WEB POSTER EXHIBITION - 25 Years of Solidarnosc posters

This web exhibition accompanies the current exhibition Solidarnosc 1980 - 2005 Solid Art, curated by Wladyslaw Serwatowski from the Adam Mickiewicz Institute in Warsaw. Solidarnosc was a workers movement in Poland, led by Lech Walesa, which initiated the political changes in Eastern Europe that contributed (some say led) to the downfall of the Soviet empire in 1990. Serwatowski was an eye witness and participant at the beginning of Solidarnosc in Gdansk in 1980, as he recounts in his text below.

Location and dates of the exhibition:
Brussels (BE), European Parliament 2005.08.30 - 2005.09.02
Brussels (BE), Universite Libre de Bruxelles, le Grand Hall de ULB, 2005.09.20 - 2005.10.04
Barcelona (ES), Museu d'Historia de Catalunya, 2005.09.21 - 2005.10.20

The following text was kindly provided by Wladyslaw Serwatowski, the pictures are a selection from the catalogue. Many of the posters are full of symbols, allusions, jargon or double meanings that are perfectly clear to a polish viewer, but remain mysterious to an outsider. This style has a long tradition in polish posters and was often used to circumvent the censors. I am grateful to Wieslaw Grzegorczyk who helped me with the figure captions to shed some light on these points.

Wieslaw Grzegorczyk
The poster also serves as a logo for the anniversary

Tomasz Bengsz
Red and white are the colors of the polish national flag. During the communist time, the heraldic polish eagle was robbed of it's crown, which was restored in 1990.

Jan Bokiewicz
an exhibition of graphics in support of Solidarnosc 1981 -1989, at the Zacheta Gallery in Warsaw, the longtime home of the Warsaw International Poster Biennial.

Jakub Erol
The Holy Virgin of Czestochowa, the patron saint of Poland

Wieslaw Grzegorczyk
"To the victims of martial law"
When the political situation became a threat to the communist governement, General Jaruszelski declared a State of War on December 13, 1981 which lasted until July 22, 1983. Lech Walesa was imprisoned, and many people were killed.

Grzegorz Marszalek
The two slashes on the cheek of Walesa are the attributes of the Holy Virgin of Czestochowa

Andrzej Pagowski
"The workers ' 80"

Tomasz Sarnecki
with a picture of Garry Cooper as sheriff from the movie High Noon. The date, June 4, 1989, refers to Solidarnosc's victory in the first semi-free parliamentary elections in post-war Poland.

Franciszek Starowieyski

Waldemar Swierzy

Krzysztof Tyczkowski


Anna Walentynowicz, called the Mother Courage of the Gdansk Shipyard (then the Lenin Shipyard), was immortalized as the main character in Hanna Krall's play Relations (Pol. Relacje), put on stage of the National Theatre in Warsaw in 1981. Walentynowicz belongs to the most important personalities connected with the beginnings of SOLIDARITY. She had been working in the shipyard for 30 years, but in August 1980 she was to be disciplinary dismissed from work for political reasons - for she had always been telling the truth. During the strike the shipyard workers demanded that Walentynowicz be permitted to return to work.

In her memories from August 1980 she wrote :
"It was on 14th August before the first shift. We were hoping that after a few hours, maybe after one day at most, the manager would withdraw the dismissal and all things would return back to normal. People were gathering in front of the posters, they were reading the leaflets that were being handed out, but there was nothing about the strike was beginning. Indignation at the management was increasing, the need to manifest dissent together was growing in people's minds, but fear was still predominant . "

Walentynowicz's poster reminiscences are an occasion to remind that "in August 1980 in the central canteen of the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk an exhibition of photograms and 33 posters from the National Theatre, which was founded in 1765 by the Polish king Stanislaw II August Poniatowski, was taking place. The exhibition was organized on behalf of the National Theatre by Wladyslaw Serwatowski, press and advertising expert. After leaving the Gdansk Shipyard the exhibition will be displayed in the Maritime Culture House (Pol. Morski Dom Kultury) in the Gdansk New Port and also in other cultural institutions of the Gdansk coastal region." This is the way a newspaper of the shipbuilding industry, the Shipyard Worker's Voice (Pol. Glos Stoczniowca), issue no. 1641 from 8th August 1980, informed about the exhibition. Together with the article there appeared a black and white photograph with posters by Henryk Tomaszewski, Jan Lenica, Marcin Mroszczak and Jerzy Czerniawski.

