Henryk Tomaszewski, whose animated and witty posters for cinema, circus and theater led to the distinctive postwar Polish Poster School style, died on Sunday at his home in Warsaw. He was 91.
The cause was a progressive nerve degeneration, which had kept him bedridden for years, said a friend, the graphic designer Krzysztof Lenk, who teaches at the Rhode Island School of Design.
Before World War II Polish advertising posters were as graphically startling as any produced in Europe's leading poster capitals - England, France and Germany. But immediately after the war, more somber poster designs appeared that encouraged the reconstruction of a ravaged nation, and soon afterward, the dreary Stalinist aesthetic was injected into most popular art.
In this milieu Mr. Tomaszewski (pronounced tom-a-SHEV-ski) introduced a shockingly playful and beguilingly abstract sensibility that characterized the Polish Poster School. This influential stylistic approach dominated the genre for decades, and from the 60's through the 80's it directly influenced cultural and political poster designers in France, England and the United States.
In contrast to the turgid Socialist Realism practiced in the Soviet Union and other Eastern bloc countries, the Polish poster of the 50's was stunningly colorful, often humorously surreal and decidedly free of any heavy-handed ideological symbolism. Having survived Nazi occupation, Mr. Tomaszewski, who never joined the Communist Party, simply refused to follow official dictates on art.
"Politics is like the weather," he once said, "you have to live with it." His art benefited from this resistance, since he was forced to come up with concealed satiric images in his work. He stayed clear of overtly political issues and focused entirely on designing posters for cultural institutions and events.
Henryk Tomaszewski was born in 1914 in Warsaw into a family of musicians. It was expected that he would devote his life to music, but in 1934, against his parents' wishes, he enrolled in the Warsaw Academy of Art as a painting student and graduated in 1939.
Influenced by the exiled German satirists Georg Grosz and John Heartfield, Mr. Tomaszewski taught himself graphic design and drew satiric cartoons and caricatures. He soon became a regular contributor to the Polish humor magazine Szpilki and also made scenic designs for theater. During the Nazi occupation he eked out a living while continuing to paint, draw, and make woodcuts, all of which were destroyed during the Warsaw Uprising.
In 1947, along with kindred designers, among them Tadeusz Trepkowski and Tadeusz Gronowski, he was hired to produce posters for the state-run film distribution agency, Central Wynajmu Filmow. He and his friends accepted the jobs with the stipulation that their images would not be censored.
Severe shortages in Poland made working conditions difficult: bushes and paints were scarce, and printing and paper were inadequate. These limitations made Mr. Tomaszewski rethink the conventions of film posters. Instead of doing glamorous character portraits, he eliminated all reference to stars and replaced them with bold colors and abstract shapes to achieve graphic power.
More important, as the poster designer James Victore noted in Print Magazine, "rather than illustrating actual scenes, he suggested the mood of the films by applying filmmaking techniques." This included photographic montage, dramatic perspectives and bizarre cropping. While film directors criticized this approach as being too removed from their vision, Mr. Tomaszewski surprisingly had the backing of the Communist authorities in charge of the movie industry.
His posters for the British films "Odd Man Out" and "Black Narcissus" were coyly symbolic illustrations that simply hinted at the films' plots. His posters for the famous Polish Cyrk (circus) combined abstract collage with expressive lettering, rather than standard typeset typefaces, which became something of a personal signature.
Even when he made a poster to advertise another artist's exhibition, Mr. Tomaszewski interpreted the content. For example, to announce a 1959 show of Henry Moore's sculptures, he created a veritable sculpture garden from the letters of the artist's name and placed Moore's "Mother and Child" on a pedestal made from the "O" in Moore. But this handling of the subject was not just a flagrant personal conceit; Mr. Tomaszewski succeeded in showcasing the salient features in Moore's work that were akin to his own.
The poster historian Alain Weill pointed out that Tomaszewski's "posters evoke a childlike atmosphere whose informality is often reinforced by gauche hand-lettering."
From 1952 to 1985 Mr. Tomaszewski was co-director, with Josef Mroszczak, of the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw, a mecca for design studies, and taught there as well. His Polish students were joined by many designers from England, France and the United States, including members of the 80's French political poster collective Grapus, who were attracted to his expressionistic shorthand and ability to communicate across language barriers. Mr. Tomaszewski usually let art talk to them since he spoke only Polish.
After he retired he continued to design posters and draw cartoons until 1996, when nerve degeneration immobilized his legs and took away control of his hands.
His work is in various collections, including the Warsaw and Poznan National Museums, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Museum of Modern Art in Kanagawa, Japan, and the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam.