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The Graphics of Solidarity

Virginia Quarterly Review | Tuesday, Jan 17, 2006

Start with the logo. It came surging forward like a crowd: the S hurrying the straggling O along, the A and the R striding confidently, the dot over the I and the accents over the second S and C reading like heads craning forward to where the C was pointing, the N holding its rippling banner proudly aloft—the red and white flag of Poland. The word itself—SOLIDARNOSC (“solidarity”)—tapped into a reservoir of communal memories, memories of more than a century of worker activism on behalf of a socialist ideal which had been betrayed by thirty-five years of inept, corrupt state-bureaucratic practice. The word reclaimed that ideal, and the flag pegged it as specifically Polish.

The Solidarity logo was designed by J. and K. Janiszewski, two marginally employed graphic artists living in Gdansk, during the second week of the August 1980 strike at their hometown’s mammoth Lenin Shipyards. Within a month it had become the ubiquitous emblem of a national worker’s movement. In this particular case we do have some knowledge of the graphic’s origins. With many of Solidarity’s posters, no such documentation exists. Some of Solidarity’s most powerful images, for that matter, are no longer available in any form. In the heat of confrontation, Solidarity didn’t have much time or interest in archival documentation. Paper and ink were scarce: what little could be foraged was quickly used and the resultant posters immediately slapped onto public walls, where they belonged. Weather, and in some cases official sabotage, took their toll before anybody realized that no record had been kept. The next day’s crisis—the next day’s occasion—was in any case already at hand.

Like its logo, the Solidarity movement came barreling out of a history of struggle in a land where the simple mention of a year invariably summoned up a store of common impressions. One of Solidarity’s most succinct graphic images consisted of a graph—the chart of a heartbeat, perhaps, or a seismograph—a red line coursing horizontally across a white page, throbbing occasionally to jagged verticals, above which were marked the dates 1944, 1956, 1968, 1970, and 1976—a litany of failed national rebellions. As the line approached the present, the verticals become increasingly steep and frequent, and on the other side of 1980, the line opened onto the single word: SOLIDARNOSC.

*  *  *  * 

One of the reasons Solidarity’s graphic artists were able to generate such powerful posters is that they could draw upon the matrix of succinct images with rich, common associations that Polish history had deeded them. Take, for example, the phrase “Warsaw 1944.” That formula, on a poster that first appeared in August 1981, might initially have seemed to celebrate the liberation of the city from Nazi occupation by the Soviet Army—and the Poles were perfectly content to let the Russians think as much. Every Pole, however, knew that “Warsaw 1944” in fact alluded to the Rebellion, the valiant, tragic attempt of the Polish Home Army, the country’s indigenous nationalist Resistance, to liberate the capital in advance of the Soviet arrival. The Soviet army, for its part, stopped dead in its tracks on the other side of the Vistula once the Rebellion began in August 1944 and let the Nazis liquidate the nationalists for them before they finally came in to liberate the city’s ruins. The symbol of the Home Army, from 1939 to well beyond 1944, was . The graffito was scrawled on walls throughout Poland during the Nazi occupation and in the first several months of the Soviet counter-occupation. PW stood for Polska Walczaca: “Poland is still fighting”—fighting both the Nazis and the Soviets. But the image itself summoned an even deeper association, for it suggested Poland anchored—the anchor being a longtime token of Polish Catholicism. We are speaking of a country where, across a tortured history, Catholicism and nationalism had blended into a synchronous passion.

The theme of the anchor symbol went on to achieve a particularly rich development during the decade immediately prior to Solidarity’s 1980 upsurge. In December (Grudzien) 1970, a work stoppage at the Gdansk shipyard was quashed in a sudden massacre: thousands were injured and hundreds killed as Polish soldiers fired on Polish workers. The memory of that traumatic event was officially repressed—virtually ignored in contemporary journals, glossed over in history texts—but it was sustained throughout Poland, as most such memories were, through word of mouth, tattered photos passed from hand to hand, and the cumulative force of the slightest gestures. For example, when writing the year “1970,” Poles would transubstantiate the “7” into a “†”; this practice even came to pervade government documents reviewing the period. At the Gdansk cemetery, where actual mention of the circumstances of the strikers’ deaths was forbidden, mourners would mark the grave of a slain worker by hanging a small anchor from the feet of the headstone’s traditional crucifix. The anchor provided a startling mirror image of the tiny crucified Jesus, but it also suggested that this was the grave of a shipbuilder—a welder of anchors—who had died a Christian martyr.

