Nov. 18, 2020 | Lena Wicherkiewicz
Murals, posters, and neon signs of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s in Edward Hartwig’s photography
Edward Hartwig's extensive body of work includes a thematically coherent set from the 1970s and early 1980s. It revolves around advertising in Warsaw: large images on the outside wall of a building, as well as posters, hanging and neon signs.
Hartwig’s wallscapes, neons, and boards are pictures-within-pictures, artistic signs secured in a photographic frame. “The world around us, its natural components, and the work of human hands all make up the compositional affluence that surrounds us. One must be able to see it and choose from among it,” wrote the artist in the preface to his seminal 1960 album Fotografika. Through the prism of this remark, let us look at Hartwig’s images featuring Warsaw’s large-scale advertisements, street signage, and neon ads focusing on the variety of both the compositional approaches and the visual measures he engages: systems of lines and shapes, the character of typography, and the contrast of advertising and architecture versus the urbanscape. Through the photographer's eyes, some ads emerged almost abstract. Others, originally in color, but conveyed through black and white photography, altered their initial expression and function, inducing a purely visual perception.
As the years go by, the documentary nature of the photographs becomes progressively more meaningful since they preserve visual landscapes of Warsaw that no longer exist. The images may be used as a historical source to complete the timeline of companies or a reference to the history of advertising.
Advertisements employing fierce contrasts of black on white and a reluctance toward intermediate tones stand out among this set of photographs. Grabbing the attention is the image of the Pewex advertisement wallscaping the building at 45 Sienna Street overlooking Jana Pawła II (formerly Marchlewskiego) Street with the west façade of the Palace of Science and Culture on the right (AN 4029/H). Edward Hartwig’s lens renders the advertisement as a dynamic, pulsating, op-art composition contradistinctively inscribed into the surrounding cityscape of Warsaw. The artist took several shots of this advertisement. Some, stripped of the urban context, morph into effectively abstract compositions: spatial arrangements of black and white. Endorsed by the advertisement, Pewex emerged in 1972 as a state-owned enterprise of internal export. During the era of the Polish People’s Republic, Pewex kiosks and stores epitomized luxury by hosting sales of an inventory of goods made locally and internationally, but purchasable with foreign currencies. The logo flanking the advertisement was designed by Elżbieta Magner in 1974.
A similar graphic appeal marks the Fiat advertisement, a 1970s wallscape at 88 Grzybowska Street on the corner with Towarowa (AN 4030/H) spelling out the nearby Fiat car service workshop. The emblematic period logo occupies the center. The word “polski” for Polish fills the top white area with the brand name Fiat taking up the bottom part. The truncated letter A appeared in the liberty style Fiat logo as early as 1901 and has remained a hallmark part of the logo except for the period between 1968 and 1999. The diagonal black and white stripes of the background enhance the modern, simple, yet monumental appeal of the advertisement.
The photograph of the corner of Jerozolimskie Avenue and Chałubińskiego Street (AN 4021/1/H) features a large-scale advertisement of the Orbis Polish Travel Agency on the side wall of 9 Chałubińskiego. The Orbis emblem was a 1950 design by Janusz Benedyktowicz. The typographic image reiterates its lettering to charge it with contrast to the modernist architecture of the Intraco II skyscraper. The repetition of horizontal script complements the contrastingly underscored vertical strokes of the modern high-rise. The advertisement includes the company slogan: “A holiday to anywhere in Poland and in the world” using a typeface echoing the acclaimed, 1970s-popular Zelek.
The Moda Polska, or Polish Fashion, advertisement fills the side wall of 91-97 Marszałkowska Street on the corner with Żurawia (AN 4022/2/H) with a completely different feel. It fashions square boxes of floral ornaments scattered with Moda Polska’s emblematic, graphically synthesized swallows. Even in the black and white image, its pictorial nature and subtle composition manage to carry through. The gentle manner stands in vivid opposition to the PKO bank high-rise beside it, as well as the pedestrian character of the city. Squeezed into the bottom part of the image is the word “polska” for a fragment of the name of the fashion house. The swallow logo and the Paneuropa typeface lettering are both a 1958 design by Jerzy Treutler.
From the late 1950s to the early 1980s neon made its space count when functioning in the realm of Warsaw advertisement, propaganda, and aesthetics. The illuminated signs of Cinema Moskwa (AN 4019/H), Café Praha on Jerozolimskie Avenue (AN 4050/H), or Café Zodiak in the Śródmiejski Mall (AN 4049/2/H) all make a lasting impression in Hartwig’s photography. The latter, tinted with both classical appeal and finesse, using a handwritten font and featuring the hallmark star above the letter I, was created by renowned architect and neon designer Jan Bogusławski. Hartwig spotlighted the typography of neon signage emphasizing not just their informative function, but also the decorative capacity. In an image of a Świerczewskiego Street (currently Solidarności Avenue) building, the artist features a neon combining the Warsaw press titles of that time in their original fonts.
Hartwig photographed advertisements based on their pictorial appeal and those that doubled as a social record of the visual character of the city. He captured impactful advertisements such as the image encouraging milk consumption by dairy cooperative Spółdzielcze Zakłady Mleczarskie on a demolished tenement at 6 Wolska Street (AN 4032/H). On other occasions, he would liven up an urban poster that had already blended into the background by showing it from an unprecedented angle (AN 4018/H). Hartwig used photography as a device to offer his critique by documenting the visual cacophony, or an excess of uncoordinated styles used in advertising. His take on the corner of Bracka and Chmielna (formerly Rutkowskiego) Streets brings together the large-scale advertisements of Pewex and LOT Polish Airlines on the sides of adjacent buildings, and a strip of horizontal boards of the Stołeczne Przedsiębiorstwo Usług Plastycznych i Wystaw Artystycznych – Warexpo, or the Warsaw Enterprise of Art Services and Art Exhibitions (AN 4016/H). The artist repeatedly exposed the superficiality of the state-designed aestheticization of architecture and urban space; exemplified well in the photograph of the back walls of the buildings at 41-43 Sienna Street coated with contradicting advertisements (AN 4031/H).
This subset of Edward Hartwig’s body of work may be a resourceful benefit to research into the urban visual environment and the history of industrial plants, products, or emblems. Large-scale images of an only partially advertising nature started to conquer the urban space in the late 1960s. Inspired by the state-driven plan to aestheticize the city through visual means, they became an iconic element of the pictorial landscape of large cities in the People’s Republic of Poland. Another element of the visual strategy involved neon and board signage. Through these large-scale semi-advertisements of merchandise, factories, and cooperatives, the state pursued its propaganda of the great success of the socialist economy. The strategy swept across the Polish streets with the most impact under first secretary Edward Gierek (1970-1980).
To meet the state plan, relevant state establishments had to be set up. Przedsiębiorstwo Usług Reklamowych – Reklama, or Reklama Advertising Services Enterprise, emerged in 1956 to support Pracownie Sztuk Plastycznych, or Fine Art Studios, in operation since 1949. In 1972, Reklama transformed into Przedsiębiorstwo Reklam Świetlnych, or Light Advertising Enterprise. Another familiar company in the field was Państwowa Agencja Reklamowa, or the National Advertising Agency, established to produce press advertising, fliers, and packaging, and also to create large-scale advertising. Today, it is not always possible to retrieve the names of the artists who designed nor the people who executed each particular large-scale advertisement.
Author: Lena Wicherkiewicz
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