PRINT February 1982


START WITH THE LOGO (fig. 1). It comes surging forward like a crowd: the S hurries the straggling O along, the A and the R stride confidently, the dot over the I and the accents over the second S and C read as heads craning forward to where the C is pointing, the N holds its rippling banner proudly aloft—the red and white flag of Poland. The word itself—SOLIDARNOŚĆ (Solidarity)—taps into a reservoir of communal memories, memories of over a century of worker activism on behalf of a socialist ideal which had been betrayed by 35 years of inept, corrupt state-bureaucratic practice. The word reclaims that ideal, and the flag pegs it as specifically Polish.

The Solidarity logo was designed by J. and K. Janiszewski, two marginally employed graphic artists living in Gdansk, during the second week of the August 1980 strike at their hometown’s mammoth Lenin shipyards. Within a month it had become the ubiquitous emblem of a national worker’s movement. In this particular case we do have some knowledge of the graphic’s origins. With many of Solidarity’s posters, no such documentation exists. Some of Solidarity’s most powerful images, for that matter, are no longer available in any form. In the heat of confrontation, Solidarity has not had much time or interest in archival documentation. Paper and ink are scarce: what little can be foraged is quickly used and the resultant posters are immediately slapped onto public walls, where they belong. Weather, and in some cases official sabotage, take their toll before anybody realizes no record has been kept. The next day’s crisis—the next day’s occasion—is in any case already at hand.

Like its logo, the Solidarity movement comes barreling out of a history of struggle in a land where the simple mention of a year invariably summons up a store of common impressions. One of Solidarity’s most succinct graphic images consists of a graph—the chart of a heartbeat, perhaps, or a seismograph—a red line coursing horizontally across a white page, throbbing occasionally to jagged verticals, above which are marked the dates 1944, 1956, 1968, 1970, and 1976—a litany of failed national rebellions (fig. 2). As the line approaches the present, the verticals become increasingly steep and frequent, and on the other side of 1980, the line opens onto that single word: SOLIDARNOŚĆ.

One of the reasons Solidarity’s graphic artists have been able to generate such powerful posters is that they can draw upon the matrix of succinct images with rich, common associations that Polish history has given them. Take, for example, the phrase “Warsaw 1944.” That formula, on a poster that first appeared this past August, might initially seem to celebrate the liberation of the city from Nazi occupation by the Soviet army—and the Poles are perfectly content to let the Russians think as much (fig. 3). Every Pole, however, knows that “Warsaw 1944” in fact alludes to the Rebellion, the valiant, tragic attempt of the Polish Home Army, the country’s indigenous nationalist Resistance, to liberate the capital in advance of the Soviet arrival. The Soviet army, for its part, stopped dead in its tracks on the other side of the Vistula once the Rebellion began in August 1944 and let the Nazis liquidate the nationalists for them before they finally came in to liberate the city’s ruins. The symbol of the Home Army, from 1939 to well beyond 1944, was the kotwica. This graffito was scrawled on walls throughout Poland during the Nazi occupation and in the first several months of the Soviet counter-occupation. PW stood for Polska Walcza̧ca: “Poland is still fighting”—fighting both the Nazis and the Soviets. But the image itself summoned an even deeper association, for it suggested Poland anchored—the anchor being a longtime token of Polish Catholicism. We are speaking of a country where, across a tortured history, Catholicism and nationalism have blended into a synchronous passion.

The theme of the anchor symbol achieved a particularly rich development during the last decade. In December 1970, a work stoppage at the Gdansk shipyard was quashed in a sudden massacre: thousands were injured and hundreds killed as Polish soldiers fired on Polish workers. The memory of that traumatic event was officially repressed—virtually ignored in contemporary journals, glossed over in history texts—but it was sustained throughout Poland, as most such memories were, through word of mouth, tattered photos passed from hand to hand, and the cumulative force of the slightest of gestures. For example, when writing the year “1970,” Poles would transubstantiate the “7” into a “✝”: this practice even came to pervade government documents reviewing the period (fig. 4). At the Gdansk cemetery, where actual mention of the circumstances of the strikers’ deaths was forbidden, mourners would mark the grave of a slain worker by hanging a small anchor from the feet of the headstone’s traditional crucifix (fig. 5). The anchor provided a startling mirror image of the tiny crucified Jesus, but it also suggested that this was the grave of a shipbuilder—a welder of anchors—who had died a Christian martyr.