When the workers took up the strike again, in August 1980, one of their first demands was that a fitting memorial to their martyred 1970 colleagues be erected just outside the shipyard, at the very site where the first workers had been shot as they surged out of the gates. The government, its back to the wall, acceded to the demand, and within just three months (as if to mock the government’s accusations of low productivity, and in order to be ready for a commemoration of the tenth anniversary of the carnage) the shipworkers themselves raised an extraordinary monument: three gleaming steel crosses, rising 140 feet above the plaza, attached at the arms back-to-back in a triangular configuration, and atop each cross, splayed in anguished crucifixion—an anchor. In the bases of the three crosses, amidst the tangle of steel shards which led up into the sleek vertical beams, the workers had slotted friezes commemorating the triumph of their August rebellion. They even included bas-reliefs of themselves building the monument.

For the Poles, if 1970 had been the Crucifixion, then 1980 was the Resurrection and the Life.[1]

*  *  *  * 

The Polish flag is red and white, and the red stands for blood: the blood of patriotic martyrs and the blood of Christ, which, for Poles, is the same blood.

In 1956, the de-Stalinizing thaw within the Soviet Union was fast reaching floodtide at the country’s periphery. On June 28, in Poznan, a proletarian stronghold in west-central Poland, workers from the infamous Cegielski locomotive factory (site of many nineteenth-century confrontations) set down their tools in protest over wages, food supplies, and working conditions, and marched on the town’s central Stalin Square. The Polish army was called out, and by the time the violence had subsided, hundreds of workers had been injured and seventy killed. There happened to be an international trade fair in the city at the time, so there were many photographers taking countless pictures, some of which soon took on an underground, hand-to-hand existence.

Of all these images, one in particular seemed most to sear itself into the Polish national subconscious. When you mention Poznan to Poles today, they will tell you about the crowd of workers led by the young woman in a white dress who was carrying a Polish flag back into the town square. The white of the flag was stained red: it had just been dipped in the blood of a fallen worker.

What is interesting about this memory is that everyone tells you that it is the woman who was bearing the flagpole, whereas in fact when you look at the photograph—which now, in the wake of Solidarity, existed in omnipresent, openly displayed profusion throughout Poland—it was clear that the woman had been carrying nothing at all, and that a worker behind her was the one holding the flag. This once again suggests the way in which people are prepared for images—in which images are prepared for people—by the context of prior images. For there is indeed an image—by this time almost an archetype—of a woman leading a crowd over a barricade while holding a flag aloft. She is Liberty Leading the People, as depicted by Eugène Delacroix in 1830. (The composition of the two pictures—the lower-left-to-upper-right diagonal of the advancing crowd which in turn is advancing from left to right—is remarkably similar.) I am convinced that this particular photograph, rather than any of the innumerable others taken that day, was the image that Poles came to remember because, in a strange sort of way, they already knew it by heart.

Solidarity’s graphic artists could in turn rely on the communal memory of that photographic image in composing their own iconography. The poster that Solidarity published in June 1981 on the thirty-fifth anniversary of the Poznan massacre, perhaps one of the most effective broadsides they ever produced, consisted simply of the legend “Poznan June 1956” superimposed over a bloodstained Polish flag. Actually, the flag was not really stained. Rather, the red of the lower half of the flag had become an abstract form bleeding into the white of the upper half.

