Beautiful Christmas cards of yesteryear tell fascinating story of defiance to communist-era censorship

This Christmas scene by Hanna Balicka-Fribes shows the Star of Bethlehem, a religious symbol overlooked by the communist authorities. Gdynia City Museum

A collection of beautifully illustrated Christmas cards from the 60s and 70s shows how some of Poland’s most gifted artists evaded and defied strict communist censorship laws.

The beautiful cards depict what today we would consider fairly traditional seasonal scenes.

But within the context of their times, depicting religious themes and symbols was revolutionary.

Artists such as Adam Killian used transparent foils and ink in such a form that later in print it looked like linocut, or a simple folk woodcut.Gdynia City Museum

Dr Jacek Freidrich from Gdynia City Museum told TFN: “Our viewers are often surprised by how common the religious themes are.

“Especially since back then, there was a general tendency for secularization.

“The nativity scenes were one of the most popular motifs. There are many cards with the star of Bethlehem, either showing the star itself, or carol singers with a star, the star hovering above some buildings, above the city or the village.

One of the reasons for the religious symbols and the appearance of the Americanised Santa, was the relaxing of censorship following Stalin’s death. Artist Andrzej Heidrich later designed Poland’s banknotes.Kalbar/TFN from John Chmura’s private collection

“The three wise men were very popular among the artists too.”

Aware of the troubled times in which they were working, the illustrators often led a game of pretence with the authorities.

“Sometimes the halo is gone or the cross on the church where the midnight mass is held,” Friedrich added.

Collector John Chmura told TFN that the perception of communism and the period’s art is now changing and leading to a new appreciation for Polish design.Kalbar/TFN from John Chmura’s private collection

One of the reasons for this, as well as the appearance of the Americanised Santa, was the relaxing of censorship following Stalin’s death and the perception of the cards as something insignificant.

Friedrich continued: “Immediately after 1956, there is a thaw and the Christmas card market is stabilised.

“RUCH [the company owning Poland’s biggest chain of kiosks and bookshops] starts mass production. This is the end of the 1950s and in the first years there are many cards that have a strictly religious dimension.

The workload, mastery, thought and research put into creating them may be easy to miss, but they are examples of the highest level of Polish graphic design at the time.Gdynia City Museum

“It was also a business, enormous amounts of money.

“One series consisted of nine postcards. And such a series by Szancer or Orłowska-Gabryś or Grabiański, they were the three main champions of this art, they were adored by the audience, so their cards were issued in circulations of 120-130,000 copies.

“They had three four, sometimes even five editions.”

Within the context of the times, depicting religious themes and symbols was revolutionary.Gdynia City Museum

Collector John Chmura, an American with Polish roots living in Warsaw and whose 15-year collection of Poland’s Soviet-era Christmas cards numbers around 4,000, told TFN that the perception of communism and the period’s art is now changing and leading to a new appreciation for Polish design.

He said: “I was a high school English teacher and I talked to the students about Polish People’s Republic and they don’t know what it is.

“The young people today look at it from the artistic point of view.

The artists themselves were often graphic designers from Poland’s leading publishing houses whose works became known collectively as the Polish School of Illustration.Gdynia City Museum

“This is something beautiful. They don’t think that much about the political period. I don’t know if that’s good, I think they should go hand in hand.”

But it is perhaps the simplistic beauty of the cards that is most appealing.

The workload, mastery, thought and research put into creating them may be easy to miss, but they are examples of the highest level of Polish graphic design at the time.

Some artists stuck colourful paper mosaics together, others made paper strips, or more or less classic collages.Gdynia City Museum

Friedrich explained: “Technically they were very different.

“Some artists stuck colourful paper mosaics together, others made paper strips, or more or less classic collages.

“There are a lot of such classic forms as ink or water paints, but there are also such technological curiosities as the works of Adam Kilian, who used transparent foils and ink in such a form that later in print it looked like linocut, or a simple folk woodcut.

Aware of the troubled times in which they were working, the illustrators often led a game of pretence with the authorities.Gdynia City Museum

“He then put together cut-out geometric forms, pieces of coloured papers that created a multi-coloured background.”

The artists themselves were often graphic designers from Poland’s leading publishing houses whose works became known collectively as the Polish School of Illustration.

Friedrich said: “This is a circle of people that was associated with Nasza Księgarnia [Our Bookstore, the oldest publisher of children books in Poland].

Nativity scenes were one of the most popular motifs. There are many cards with the star of Bethlehem, either showing the star itself, or carol singers with a star, the star hovering above some buildings, above the city or the village.Gdynia City Museum

“These are also the people centred around Professor Jan Marcin Szancer's studio at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw.

“For example, Bohdan Butenko was his student, but with a completely different style.”

Other big names include Adam Killian, Antoni Boratyński, Bożena Truchanowska and Józef Wilkoń.

Director of the museum, Dr Jacek Freidrich, told TFN: “Our viewers are often surprised by how common the religious themes are. Especially since back then, there was a general tendency for secularization.”Kalbar/TFN from John Chmura’s private collection

Collector John Chmura told TFN: “They are just little pieces of art. I just hadn’t seen this art before. Here there is this sort of esoteric look to them. I think they are much more artistic here, then they are in the US.

“Fifteen years ago they weren’t in vogue. Now people are starting to realise just how beautiful they are, starting to discover that.

Young people today look at the Christmas cards from an artistic point of view and don’t think too much about the political period.Kalbar/TFN from John Chmura’s private collection

“I’m glad that people are finally taking notice of these artists and their work. I just wanted to say thank you to them for creating them.

“Personally they bring a lot of joy to my life, especially around Christmas time. I love putting them around the house and people come in and they just look at these cards and say, I’ve never seen those before.”