When the workers took up the strike again, in August 1980, one of their first demands was that a fitting memorial to their martyred 1970 colleagues be erected just outside the shipyard, at the very site where the first workers had been shot as they surged out of the gates. The government, its back to the wall, acceded to the demand, and within just three months (as if to mock the government’s accusations of low productivity, and in order to be ready for a commemoration of the tenth anniversary of the carnage) the shipworkers themselves raised an extraordinary monument: three gleaming steel crosses, rising 140 feet above the plaza, attached at the arms back-to-back in a triangular configuration, and atop each cross, splayed in anguished crucifixion—an anchor (fig. 6). In the bases of the three crosses, amidst the tangle of steel shards which lead up into the sleek vertical beams, the workers slotted friezes commemorating the triumph of their August rebellion. They even included bas reliefs of themselves building the monument (fig. 7).

For the Poles, if 1970 was the Crucifixion, then 1980 was the Resurrection and the Life.

The Polish flag is red and white, and the red stands for blood: the blood of patriotic martyrs and the blood of Christ, which, for Poles, is the same blood.

In 1956, the destalinizing thaw within the Soviet Union was fast reaching floodtide at the country’s periphery. On June 28, in Poznan, a proletarian stronghold in west-central Poland, workers from the infamous Cegielski locomotive factory (site of many 19th century confrontations) set down their tools in protest over wages, food supplies, and working conditions, and marched on the town’s central Stalin Square. The Polish army was called out, and by the time the violence had subsided, hundreds of workers had been injured and seventy killed. There happened to be an international trade fair in the city at the time, so there were many photographers taking countless pictures. some of which soon took on an underground, hand-to-hand existence.

Of all these images, one in particular has been seared into the Polish national subconscious. When you mention Poznan to Poles today, they will tell you about the crowd of workers led by the young woman in a white dress who was carrying a Polish flag back into the town square. The white of the flag was stained red: it had just been dipped in the blood of a fallen worker.

What is interesting about this memory is that everyone tells you that it is the woman who was bearing the flagpole, whereas in fact when you look at the photograph—which these days exists in omnipresent, openly displayed profusion throughout Poland—it is clear that the woman was carrying nothing at all, and that a worker behind her was holding the flag (fig. 8). This suggests the way in which people are prepared for images—in which images are prepared for people—by the context of prior images. For there is indeed an image—by this time almost an archetype—of a woman leading a crowd over a barricade while holding a flag aloft. She is Liberty Leading the People, as depicted by Eugène Delacroix in 1830 (fig. 9). (The composition of these two pictures—the lower-left-to-upper-right diagonal of the advancing crowd which in turn is advancing from left to right—is remarkably similar.) I am convinced that this particular photograph, rather than any of the innumerable others taken that day, was the image that Poles came to remember because, in a strange sort of way, they already knew it by heart.

Nowadays, Solidarity’s graphic artists can in turn rely on the communal memory of that photographic image in composing their own iconography. The poster that Solidarity published in June 1981 on the 35th anniversary of the Poznan massacre, perhaps one of the most effective broadsides they have yet produced, consists simply of the legend “Poznan June 1956” superimposed over a bloodstained Polish flag (fig. 10). Actually, the flag is not really stained. Rather, the red of the lower half of the flag becomes an abstract form bleeding into the white of the upper half.

Just as the woman leading the crowd and carrying the bloodstained flag became the image of Poznan 1956 for most Poles, so Gdansk 1970 is largely remembered in terms of a single riveting photograph. Such photographs as do exist of Gdansk 1970 were taken by amateurs on the run, with crude equipment, under desperate conditions. Most were poorly exposed, poorly developed, and poorly preserved. In 1980, Solidarity offices throughout the country began to receive such photographs (as well as shots of the events of 1956, 1968, and 1976), usually as anonymous offerings: during the spring of 1981, Solidarity launched a traveling show of documentary snapshots. I happened to see the show in Warsaw. The photographs were interesting but looked commonplace to me: we in the West have become inured to the visual vocabulary of social violence—police phalanxes, stampeding crowds, crumpled bodies—and these photographs looked just like Chicago or Berkeley or Paris. What I couldn’t get over, however, was the way the Poles were looking at these images. In a country of lines, this exhibit seemed to draw the longest lines. People stood waiting two and three hours to get in; once in, they lavished minute after minute of focused attention on each picture. It was as if they had never seen anything like this—and they hadn’t. Or rather, perhaps they had, but never like that, in public. Standing there, staring, they were absorbing both the information in the photographs and the sheer fact that they were standing there at all.