Just as the woman leading the crowd and carrying the bloodstained flag became the image of Poznan 1956 for most Poles, so Gdansk 1970 was largely remembered in terms of a single riveting photograph. Such photographs as do exist of Gdansk 1970 were taken by amateurs on the run, with crude equipment, under desperate conditions. Most were poorly exposed, poorly developed, and poorly preserved. In 1980, Solidarity offices throughout the country began to receive such photographs (as well as shots of the events of 1956, 1968, and 1976), usually as anonymous offerings; during the spring of 1981, Solidarity launched a traveling show of documentary snapshots. I happened to see the show in its Warsaw incarnation. The photographs were interesting but looked commonplace to me: we in the West have become inured to the visual vocabulary of social violence—police phalanxes, stampeding crowds, crumpled bodies—and these photographs looked just like Chicago or Berkeley or Paris. What I couldn’t get over, however, was the way the Poles were looking at these images. In a country of lines, this exhibit seemed to draw the longest lines. People stood waiting two and three hours to get in; once in, they lavished minute after minute of focused attention on each picture, notwithstanding the pressure of the lines waiting behind them. It was as if they had never seen anything like this—and they hadn’t. Or rather, perhaps they had, but never like that, in public. Standing there, staring, they were absorbing both the information in the photographs and the sheer fact that they were standing there at all.

The single most intense image, judging from the conversations I had with countless Poles during the weeks that followed, was a photograph of another advancing crowd.[2] This one, seen from above (as in Russian avant-garde photographs of the 1920s—Alexander Rodchenko’s, for example), was marching through the cobblestone streets of Gdansk 1970; at its forefront it bore not a flag, but a wooden doorframe, and atop the doorframe, a corpse.

Virtually everyone who described that photograph to me said the corpse was spread-eagled, its arms stretched to the sides as if in crucifixion. In fact, in the photograph, the arms merely extend down the sides of the corpse’s torso. But once again, the Poles had been prepared for this image. When Andrzej Wajda, the premier Polish film director, set to work on his latest film, Man of Iron, an epic commemoration of the events that led up to the August 1980 strike, he of course included the December 1970 massacre. And perhaps the key image in the sequence of the film was a virtually literal quotation from that photograph, shot once again from above (although, for some reason, from the other side of the street).

When the poster makers set to work designing the announcement for Man of Iron, they came up with several solutions. One of the most effective consisted of a spread-eagled, bloodstained shirt. Splayed across the white poster, it looked for all the world like the Shroud of Turin. Red on white, it was of course nothing other than another rendition of the Polish flag.

*  *  *  * 

Why were the posters of Solidarity, and Poland generally, so forceful and so vital? What gave them such authority? Was it just that Polish graphic artists had this context of common images to draw upon? Did much of the wallop of the extraordinary poster for Robotnicy ’80, Andrzej Chodakowski’s and Andrzej Zajaczkowski’s remarkable documentary on the August 1980 negotiations, for example, derive from its association with the previous year’s poster for Janusz Kijowski’s feature film Kung Fu? (Think about that second poster: it is dated 1979. Polish filmmakers and graphic artists, like many others, could see this revolution coming a mile away. Indeed, their persistently dynamic graphic work all through the ’70s might be said to have helped keep alive the subliminal energy which burst into action during the early 1980s. When Solidarity erupted into being, the filmmakers and graphic artists enthusiastically joined in.)

Is it possible to discuss the strength of these posters in purely aesthetic terms? I don’t know, I’m not sure, but I’d like to think that the authority of political art, finally, exists at best in proportion to the authority of the politics it advances. In order to work, political images have to command authority, but they can only realize the authority and authenticity of the political context out of which they arise. They cannot endow empty politics with vitality; and empty politics will drain them of their own vitality. Strong politics allow for strong images, and vice versa. And the politics of Solidarity were strong indeed: we are speaking of a movement whose membership, as its first anniversary poster reminds us, had grown in one year from less than a hundred to “10,000,000 SOLID.” And not ten million crazed hysterics or massed zombies; ten million highly disciplined members who, for months on end, had proven capable of challenging the authorities while at the same time tempering their challenge so as not to provoke an endgame.

Solidarity’s graphic artists therefore had two things going for them: a legacy of common images (flag, cross, fist, blood, crowd, face)[3] and a politics with authority. Graphic artists working in the United States during the same period had neither, or at least not in the same terms, and their efforts therefore tended to be fairly anemic.

