The forgotten siren of Polish Poster art: Barbara Baranowska
Described by many critics as “freakish”, the re-release of Andrzej Żuławski’s psychological horror Possession for its 40th anniversary has again cast the spotlight on artist Barbara ‘Basha’ Baranowska.
First debuting in 1981, the film was initially banned as a ‘video nasty’, but later grew to be classed as “a cult favourite amongst cinephiles”.
Designed by Baranowska, her iconic work affirmed her status as one of Poland’s greatest poster artists. But rather than court celebrity, Baranowska slid out of view to the extent that today she is regarded as the forgotten siren of ‘the Polish school of poster’.
Born into an aristocratic family in 1934, Baranowska later graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków before taking up art professionally.
Book covers were her early specialty, particularly adorning the works of her first husband, the author and Holocaust survivor Adolf Rudnicki.
Quickly proving herself a capable and versatile graphic artist, Baranowska flitted between numerous styles that would effortlessly keep the tone of the content within.
Of one of her more enduring creations, she was behind a cow logo still found on a Polish brand of butter to this very day.
Naturally, though, she drifted towards the film industry, with one of her earliest forays into posters coming in 1960 when she supplied the art for Janusz Morgenstern’s directorial debut: Do widzenia, do jutra, a romantic drama starring (and written) by ‘the Polish James Dean’, Zbigniew Cybulski.
Baranowska also fleetingly appeared in the film herself, and would later be approached by Roman Polanski to feature in his breakthrough movie Knife In The Water.
Not one to court fame, she rejected the offer but did later appear – or at least her legs did – in Witold Giersz’s 1962 film, Oczekiwanie.
With her life defined by complex personal relationships, her marriage to Rudnicki broke down after she left him for director Andrzej Żuławski.
Whenever Rudnicki would spot Żuławski around Warsaw, it’s claimed he would accost the far-younger man with accusing shouts.
Relocating to Paris in 1968, Baranowska reinvented herself by adopting the moniker ‘Basha’ and would be credited for a string of French posters that included The Sugarland Express, Slaughterhouse 5 and Wille Wonka & The Chocolate Factory.
Again, Baranowska’s personal life would take a twist when she met producer Christian Ferry after being introduced to him by Żuławski.
When Żuławski chose to return to Poland, Baranowska stayed on in Paris and married Ferry.
Retreating from the limelight, she once commented that she had neither the passion nor ambition to pursue life as an artist. More than an idle musing, this was born out in the form of a portfolio that was markedly more scant than the other artists in her milieu.
Among her last-known credits was an album cover for Sophie Marceau’s brief incursion into music – pronouncing Marceau’s piercing eyes, the cover for Certitude (1985) retains a haunting and slightly disturbed aesthetic.
The same can be said for Baranowska’s posters. Defined by their sharp wit, intense sense of vibrancy and subtle layered meanings they have come to embody the heyday of this form of art.
But despite resurgent interest in her creative output, Baranowska remains an enigma. Removing herself from professional work shortly after Certitude, little is known of her later life.
According to some reports, the reclusive artist has remained in Paris where, following Ferry’s death in 2011, she can be found spending her days voraciously reading and visiting the cinema.
Every bit as complex and mysterious as her art, the renewed appetite for her work says much for the timeless appeal of this ingenious artist.