The short note that otherwise would only have documentary character becomes important now, as the exhibition in Brussels is part of the international celebrations of SOLIDARITY's 25th anniversary. To further stress the importance of Polish poster art I looked up in the archives an old note with a photograph sent to me by an anonymous Gdansk Shipyard worker, who wrote that during the August strike in the shipyard he had remembered the poster exhibition from the National Theatre. To emphasize that he was satisfied with the exhibition he added that he was an amateur weaver and that in the pauses between the political negotiations in the shipyard he had created a tapestry depicting one of the posters from the exhibition in the shipyard's canteen. He enclosed a coloured photograph of his work inspired by Jan Lenica's poster to the play Two Theatres (Pol. Dwa Teatry) by Jerzy Szaniawski. The creator of that tapestry still remains anonymous.

The exposition in Brussels shall correspond to the times when the posters were created. This is why I had originally planned to place two huge cargo containers at the seat of the European Parliament and at the Université Libre de Bruxelles. The SOLIDARITY posters published in the times of censorship (1980-1989) were to be exhibited inside the first, closed container, in the second and open one - the posters connected with SOLIDARITY, published outside Poland or in Poland after 1990. A thick ship rope was to mark the exhibition space and a port anchor was to remind about merits of the Gdansk Shipyard. But when it turned out that the containers do not fit into the closed space that had been planned for the exhibition, I decided to exchange them for two rough iron gates. One of them will be closed, so that it is a metaphor of the strike in August 1980, when shipyard workers were locked in the shipyard. The other - open - will be symbolizing freedom. In addition, the ship rope will form the word "SOLIDARNOSC".

The art of preparing an exhibition is sometimes the art of being able to abandon certain ideas and to introduce unexpected changes. To convey the atmosphere of August 1980 and to bring closer the heroes of the Gdansk Shipyard, several front pages of renowned newspapers and magazines from Brussels, Hamburg, London, New York, Paris and Zuerich have also been included into the exhibition. What is more, on exhibition are also the remarkable photographs that were made in August 1980 by Erazm Ciolek and Giovanni Giovannetti.

To conclude I need to add that a perfect poster always communicates three levels of experience: Information, illustration and inspiration. In my opinion, the historic and artistic posters connected with SOLIDARITY do fulfil all the criteria of perfection.


"In collective memory the emergence of SOLIDARITY can be described by the following formula: August 1980 = June 1956 + March 1968 + December 1970 + June 1976," wrote the young English historian Timothy Garton Ash (born 1955) in his book The Polish Revolution: Solidarity 1980-82 (London: Jonathan Cape Ltd., 1983), for which the British Society of Authors presented him with the Sommerset Maugham Award in 1984. Earlier the architect Czeslaw Bielecki had come to a similar conclusion designing a poster which he enriched with the experiences of the 1944 Warsaw Uprising.

The proper name "SOLIDARITY" is primarily associated with the strikes in the Gdansk Shipyard because of their 25th anniversary, but its history is more complex. It was already mentioned in March 1883 in the name Polish Party SOLIDARITY (Pol. Polska Partia SOLIDARNOSC) that had emerged from a split within the so-called "First Proletariat", a revolutionary workers' party.

The term solidarity exists in law sciences (as the obligation to mutual responsibility and assistance), psychology (as the tendency to act in a similar way to other members of a group) and sociology (where it describes cooperation and co-responsibility when the group is being threatened from outside).

In August 1980 in the Gdansk Shipyard the term solidarity was used as a key to victory in the public speeches of Andrzej Gwiazda (the co-founder of the Free Trade Unions of the [Polish] Coast [Pol. Wolne Zwiazki Zawodowe Wybrzeza]) and of Lech Walesa.

SOLIDARITY as a name appeared in the title of the Strike Information Bulletin Solidarity, which was edited by Konrad Bielinski, an activist of the Committee for the Defence of Workers , and which was printed in the "Free Gdansk Printing Works" (Pol. "Wolna Drukarnia Gdanska"). The first issue appeared in 20,000 copies in the Gdansk Shipyard on 23rd August 1980.

The first posters with the SOLIDARNOSC heading (the Polish word for "SOLIDARITY") appeared during the last week of August 1980, and on 30th August the shipyard workers were already wearing T-shirts with SOLIDARNOSC printed on them, a white and red flag above the letter "N", all in a red and disobedient font.

The examination of Solidarity posters and qualifying them for an exhibition brings about a few remarks and conclusions that have not yet been explicitly.

The purpose of this introduction is to explain the choices and selections made by the exhibition's curator to the visitors of the Brussels exhibition.