Consider a contemporaneous American effort, one of the most widely distributed posters advertising the AFL-CIO’s September 19, 1981, Solidarity Day protest march in Washington, D.C., nine months into the Reagan administration. Start by comparing the faces in this image with those in the Robotnicy ’80 poster. It is not the relative aesthetic merits of the two posters that I am trying to consider, but rather the situation within which each was produced, and specifically the desperate limitations of the American situation for political artists. To begin with, there was the event itself. This was a rally being held by a huge labor confederation which barely one month earlier had stood idly by, paralyzed, as the president of the United States gutted one of its member unions (12,000 air traffic controllers were fired on August 5, and the AFL-CIO did precisely nothing). Is it perhaps the humiliation of that episode that we see behind some of the brittle imitations of sternness on the faces of these workers? This organization was projecting virtually no authoritative politics of its own—the banners in this poster’s background were blank. Indeed, the best it could do was to cannibalize someone else’s politics: Solidarity Day? Who was kidding whom? This rally drew about 250,000 people. The same day in New York City’s Central Park, a Simon and Garfunkel Reunion Concert drew more than twice that number.

“When you don’t know where you’re going, any path will take you there,” or so claimed the old Talmudic masters. Maybe any color will get you there, too. For the AFL-CIO poster, the artist chose green (green?!) for the printing on the otherwise black-and-white poster. About the only thing you could say for green in this context was that it was conspicuously not red, white, or blue. Compare, for example, Solidarity’s May Day 1981 poster, which deployed the same kind of image: a crowd of grimly determined workers faced head on. Solidarity’s crowd was their flag.

In fact, Solidarity’s artists were even capable of deploying the American flag for their purposes, as in another, somewhat more makeshift flyer, from that very same May Day, celebrating, as it did, “Chicago, 1 V 1886.” Now, while few Americans today would be able to grasp the allusion, any Pole (steeped as they’d all been in a good, strong, socialist education) would be able to tell you that the date referred to the Haymarket Rally and subsequent police riots and massacre, the incident in honor of which every subsequent May Day around the world would thereafter be celebrated in commemoration. (The Solidarity artists recognized a fellow precedent—regime thugs firing on defenseless workers—and their communist overlords couldn’t very well object, since they were the ones who had so tirelessly belabored the incident as part of their indoctrinations.)

In retrospect, the American progressive movement during the ’60s made perhaps one of its gravest mistakes when it took to burning the national flag. It’s true, the government almost forced them into it, cornered them into that kind of national self-loathing. (Who knows? It may even have been undercover government agents, acting as provocateurs, doing some of the burning.) But today you can see the difference. In Poland, progressives can deploy the national flag as their own. In the United States, progressives have lost that birthright. A revolutionary flag has been appropriated by the society’s most reactionary elements.

And yet, even though it forsook the flag, the American antiwar movement of the ’60s did briefly generate a few common icons: the circular peace sign, for instance, which at antinuke rallies today still has a certain, albeit nostalgic, life to it. If most of these images have been destroyed, it’s partly because there was a virtually systematic effort to destroy them—often simply by co-opting them. Take, for example, the two-fingered V, which for a time in the sixties betokened and united a whole subculture. You could be driving down the road anywhere and somebody’d flash you that V, their middle and index fingers spread, and you’d know they were against the war in Vietnam and probably against a lot of other things you were against as well. It was a particularly nifty peace sign because it had been stolen from Winston Churchill, in whose hand it had symbolized military victory. Richard Nixon then stole it right back: I’ve always been convinced that he did so knowingly.[4]