The single most intense image, judging from conversations I had with countless Poles during the weeks that followed, was a photograph of another advancing crowd (fig. 11). This one, seen from above (as in Russian avant-garde photographs of the 1920s, Alexander Rodchenko’s, for example—fig. 12), marched through cobblestone streets of Gdansk 1970: at its forefront it bore, not a flag, but a wooden doorframe, and on the doorframe—a corpse.

Virtually everyone who described that photograph to me said the corpse was spread-eagled, its arms stretched to the sides as if in crucifixion. In fact, in the photograph, the arms merely extend down the sides of the corpse’s torso. Once again, the Poles had been prepared for this image.

When Andrzej Wajda, the premier Polish film director set to work on his latest film, Man of Iron, an epic commemoration of the events that led up to the August 1980 strike, he of course included the December 1970 massacre. And perhaps the key image in that sequence of the film is a virtually literal quotation from that photograph, shot once again from above (although, for some reason, from the other side of the street) (fig. 13).

When the postermakers set to work designing the announcement for Man of Iron, they came up with several solutions. One of the most effective consists of a spread-eagled, bloodstained shirt (fig. 14). Splayed across the white poster, it looks for all the world like the Shroud of Turin. Red on white, it is of course another rendition of the Polish flag.

Why are the posters of Solidarity, and Poland generally, so forceful and so vital? What gives them such authority? Is it just that the Polish graphic artists have this context of common images to draw upon? Does much of the wallop of the extraordinary poster for Robotnicy ’80 (fig.15), Andrzej Chodakowski’s and Andrzej Zajaczkowski’s remarkable documentary on the August 1980 negotiations, for example, derive from its association with the previous year’s poster for Janusz Kijowski’s feature film Kung Fu? (Think about that second poster: it is dated 1979. Polish filmmakers and graphic artists, like many others, could see this revolution coming a mile away. Indeed, their persistently dynamic graphic work all through the ’70s might be said to have helped keep alive the subliminal energy which burst into action during the early 1980s. When Solidarity erupted into being, the filmmakers and graphic artists enthusiastically joined in.) Is it possible to discuss the strength of these posters in purely esthetic terms? Of course, the answer is no.

The authority of political art, finally, exists at best in proportion to the authority of the politics it advances. In order to work, political images have to command authority, but they can only realize the authority and authenticity of the political context out of which they arise. They cannot endow empty politics with vitality: and empty politics will drain them of their own vitality. Strong politics allow for strong images, and vice versa. And the politics of Solidarity are strong indeed: we are speaking of a movement whose membership, as its first anniversary poster reminds us, has grown in one year from less than a hundred to “10,000,000 SOLID.” And not ten million crazed hysterics or massed zombies: ten million highly disciplined members who, at least until recently, have been able to challenge the authorities while at the same time tempering the challenge so that they don’t provoke an end-game.

Solidarity’s graphic artists therefore have two things going for them: a legacy of common images (flag, cross, fist, blood, crowd, face) and a politics with authority. Graphic artists working in the United States these days don’t have either, at least not in the same terms, and their efforts therefore tend to be fairly anemic.

Consider a recent American effort, one of the most widely distributed posters advertising the AFL-CIO’s September 19, 1981, Solidarity Day protest march in Washington, D.C. (fig. 16). Start by comparing the faces in this image with those in the Robotnicy ’80 poster. It is not the relative esthetic merits of the two posters which I am trying to consider, but rather the situation within which each was produced, and specifically the desperate limitations of the American situation for political artists. To begin with, there’s the event itself. This is a rally being held by a huge labor confederation which barely one month earlier had stood idly by, paralyzed, as the president of the United States gutted one of its member unions (12,000 air traffic controllers were fired on August 5, and the AFL-CIO did precisely nothing). Is it perhaps the humiliation of that episode that we see behind some of the brittle imitations of sternness on the faces of these workers? This organization projects virtually no authoritative politics of its own—the banners in this poster’s background are blank. Indeed, the best it can do is cannibalize someone else’s politics: Solidarity Day? Who’s kidding who? This rally drew about 250,000 people. That same day in New York City’s Central Park, a Simon and Garfunkel Reunion Concert drew over twice that number.

