunia who had looked after all the details in Warsaw died in a car accident. The lithuanian designer Stasys Eidrigevicius, who was a good friend of Janusz, later made a poster in his memory.

8 In memoriam Janusz Gunia
Stasys Eidrigevicius *1949
Poland, ca. 1990

More and more, many of my colleagues became aware of my double life and the next two posters are witness to the treasures they started to collect for me. The first one is from an old Cuba hand who made frequent trips to Havana to promote our products there, and on my suggestion opened his eyes a bit more than usually.

9 El monstruo en primera plana, french-italian movie poster
Antonio Fernandez Reboiro *1935
Cuba, 1973

For the next poster, I have two versions on how I got it, one is a bit more poetic, the other one may be a little bit closer to the truth. First my favorite version: I had my office for some years in one of these buildings where each floor looks exactly identical to all the others. One day I must have pressed the wrong button in the elevator, got out on the wrong floor without realizing it and as I thought I was walking towards my office I suddenly saw a huge expensive steel case with sliding drawers standing in front of it, quite obviously a poster storage cabinet, and it was not even locked. It was the thrill of my life. I thought I had been promoted to Chief Poster Archiver or whatever, or somebody wanted to get rid of his poster collection, or even that I had been run over by a car on my way to work, and was now in heaven. I finally realized my mistake and located the owners. When I explained to them who I was and what I wanted they were very nice and let me have lots of their publicity material.

While that story is true, it is more likely that this particular poster is from a colleague, who for many years has been a reliable forwarder of all kinds of beautiful paper that crossed his way.

10 Poster for plant protection products, in farsi, for Iran
CIBA-GEIGY Werbeabteilung
Switzerland, ca. 1985

After moving out of this marvelous place to another building in 1993, I often had to deal with a computer system with the acronym CESAR. This system would not accept users that did not have a given name beside the family name, so it was called Julius Cesar. Never before or after did I receive weekly electronic mail signed with such an illustrious name. The designer of the poster, Wieslaw Walkuski from Warsaw, is one of the few polish poster artists who has survived the revolution of 1990, and also one who has not been seduced by the possibilities of graphic design by computer or modern printing technology, and from the poster it is easy to see why. Most of his contemporaries have lost their jobs and have simply vanished. Movie posters have been replaced by international versions with polish lettering. Theaters would not have the money to print posters if it were not for the tourist trade that would buy them as souvenirs.

11 Juliusz Cezar, tragedy by W. Shakespeare
Wieslaw Walkuski *1956
Poland, 1994

While a handful of the most gifted artists have made it in Poland, the situation in the former Soviet Union is much worse. Not even widely respected top designers like Viktor Kundyshev from St. Petersburg, who during all his life was used to win prizes in international competitions, now have work. He is too old to adapt his style to package design for shoe boxes or instant soup. Apart from the psychological stress of not being able to use his creative talents and to see a lifetime of achievements now being ridiculed, he is threatened with sheer economic misery. There is no comfortable early retirement plan for Viktor Konstantinovich.

12 Leningrad - Petrograd
Viktor Kundyshev *1933
Russia, 1983

The theater poster by the young german professor Henning Wagenbreth - the first poster designer I knew with an electronic mail address - is a bit of advice to my younger colleagues. Although I am not familiar with the play by Goldoni, and Wagenbreth depicts the situation as rather stressful, I would strongly recommend not to put all your eggs in one basket and arrange your career so that you always have at least two masters, or at least two jobs. It has worked well for me. While doling out advice on how to live happily, I might just as well mention that this beautiful poster can be bought at the theater in Bonn for 3 DM, and that it is generally good practice that whenever you are in a foreign city to go to the theater and ask for posters. Use the back entrance and they will think you belong to the club. And now one last, but essential word of advice: If you get some and don't know what to do with it, send it to !

13 The servant of two masters, comedy by C. Goldoni
Henning Wagenbreth *1962
Germany, 1994

I conclude with a poster by Georgii Shevtsov from Kiev, whom we visited last November, because I like it, and I like him. Ignoring the political rhetoric at the top, it seems to me that the young man is ready to open his clenched fist to wave good-bye to a past, with some sadness, but also hope and determination for the future.

14 Proletarians of all countries, unite!
Georgii Shevtsov *1940
Ukraine, 1983

Finally, I want to thank everybody who has sweetend my life during the last twenty years, poster artists, my family, my friends and my colleagues !

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page last revised on August 21, 1997 /