*  *  *  * 

In America nowadays, products—not politics—are granted strong images. Consider, in this context, a striking ad which began appearing in several American newsmagazines around this same period, featuring the close-up image of the face of a gagged Lady Liberty. Note that this was no call to arms around, say, issues of free speech, or alternatively threats posed by increasing air pollution. No, this was an ad for that particular brand of facemask, manufactured, as it happens, by the good folks over at 3M. Americans do not even share a sense of a common past. In Poland, it’s not just years that summon a common response—it’s dates on the yearly calendar: May 1 (May Day); May 3 (the promulgation of Poland’s first constitution, 1791); June 28 (Poznan 1956); August 1 (the launching of the Warsaw Rebellion, 1944); August 15 (a Polish national army turns back an invading Soviet force, 1920); August 31 (victory in Gdansk, 1980); September 1 (the Nazis invade Poland, 1939); November 11 (the end of World War I and the reemergence of a Polish state that had been missing from the map of Europe for more than a century). Each of these days is honored, is an occasion for celebration or mourning, for poster-making. (Consider, to offer but one more example, the spectacular poster some of Solidarity’s artists came up with to honor November 11, 1981—a simple flick of the date, rendering 1981 as epochal a year for Poland as 1918—and, it is implied, for the very same reasons.) In America, we couldn’t even sustain November 11 as Armistice Day, an occasion for honoring the dead of World War I; one war later, we diffused it into Veteran’s Day (honoring all veterans, living and dead, from all our wars); and a couple of wars after that, it was no longer even November 11 but rather the nearest Monday or Friday, an empty excuse for all the potential profits of a three-day weekend. Is it any wonder that American political artists have so few authoritative images to go on?[5]

*  *  *  * 

If Solidarity’s graphic artists could draw on the vitality of their political situation, they were also finally constrained by the limitations of that situation. Or perhaps, phrased more precisely, it is through the evidence of their work that some of those limitations become most apparent. During the late summer and fall of 1981, a political context that had seemed wide-open began to close in precipitously. The economic factors which had spawned the political renewal in the first place now began to foreclose its possibilities: against a backdrop of increasingly desperate shortages and the relentless onset of winter, Solidarity’s solidarity began to fray. Intensity was giving way to extremity.

“The old is dying, and yet the new cannot be born,” wrote Antonio Gramsci, the great Italian political theorist, from deep in the bowels of the prison to which Mussolini had remanded him during the early ’20s. “In this interregnum, a variety of morbid symptoms appear.”

And Solidarity’s graphic artists now began to reflect and portray the morbid contradictions inherent in their situation. Thus, for example, in August 1981, two new posters appeared within a few weeks of each other. One advertised Solidarity’s first annual national convention, to be held in Gdansk in early September: it portrayed a well-fed one-year-old in Solidarity T-shirt and red and white shorts (Polish flag diapers!) launching into his first confident steps. Meanwhile, the other, a more primitive poster, assessed the “First Effects of the Communist Party’s Ninth Congress” (concluded in Warsaw that July): “Slashed Food Rations.” That poster’s central image was a skull over a crossed fork and knife. (The luxurious silverware, which it implied Communist party members could regularly deploy, was arrayed in a conspicuous parody of a hammer and sickle.) This poster was particularly prominent in the vitrines of the virtually empty grocery stores—the skull’s vacant eye sockets staring back at the weary faces in the endless lines. In Poland, where more than 10% of the population was under the age of four, there loomed a desperate shortage of milk, and the first poster’s optimistic chubbiness notwithstanding, Solidarity’s experts estimated that more than 70,000 babies were now suffering from malnutrition severe enough to cause permanent damage.

During the two-month period of decentralization and secret balloting (July–August) that culminated in the selection of the 850 delegates for the Solidarity congress (a process in which all ten million members of a year-old organization were canvassed, an extraordinary achievement in itself), one of the most prominent posters simply proclaimed “YOU decide.” Two bold arrows converged on the word YOU, framing it, emphasizing it, and nearly crushing it. The imperative of the poster was almost too intense. (Compare, incidentally, the near simultaneous television ads in which New Yorkers were being frantically implored by a crazed pitchman leaning out of the forehead of a papier-mâché Statue of Liberty to choose between McDonald’s Big Macs and its Chicken McNuggets—“New York, you decide!”)

The visual organization of that Polish poster was echoed in two other posters commonly displayed during that summer, two posters which in turn suggested diametrically opposite interpretations of Poland’s then-current situation. The first was another of the announcements for Wajda’s film Man of Iron. This one presented the head of a large, powerful worker around whose eyes an oversized metal industrial nut had been wedged: as the worker strained his facial muscles, the nut appeared to be in the process of splitting apart. (This image of liberation in turn alluded to a type of propaganda imagery prominent during the ’50s which had been the subject of Wajda’s earlier film, Man of Marble, to which Man of Iron constituted a sort of sequel. During that period, particularly prolific laborers were canonized as “worker heroes”: their portraits were blown up and hung as huge banners from public buildings. The protagonist of Man of Marble had been such a hero: the Man of Iron poster offered a conspicuously ironic revision of his canonization.)