“When you don’t know where you’re going, any path will take you there,” or so claimed the old Talmudic masters. Maybe any color will get you there, too. For the AFL-CIO poster the artist chose green (green?!) for the printing on the otherwise black-and-white poster. About the only thing you can say for green in this context is that it is conspicuously not red, white, or blue. Compare, for example, Solidarity’s May Day 1981 poster which deploys the same kind of image: a crowd of grimly determined workers faced head on (fig. 17). Solidarity’s crowd is their flag. In retrospect, the American progressive movement during the ’60s made perhaps one of its greatest mistakes when it took to burning the national flag. It’s true, the government almost forced them into it, cornered them into that kind of national self-loathing. But today you can see the difference. In Poland, progressives can deploy the national flag as their own. In the United States, progressives have lost that birthright. A revolutionary flag has been appropriated by the society’s most reactionary elements.

And yet, even though it forsook the flag, the American antiwar movement of the ’60s did briefly generate a few common icons: the circular peace sign, for instance, which at antinuke rallies today still has a certain, albeit nostalgic, life to it. If most of these images have been destroyed, it’s partly because there was a virtually systematic effort to destroy them—often simply by coopting them. Take, for example, the two-fingered V which for a time in the ’60s betokened and united a whole subculture. You could be driving down the road anywhere and somebody’d flash you that V, their middle and index fingers spread, and you’d know they were against the war in Vietnam and probably against a lot of other things you were against as well. It was a particularly nifty peace sign because it had been stolen from Winston Churchill, in whose hand it had symbolized military victory. Richard Nixon then stole it right back: I’ve always been convinced that he took it knowingly.

In America today, products—not politics—are granted strong images. Americans do not even share a sense of a common past. In Poland, it’s not just years that summon a common response—it’s dates on the yearly calendar: May 1 (May Day); May 3 (the promulgation of Poland’s first constitution, 1791): June 28 (Poznan 1956): August 1 (the launching of the Warsaw Rebellion, 1944): August 15 (a Polish national army turns back an invading Soviet force, 1920); August 31 (victory in Gdansk, 1980); September 1 (the Nazis invade Poland, 1939). Each of these dates is honored, is an occasion for celebration or mourning, for poster-making. In America, we couldn’t even sustain November 11 as Armistice Day, an occasion for honoring the dead of World War I; one war later, we diffused it into Veteran’s Day (honoring all veterans, living and dead, from all our wars); and a couple of wars after that, it was no longer even November 11 but rather the nearest Monday or Friday, an empty excuse for all the potential profits of a three-day weekend. Is it any wonder that American political artists have so few authoritative images to go on?

If Solidarity’s graphic artists can draw on the vitality of their political situation, they are also finally constrained by the limitations of that situation. Or perhaps, phrased more precisely, it is through the evidence of their work that some of those limitations become most apparent. During the late summer and fall of 1981, a political context that had seemed wide open began to close in precipitously. The economic factors which had spawned the political renewal in the first place now began to foreclose its possibilities: against a backdrop of increasingly desperate shortages and the relentless onset of winter, Solidarity’s solidarity began to fray. Intensity was giving way to extremity.

“The old is dying, and yet the new cannot be born,” wrote Antonio Gramsci, the great Italian political theorist, from the prison to which Mussolini had remanded him during the early ’20s. “In this interregnum, a variety of morbid symptoms appear.”

And Solidarity’s graphic artists have begun to reflect and portray the morbid contradictions inherent in their situation. Thus, for example, in August 1981, two new posters appeared within a few weeks of each other. One advertised Solidarity’s first annual national convention, to be held in Gdansk in early September: it portrays a well-fed one-year-old in a Solidarity T-shirt and red and white shorts launching into his first confident steps (fig. 18). Meanwhile, the other, a more primitive poster, assessed the “First Effects of the Communist Party’s Ninth Congress” (concluded in Warsaw in July): “Lower Food Rations” (fig. 19). The poster’s central image is a skull over a crossed fork and knife. (The luxurious silverware, which it implies Communist party members can regularly deploy, is arrayed in a conspicuous parody of a hammer and sickle.) This poster was particularly prominent in the vitrines of the virtually empty grocery stores—the skull’s vacant eye sockets stared back at the weary faces in the endless lines. In Poland, where over 10% of the population is under the age of four, there is a desperate shortage of milk, and the first poster’s optimistic chubbiness notwithstanding, Solidarity’s experts estimate that over 70,000 babies are now suffering from malnutrition severe enough to cause permanent damage.

