His work helped transform the genre of animated film into one capable of communicating the most complex, difficult and serious messages. He was also recognised as an talented graphic artist, set and theatre-costume designer, children's book illustrator, postage stamp designer, art critic and major artist of the Polish poster school.
Jan Lenica was born in 1928 in Poznań, the son of musican and painter Alfred Lenica. He died 2001 in Berlin. He graduated from a secondary school of music in Poznań in 1947 and from Warsaw Polytechnic in 1952. He started to contribute drawings to publications in 1945, published critical assessments of drawings, prints, posters and cartoons from 1948, and took over as art editor of the satirical journal Szpilki in 1950. He was appointed Assistant at the Chair of Poster of the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts in 1954.
In 1957, with Walerian Borowczyk, he made his first animated film. Having made several more, and having experienced problems with their release, he settled abroad, in Paris. He lectured on poster art at Harvard University in 1974. From 1979 to 1985 he was head of the Chair of Animated Film at Kassel University in Germany, and from 1986 to 1994 he was Professor of Posters and Graphic Arts at the Berlin Hochschule der Kunste.
Lenica took an interest in many arts. A noted director of animated films, he stood out as one of the finest artists of the Polish school of posters, and made satirical drawings and book illustrations and designed theatre costumes. His posters, prints and drawings were shown at exhibitions in Poland and abroad. His art earned him awards including those of the Warsaw Poster Biennial, Karlovy Vary Film Festival and the Jules Cheret award in Annecy. His lifetime achievement was recognized with the Alfred Jurzykowski Foundation Award in New York City in 1987 and with the Smok Smokow Award of the Kraków Short Film Festival in 1999.
Lenica, Borowczyk and animation
No record of the top international achievements in animated film would be complete without mention of two Polish artists, Lenica and Borowczyk. Their joint film from 1957, Był sobie raz / Once Upon a Time, followed by Dom / House from 1958 and Lenica's individual films triggered a revolution, turning this peripheral genre into an art capable of communicating the most complex, difficult and serious messages. Lenica said that, I have always liked to move at the periphery of Art, at the crossing of genres. I have enjoyed combining elements which were seemingly distant, if not quite foreign, blurring the borders between adjacent areas, transplanting noble qualities to "lower" genres, in other words - quiet diversion.
Before Lenica and Borowczyk's films appeared, the animated film was such a less valuable genre in Poland. Considered to be addressed to children, it was devoid of major artistic let alone philosophical aspirations, and was ideology-driven in addition. Marcin Giżycki writes that,
Lenica and Borowczyk's brilliance did not reveal itself in technical innovation or inventiveness; on the contrary, it was demonstrated in their nonchalant approach to existing techniques and conventions. Their films made no secret of the simplicity of means they utilised, camouflaged nothing, their movement and montage as simplified as possible. Just a few pieces of coloured paper, old photographs, junk objects, fragments of found drawings.
When asked about the innovativeness of their first joint films, dubbed experimental by critics, Lenica ascribed it to their unfamiliarity with previous achievements in the genre. The fact is that the cutout technique used by Borowczyk and Lenica in their first films, and then by Lenica in several of his subsequent film, successfully produced effects that were funny and satirical, surrealistically grotesque, and as absurd and horrific as Ionesco and Kafka. Lenica did not find this formula satisfying for long, however, and having parted with Borowczyk, he went on to make combined films, live films, films with photographic stills and, finally, cartoons.
Philosophy and effect
Let us consider the philosophy of Lenica's films. They involve an artistic game, patterned on experimental films made by Ferdinand Leger, a serious, Melies-like treatment of the picture, references to Chaplin (a man in a bowler hat appears in Lenica films including his debut), a ridicule of cultural clichés - as found in Nowy Janko Muzykant / New Janko the Musician, and in Fantorro - Le dernier justiciera - and surrealist games, as found in Stilleben. Yet there is a deeper message in almost all of them. A, Lenica's simply structured tale of the struggle of a lonely man against the terror of the first letter of the alphabet, can easily be interpreted in terms of a conflict between an individual and the machinery of the state. This interpretation also fits Monsieur Tete, Adam 2, Die Nashorner and, particularly, Lenica's last film, Wyspa R.O. / Island R.O. No wonder his films are considered pessimistic and catastrophic, and he admitted to balancing "between grotesque and drama".
However, this interpretation narrows the full range of readings of Lenica's work. He invoked the myth of Icarus (Labirynt / The Labyrinth) and myths of low culture,such as Fantomas (Fantorro). He mitigated the absurdity of existence, both the Kafka-esque (Labirynt, A, Adam 2) and Ionesco-like (Monsieur Tete, Rhinoceros), with Max Ernst-like, surprising, surrealistic juxtapositions of objects (Monsieur Tete, Nowy Janko Muzykant, Labirynt). The beauty and order of the world of Art Nouveau (Labirynt) contrasts with the monstrous shapes of skeleton-like dream beasts (Landscape, the film invoking Lenica's wartime experience during the German occupation) or the grotesque, dangerous characters in his adaptation of Alfred Jarry's Ubu Roi. Despite the variety of techniques, themes and genres, Lenica's style is quite easy to recognize. Zdzisław Schubert wrote in 1999 that Lenica's work is very expressive and at the same time has a discernible intellectual dimension, each film conveying a personal message "revolving around the dilemmas of human existence".