Self-liberation gave way to self-annihilation, however, in the second poster, an advertisement for Agnieszka Holland’s film Goraczka (Fever). Again the central image was of a man’s head blindfolded, this time not by some cracking metal nut but rather by ropes wedging two burning sticks of dynamite to his temples. Holland’s film derived from Andrzej Strug’s classic Polish novel The Story of a Bomb and related the fate of a motley band of terrorists during the 1905–06 Polish nationalist insurrection against the country’s Russian occupation. The authorities allowed the film to be made because its terrorist heroes were socialists and the Russian targets of their plot were, after all, representatives of the Tsar. The Polish audiences, however, reveled in the film’s references to police spies, corrupt Polish collaborators, and valiant young patriots; still, they couldn’t help but have been sobered by its tragically farcical conclusion: every plot was botched. During the two years of its existence, the bomb destroyed only those who tried to use it. When the last character finally did succeed in hurling it into a roomful of police collaborators, the bomb turned out to have been a dud. The would-be targets scrambled, and nothing happened. The would-be assassin, who had cratered into feverish Dostoyevskian incoherence, was simply taken out and hung.

*  *  *  * 

As winter closed in over Poland, Solidarity’s filmmakers and graphic artists were continuing to produce inspirational images. During the night of December 12–13, 1981, however, the Polish Army seized power, though from whom—the Communist Party, or Solidarity, or the vacuum that had grown up between them—was not at first entirely clear.

The date was chosen, in part, so as to head off the massive Solidarity rallies scheduled for three days thereafter, on December 16, to commemorate the eleventh anniversary of the 1970 massacres, and to celebrate the first anniversary of the solemn dedication of the Gdansk and Gdynia monuments to the victims of those massacres. The Polish postal service had even been set to issue commemorative stamps celebrating the latter anniversary; and even though post offices throughout the country had been shut down as part of the martial law seizure of power, sympathetic gremlins had managed to sneak into the offices on the day in question, steal some of those now superannuated stamps, score them with the proper “December 16, 1981” cancellation, and secrete the objects out of the building, where they now became some of the most prized anti-regime insignias.

Among the first priorities in the seizure were the primitive, semiclandestine printing plants which had been producing the extraordinary posters of the previous fifteen months. This by no means signaled the end of Solidarity’s graphic production, however. Solidarity’s strategists had spent months anticipating this eventuality, preparing secret caches of paper and ink. And within days, fresh graphic broadsides began to appear, often drawing directly on the potent vocabulary of images and dates that those artists had spent the previous sixteen months burnishing.

Thus, for example, in the alcove of one Warsaw church, it was simply as if a new chalked-in body, labeled “1981,” had been tossed down onto the grim crime scene that was the rest of Polish history—with, through the window, a reproduction of the Black Madonna, eternal mother of the Polish nation, gazing on in benign concern.

Wending back even further, one poster from that moment referenced an image as famous in Polish history as that of Washington crossing the Delaware is in American: that of a Polish nobleman who had hurled himself in front of the door of an assemblyroom where other Polish nobles were in the midst of gathering, back in the late 1700s, to vote the Polish state out of existence altogether, at the time of the last partitions. He had famously torn his shirt open to offer up his naked chest in defiance—only, now, look: on second glance, it turned out he had been wearing a Solidarity T-shirt all along!

Similarly, flyers began appearing with all sorts of recastings of the Solidarnosc logo. In one, the massed crowd of letters was now portrayed loitering grimly behind the barbed wire of a concentration camp (thereby summoning all those associations). Note how the same graphic, with all its associations to a surging crowd at an earlier time, could just as easily now read, Rorschach-like, as a surly, expectant throng (the A, for example, leaning against the R), everybody waiting to see what was going to happen next. In another image, a tank was barreling down upon just such a crowd, mowing down the first several letters, but look: there they were, already reforming, only larger! And in yet another image, commemorating the fate of seven of the coal miners at the Wujec mine in Silesia who’d been gunned down when regime troopers early on overwhelmed their occupation protest strike, the crowd itself, through its very solidarity, seemed defiantly to be retaining the impress of the slaughtered martyrs. All over the country, a new piece of graffiti began to appear scrawled over the tenement walls: that same from the Home Army days, only now with a new twist.