1. In the history of SOLIDARITY posters I distinguish four distinct periods:

  • a. from August 1980 until December 1981; during this time the works were created out of spontaneous commitment of many designers, who wanted to contribute to the creation of an atmosphere that would help bring about hope and political and economic change in Poland.
  • b. from December 1981 until the end of 1988; in this period Solidarity posters circulated secretly, and were often published by underground patriotic groups; their circulation numbers were low, their formats - small and their print quality - limited.
  • c. from the spring of 1989 until the spring of 1991; these were the times of the thaw before the Agreement of the Polish Round Table, which resulted in the political transformation in Poland, and, as a consequence, also in Central and Eastern Europe; these were also the times when Lech Walesa won the presidential election and became Polish president, and the times the victory over communism was celebrated.
  • d. from 1991 until 2005; during this period SOLIDARITY posters have either served short-term election purposes or have had historical and sentimental character in order to show the importance of Poland's most recent history or to stress the merits of the 1980-81 generation.

    2. I classify the quality of SOLIDARITY posters according to clear criteria of their publication time.

  • a. in the first period the socio-political changes were the reason for many anonymous posters to appear; these posters are described as anonymous because they bear no features that would allow the identification of their designers.
  • b. in the second period this tendency was continued. The reason for that was the caution and experience of the designers who were in opposition to the communist state and who by remaining anonymous could reduce the risk for themselves and for the people among whom their works were distributed.
  • c. from August 1980 until the spring of 1989 many printed works which had the technical parameters of a poster were designed by people ideologically committed to the ideals of SOLIDARITY, but without any experience and knowledge about poster design. Many such documents about social life in Poland during that period are stored in the archives of various institutions, but those documents are called posters only because of their similarity to works that indeed belong to this category.
  • d. from August 1980 until August 2005 outstanding poster designers, painters, illustrators and photographers having a sensitive eye and heart for current events in various ways combined their creative work with the ideals of SOLIDARITY that they supported, or with the goals of the Independent and Self-Governing Trade Union SOLIDARNOSC (SOLIDARITY), whose members they were. The artworks created in that period are artistically most valuable. Their advantage is not only the fact that they rationally document emotion, but it is also their professional quality and their permanent message formulated by a renowned sender. Among the artists, whose works are presented at this exhibition, are artists from Poland as well as from other countries - artists who were moved by the events in Poland and who left a material sign of their views and attitudes.

    I intentionally included two more works into the exhibition, as they enrich the poster collection on display, even though they do not quite fulfil the qualification criteria mentioned above.

  • The crying pigeon (Pol. Placzacy golab)(1956) is a lithography by Franciszek Starowieyski. It is not commented by any text, but it conveys a strong energy of solidarity with the Hungarians, who, seeking justice, freedom and democracy, were revolting against communist rule in 1956.
  • The White Eagle (Pol. Orzel Bialy)(2005) by Tomasz Musial painted on canvas, using an original "lashing" technique symbolically touches and warns: if ideals are to become a permanent element of our lives, they require enormous effort, and sometimes even sacrifice. It is indeed worth to remain attached to these ideals, dreams and ambitious and valuable goals.

    Wladyslaw Serwatowski
    Translated by Piotr Kaczmarek

    Jan Bokiewicz
    A victory sign and the Solidarnosc flag for the 4th Anniversary, August ' 80 - Gdansk ' 84

    Tomasz Boguslawski
    Postage stamp for the 20th anniversary of the origin of Solidarnosc.

    Andrzej Czeczot
    for Witkacy's play "The shoemakers".

    Wieslaw Grzegorczyk
    "18. National Congress of the NSZZ Solidarnosc Delegates in Gdansk, August 30, 2005".
    The anchor, a universal symbol of hope, has a special meaning in Poland as Kotwica, the symbol used in WW2 by the polish underground army, and later on also by Solidarnosc. It also recalls the origins of Solidarnosc in the shipyards of Gdansk.

    Wieslaw Grzegorczyk
    "The 20th anniversary of Rev. Jerzy Popieluszko's death"
    The outspoken priest and Solidarnosc supporter was murdered by the Security Forces in 1984 when he could not be intimidated or silenced.

    Piotr Mlodozeniec
    An election poster for Lech Walesa, interpreting his portrait and initials in a masterful way as a polish anchor.

    Eugeniusz Stankiewicz - Get "Independent Self-Governing Trade Union of Independent Farmers Solidarity"

    Leszek Szurkowski
    "The man of hope" is an allusion to the famous Wajda movies "The Man of Iron" and the "The Man of Marble"

    Henryk Tomaszewski
    "Zeby Polska byla Polska" ("Let Poland be Poland!") is the title of a song that became the unofficial anthem of Solidarnosc. In this 1989 election poster, Tomaszewski goes a step further, pleading "If Poland has to be Poland, 2+2 must ALWAYS equal four".

    Mieczyslaw Wasilewski

    Two pictures from the opening of the exhibition from www.solidarity.be :

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