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The Misfits 

American Westerns through Polish eyes

Wednesday, Oct 13 1999
Wojciech Wenzel,Jezdziec Znikad (1959)[ Shane (1953) ]NOW THAT THE FORMER EASTERN BLOC HAS ENTERED both the global marketplace and the ambiguous embrace of its former enemies, one fascinating byproduct of Eastern Europe's post-communist hemorrhage of archival resources is the vivid subculture built around communist reactions to, and critiques of, certain imperishably American cultural artifacts. The Autry Museum has assembled "Western Amerykañski," an exhibit of beautiful, stubbornly dissident and quite haunting Polish posters for American Westerns that shows the richly complex ways in which Polish graphic artists were able to speak as themselves within this minuscule, highly improbable creative free zone.

East of the Iron Curtain, odd things happened to uniquely American inventions such as jazz, musical comedy and the Western. Shorn of its African-American cultural roots, '60s avant-garde jazz in Czechoslovakia bent to altogether different, subversive purposes, finding a natural kinship with the native Bohemian absurdism of Václav Havel's plays. In contrast, East Side Story, the 1998 documentary compilation of batty communist musicals, illustrated the kind of catastrophically misconceived half-wit half-breed you could build by relocating the narrative mechanics of a Frankie-and-Annette beach-party movie to an East German auto factory. Such risible Red sing-alongs, state-sanctioned, dealt with little beyond production quotas, wheat-harvest totals and tractor love. Czech jazz, meanwhile, was merely tolerated by the Party; still, while commissar'd and committee'd half to death, it managed to retain its renegade possibilities.

Somewhere between these two fates lies the Western. It's astounding that these films were distributed at all in the Eastern bloc, given their freight of capitalist doctrine, unbuttoned and unbound: manifest destiny, Indian massacres, the frontier as domestic imperialist endeavor, the economic guarantees offered by slavery, and so on. Surprisingly -- as Kevin Mulroy, the Autry's director of research, tells it -- they fed a certain hunger: "In Poland, people would line up around the block. There'd even be ticket scalpers -- for Westerns!"

That enthusiasm for a genre lacking official endorsement is all of a piece with the many odd and disturbing conflations of advertisement and political statement, art and ephemera these posters represent. Whereas in the free world posters sold a combination of sex, masculinity and the power of guns, writes Mulroy in his catalog essay, "Polish posters show[ed] cowboys mutilated, at the gates of hell or crawling headfirst down gun barrels. The film poster became an outlet for the repressed artist in Poland. Ostensibly merely advertising a Western, the artist was able to include in the poster statements about America, Poland, individual experience and universal values."

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State-run distributors strained Westerns through a predictable ideological colander. The genre's more militant cold warriors -- Ford, Hawks, De Mille -- were thus underrepresented. But a rubbishy Euro-Western like Shalako, with Brigitte Bardot and Sean Connery, got the nod, possibly because it was directed by one of the Hollywood Ten (Edward Dymytryk at his creative nadir) -- and thus was grist for a little anti-American finger-pointing. "They liked to show movies with big Indian massacres, so that America didn't come over very well," says Mulroy. "But parameters weren't always that consistent."

What was consistent was the quality of the graphic art itself, and the depth of its political and moral convictions. One envisages frustrated artists flooding into this relatively unmonitored artistic space where they could dissent away from the commissars' prying eyes, in much the same way that ordinary communist citizens sought refuge in vodka, sex, god, crime or surrealism. Most of the artists in what was later dubbed the Polish Poster School -- including Jerzy Flisak, Wiktor Górka, Waldemar Swierzy and Jan Mlodozeniec -- were trained at the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts by the father of Polish graphic art, Henryk Tomaszewski, during a thaw in the early 1950s, and later they staffed the committees that commissioned the posters.

The posters themselves could be viewed as a paper battlefield or forum on which capitalist and Polish communist ideology are alternatively compared, approved or criticized, a place where the state-sanctioned endorsement of a movie could be undermined by the advertisement itself, and into which artists could import concerns having no discernible relation to the genre. Hence images of crosses, crucifixions and madonnas, or the angel wings in Flisak's poster for When the Legends Die -- all deriving from Poland's Catholic tradition. Elsewhere jackboots, iron crosses, swastikas and barbed wire, deriving from Poland's role as the crucible of 20th-century evil -- as in Jakub Erol's poster for McMasters, a cowboy's profile in barbed wire, with only a bandana added to suggest conventional Western iconography.

"The interpretive framework is very complex," says Mulroy. "We all know how America defines itself through the Western and then exports it -- but this shows how it's reinterpreted back at the U.S." Meanings change, reactions to certain objects and concepts -- guns, money, death -- are dramatically different. The idea of "a man from nowhere," for instance, is uniquely abhorrent to Poles, not merely because of their embattled sense of homeland, but also because a man from nowhere is likely, in modern Polish folk memory, to be an SS storm trooper or a Red Army rapist. In Poland, the color red carries powerful associations of blood, violence and communist repression. Guns are often indistinguishable from the hands that hold them; sometimes they spit words or spell them out in gun smoke. A gun is a bringer of ruin, and the Poles almost always deny weapons the potency they're granted in American artwork. The Polish posters loathe guns. Unanimously.

"TAKE A LOOK AT THIS AMERICAN POSTER for Shane," says Mulroy. "You're seeing the boy and the family through Shane's eyes, and it's all very positive, romanticized stuff. This, however" -- he flips over a page -- "is the Polish version." Against a stark background, artist Wojciech Wenzel has pinned a gray, death-haunted figure. "You'd never want this guy to 'Come back, Shane!'" says Mulroy, laughing. "If you listen to his last speech -- 'I've been branded a killer, I'm no good, don't count me as a hero' -- then you can see this poster as Shane looking at himself through his own eyes. One scene, two interpretations, East and West."

By contrast, a series of High Noon ads illustrates how posters played a role, albeit a peripheral one, in Polish history. One shows Gary Cooper against a white background above the words "High Noon, June 4, 1989." But it's not a movie poster at all: Behind Cooper's head is Solidarity's red logo. High noon is really June 4, 1989, the date of the first free elections in modern Poland. It must have been distressing for Jaruzelski's yes men to see the insurgent nation wallpapered with images of a decadent Yankee gunfighter. Though Cooper, of course, never enjoyed much solidarity from his craven townspeople, Solidarity won.

Mulroy digs out a government-approved cartoon poster of Ronald Reagan, enemy of the people, top international fascist, et cetera, complacently riding the international range in black hat and spurs. It's a response to the U.S.-led international embargo against Poland in 1982. If nothing else, it proves that two, even three, can play at this game, and that the rich, contradictory and infinitely flexible imagery of the Western, though in steep decline on these shores even 18 years ago, was capable of being remade in ways as modern and relevant as the news headlines.

WESTERN AMERYKAÑSKI: POLISH POSTER ART AND THE WESTERN At the Autry Museum of Western Heritage | From October 16 through January 30

  • American Westerns through Polish eyes

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