Back in its glory days, Solidarity theorists had cast the movement as an expression of the subjectivity of the Polish nation, by which they meant its capacity to act as a subject of history, rather than merely its object. That characterization, which cleverly drew on both Marxist and Catholic social philosophies, summoned up a transformation so profound as to be grammatical: people who’d been content to suffer as the objects of other people’s sentences were now intent on becoming the subjects of their own. In that sense, martial law could be seen as a counter-offensive, an attempt to take people who’d begun acting like subjects and, through concerted repression, to turn them back into good little objects, stones to be slotted back into the wall. And the persistent underground resistance of Solidarity and its graphic artists, in turn, could be seen as a refusal to accept such a fate.

How things would turn out remained to be seen. But another of Gramsci’s aphorisms—“Pessimism of the mind, optimism of the will”—seemed best to sum up the current passion of Poland’s artists and its people. For, in the characterization of another piece of graffiti one began seeing everywhere that wretched winter, the Polish saga was definitely CDN, standing for Ciag Dalszy Nastapi: to be continued.



[1] A similar expression of the same allegorical drama occurred up the coast in Gdansk’s twin harbor city of Gdynia, where the shipyard workers likewise demanded the right to erect a monument of their own, and in their case chose an image reminiscent of the thousands of paintings and sculptures of Christ’s limp, lifeless body being lifted from the cross. The body in question, in this instance, turns out to be that crucified “7” from the date 1970—the other numerals are seen to be supporting it in its martyrdom—and the body appears to have been felled by a giant bear claw’s swipe, an allusion, in turn, to the perfidy of the Soviet Bear.

[2] Actually, there was one other image one kept hearing about, that of a woman by the cobblestoned street curb leaning over the sprawled body of another dead worker. What’s curious here is how receptivity to that particular image may have been prepared by an event just a few months earlier, on May 4, 1970, and an ocean away, when American national guardsmen had fired on students protesting the Vietnam War at Kent State University in Ohio, an incident which generated a whole series of political posters based on its own iconic image. And, of course, receptivity in the case of both of these images doubtless owes something to their rhyme with the classic pietà image.

[3] I mean, take a look at this pin, which one began seeing on lapels everywhere. And note the rhyming reference to Eisenstein’s defiant workers from back during the Bolshevik revolution, though now that worker is seen as vilified as an “antisocialist element” and a “hooligan,” two of the Polish Communist regime’s favorite put-downs of Solidarity activists, which he, on the other hand, proudly wears as a badge of honor.

[4] In Poland, Churchill’s V-for-Victory had a different destiny. Taken up by the Home Army during the war, it was suppressed (for that very reason) during the communist times. With the imposition of martial law in December 1981, Poles (who knew from wartime and occupation) resurrected the spread-fingered V-sign, at one point leading one exasperated general, facing a crowd of such defiantly raised hands, to sputter, by no means inaccurately, “What the hell are they doing? There’s no such letter in the Polish alphabet!”

[5] Not to beat a dead horse, but take a look at this poster, from around the same time in the early ’80s, for a conference of academic Marxists. Although rampantly deconstructionist, it’s hardly bracing in its call for any sort of revolution, if that is what it is intending to call for.
      Having said that, American graphic artists were occasionally able to pull off a sort of jujitsu appropriation of conventional advertising imagery for their own purposes. For example, consider this Berkeley 1970 appropriation of a Coca-Cola bottle to convey a powerful anti-Vietnam War message. The funny thing about Coca-Cola is that its advertising imagery was so universal that it could be appropriated by graphic artists on either side of the Iron Curtain—as, for example, by these post-Soviet pranksters, who found new significance in the ubiquitous Coca-Cola-red.