Bronislaw Zelek once said he was being haunted by letters. This hunting is clearly visible in his movie posters in which typography stands as the key element of expression and an indispensable part of graphic motifs. In a poster for Alfred Hitchcock’s "Ptaki" [The Birds] it is the letters that create the sense of menace. The word is no longer merely informative; it is being duplicated and multilayered. The letters scream, push and crowd. Working in the 1960s, the designer and typographer in one was one of the most characteristic and reputable representatives of The Polish School of Posters. Many considered him the master when it came to the presentation of terror and human pain. His posters, blending typography and photography and scarce in color, fetch one of the highest prices on today’s collectors’ market. Zelek himself, being only 35 years old, ended his professional career and moved to Vienna, where he was found several months ago by Junya Watanabe, a Japanese fashion designer related to the brand Comme des Garçons. He wanted to use Zelek’s posters in his latest 2017 Spring/Summer collection.
The inspirations for Watanabe’s collection had their roots in the East-Central Europe of the 1960s and Emir Kusturica’s movie "Black Cat, White Cat". The designer was also fascinated with the romantic character, Zbyszek Cybulski, and the spirit of resistance to power embodied by the Czech band The Plastic People of The Universe. Zelek’s hard-hitting and memorable posters were to become the key graphic motif in Watanabe’s collection. However, getting in touch with the author was not an easy task. Perhaps, Zelek was haunted by letters just like Watanabe was hunted by an irresistible need to contact the poster designer. They were looking for him all over the world. Finally, Zelek’s traces were discovered thanks to Galeria Grafiki i Plakatu in Warsaw, where, in 2012, the exhibition “Litera obraz” [A letter A painting] took place. It showcased posters from the 1960s and Bronislaw Zelek’s latest paintings.
Watanabe’s collection was presented during Paris Men’s Fashion Week 2017. The designer used Polish posters for Ptaki, Głód [Hunger], Fałszywe pieniądze [Monnaie de singe] and Z dala od zgiełku [Far from the Madding Crowd]. Duplicated on shirts, t-shirts and blazers, they co-created the narrative about tattooed gangsters from Kusturica’s movie and bad men wearing leather jackets like Zbyszek Cybulski. Polish James Dean on Watanabe’s runway wore a shirt covered with Zelek’s letters and walked to the rhythm of songs from Egon Bondy’s Happy Hearts Club Banned by The Plastic People of the Universe. The band, whose work was banned during the Communist Era, was long working in the musical underground. The pieces on the album are musical arrangements of Egon Bondy’s poems - the same Egon Bondy Bohumil Hrabal wrote about in his "Tender Barbarian".
What does Watanabe find so fascinating in Zelek’s work? Perhaps the fact that the posters imply the stories filled with terror, pain and the feeling of dissatisfaction. The main character in Głód is a poverty stricken, half-starved writer. Zelek’s poster embodies the physiological dimension of his suffering - we see the anatomical cross-section of the human head with the title of the movie painfully biting into it. The word and the image are indissolubly one, they complement one another and speak for Zelek’s characteristic visual identity.
Watanabe is not the first to have used Zelek’s work abroad. The poster designer is also a world-renowned type designer. His New Zelek, a typeface created for the French company Mecanorma in the 1970s, was used by, among others, The Black Eyed Peas in their 2009 single cover art for "Meet Me Halfway". Geometric and sharp, the New Zelek typeface was popular in Poland as well - used in music, sports and… mining. Its specific dynamic made it perfect for signboards and murals. In "Duchologia Polska", Olga Drenda recalls that this particular typeface was used in a children TV show in the 1990s - "Pan Tik Tak". Today, one of the places where you can still see it is the Halemba coal mine (the letters of its neon light) in Ruda Slaska.
Once, when Bronislaw Zelek was asked why he quit designing so quickly, he replied: “I was interested in life, people, traveling, and the world.” Seeing all these events that have focused on the designer and his work over the last years, we can’t help but notice that the world itself must be interested in Bronislaw Zelek.
Text: Asia Flisek
Photos: courtesy of the designers
Bronislaw Zelek's official website: bronislawzelek.com