During the two-month period of decentralized and secret balloting (July-August) that culminated in the selection of the 850 delegates for the Solidarity congress (a process in which all 10 million members of a year-old organization were canvassed, an extraordinary achievement in itself). one of the most prominent posters simply proclaimed “YOU decide” (fig. 20). Two bold arrows converge on the word YOU, framing it, emphasizing it, and nearly crushing it. The imperative of the poster is almost too intense. (Compare, incidentally, the recent television ads in which New Yorkers—“New York, you decide!”—are asked to choose between McDonald’s Big Macs and its Chicken McNuggets.)

The visual organization of that Polish poster was echoed in two other posters commonly displayed during the summer, two posters which in turn suggested diametrically opposite interpretations of Poland’s then-current situation. The first was another of the announcements for Wajda’s film Man of Iron (fig. 21). This one presents the head of a large, powerful worker around whose eyes an oversized metal industrial nut had been wedged: as the worker strains his facial muscles, the nut appears to be in the process of splitting apart. (This image of liberation alludes to a type of propaganda imagery prominent during the ’50s which had been the subject of Wajda’s earlier film. Man of Marble, to which Man of Iron constituted a sort of sequel. During that period, particularly prolific laborers were canonized as “worker heroes”: their portraits were blown up and hung as huge banners from public buildings. The protagonist of Man of Marble had been such a hero: the Man of Iron poster offers a conspicuously ironic revision of his canonization.)

Self-liberation gave way to self-annihilation, however, in the second poster, an advertisement for Agnieszka Holland’s film Goraczka (Fever) (fig. 22). Again the central image is of a man’s head blindfolded, this time not by some cracking metal nut but rather by ropes which hold two burning sticks of dynamite to his temples. Holland’s film derives from Andrzej Strug’s classic Polish novel The Story of a Bomb and relates the fate of a motley band of terrorists during the 1905–6 Polish nationalist insurrection against the country’s Russian occupation. The authorities allowed the film to be made because its terrorist heroes were socialists and the Russian targets of their plot were, after all, representatives of the Tsar. The Polish audiences, however, reveled in the film’s references to police spies, corrupt Polish collaborators, and valiant young patriots; still, they couldn’t help but have been sobered by its tragically farcical conclusion: every plot is botched. During the two years of its existence, the bomb only destroys those who try to use it. When the last character finally does succeed in hurling it into a roomful of police collaborators, the bomb turns out to have been a dud. The would-be targets scramble, and nothing happens. The would-be assassin, who has cratered into feverish Dostoyevskian incoherence, is taken out and hung.

December 5, 1981

As winter closed in over Poland, Solidarity’s filmmakers and graphic artists were continuing to produce inspirational images. During the night of December 12-13, however, the Polish Army seized power—though from whom, the Communist Party, or Solidarity, or the vacuum that had grown up between them, was not at first entirely clear. Among the first priorities in the seizure were the primitive, semiclandestine printing plants which had been producing the extraordinary posters of the previous 15 months. This by no means signals the end of Solidarity’s graphic production. Solidarity’s strategists have spent months anticipating this eventuality, preparing secret caches of paper and ink. Just what they will be able to do with them—just how much room to conjure the bloody history of Poland will allow them—remains to be seen. “Pessimism of the mind, optimism of the will,” another of Gramsci’s aphorisms, might sum up the current passion of Poland’s artists and people.

December 16. 1981

Lawrence Weschler’s reports on Poland have appeared in the November 9 and 16 issues of the New Yorker, and in the August 20 issue of Rolling Stone. His Solidarity: Visions of Poland in the Season of Its Passion will be published by Simon & Schuster this month: his biography of California artist Robert Irwin, Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees will be published in March by the University of California Press.