Father of contemporary Polish poster art Ryszard Kaja dies at the age of 57
Ryszard Kaja, an artist hailed by many as the father of latter day Polish poster art, and touted by all as one of the outstanding talents of his generation, has died at the age of 57 following a battle against illness.
Born in Poznań in 1962 to parents Stefania, a ceramicist and painter, and Zbigniew, himself a prolific artist at the forefront of Poland’s so-called Golden Age of Poster, Kaja devoted his early career to the theatre, designing in excess of 200 stage sets for both the opera and ballet.
In 1995, his work in this field was recognized when he awarded the prestigious Medal Młodej Sztuki whilst employed as the chief designer at Poznań’s Grand Theatre.
However, it is for his achievements in the 21st century that Kaja will best be remembered. Choosing to branch out in a completely new direction, the dawn of the new millennium saw Kaja leave the theatre behind to instead focus on poster art.
“It’s good to try something new to avoid falling into a rut,” he said.
“If I had perhaps gotten into woodcutting I would probably have created a series of woodcuts, but as it was I chose to create a series of posters instead.”
That series, simply titled ‘Poland’, saw Kaja take inspiration from his copious travels around the country to produce over 120 posters that captured the public’s imagination with their depiction of the beautiful, bizarre, kitsch and mundane aspects of the nation.
“A tourism poster should encourage people to visit a specific place, but I never wanted to embellish reality,” he said.
“Nowadays, patriotism is visible in the form of loud and aggressive slogans: eagles on black T-shirts and fluttering flags. To counterbalance this, I decided to paint oilcloths, pickled cucumbers, meadows, farms, fountains, housing estates and unappreciated scenes of modernity.
“While these works celebrated normal things, it soon transpired that my fascination with the ‘everyday’ struck a chord.”
Hugely successful, the posters revived a national artform that was beginning to show signs of fatigue. Witty and amusing, but also insightful and astute, the best-selling series cast the country’s lesser-known glories in the spotlight in a manner that felt fresh and compelling.
“In the Poland series,” he said, “I wanted to talk about ordinary places and show their unusual and more concealed highlights.
“The choice of places that I featured in the series was also very important, which is why I chose Szczebrzeszyn: in essence, to be able to celebrate the wonderful swishing sounds of the Polish language. These posters talked about our culture, our traditions and our truly inspiring environment, but also about the country’s various pluses and minuses; about what we do successfully, but also what we do less successfully but still remains uniquely Polish. What I refused to do, was to paint this country as being more beautiful than it is.”
Unfailingly modest, to his death Kaja continued to express surprise at the popularity of his work. “I don’t know why it’s done so well, I really don’t,” he said, “the series is simple, sincere and has no pretensions to being great art.”
Clearly, though, in this assessment he was alone.
Perfectly capturing the soul of the nation in a way that felt fondly sentimental, his work looks certain to stand the test of time and become truly iconic.