Following World War II, the Polish state began financially backing many artistic programs throughout the country. From 1945 to 1951, over $50 million was spent on the arts - ballets, plays, literature, music, and especially paintings and drawings. One particularly successful venture involved the commissioning of posters for the government and its various activities. Eventually, the Polish School of Posters became one of the most renowned schools of art and design in the world.
In 1962 the United Entertainment Enterprises, the Polish agency in charge of the arts, commissioned several of the most popular poster artists to update and revive one of the lost treasures of the past: the circus poster. They no longer wanted posters based in facts and people; rather, they wanted ideas, allusions, wild metaphors to spring out from the posters. Abstract thought was key.
From this commission arose the CYRK era of posters (cyrk is Polish for "circus"). The posters are known for their incredibly vivid color schemes, their playful inventiveness and creativity, and their occasionally ingenious allusive commentary on Polish society. The styles range from art deco and art nouveau to pop art and abstract expressionism.
While the artists have captured impossible beauty in their works, by far the most fascinating aspect of the CYRK poster era is the symbolism behind the pictures: stuck in a totalitarian state disguised as a Communist utopia, many of the posters wickedly and skillfully dissect Poland's situation of the 1960s and 70s. For example, one poster shows a rather conspicuous circus clown dressed in the stereotypical fedora and trenchcoat of a spy - suggesting that, although Russian spies were everywhere, they were easy to spot. Another poster shows a bear wobbling unsteadily on a unicycle - the generic symbol of the Soviet Union teeter-tottering and on the verge of collapse. Many more of these type symbols and allegories can be found throughout the CYRK catalog.
To see an excellent sample of CYRK posters, visit http://www.contemporaryposters.com, where you can also read more about the history of CYRK, the backstories to several of the posters, and, of course, purchase one or two for your own collection. Today, a vintage CYRK poster will cost anywhere from $200-$400.
You can see permanent exhibits of CYRK posters at the following museums: