• Znak czasu (A Sign of the Times)

It is hard to believe that 30 years have passed since 13 December 1981, when General Jaruzelski declared martial law in Poland, outlawing the free trade union Solidarity  and bringing to an end an extraordinary period in Polish history.  Traumatic though this action was for the country, it proved not to be conclusive, as subsequent history both in Poland and elsewhere in the former Soviet bloc has amply  shown.

Poles woke up to find telephone lines cut, radio and television rigidly controlled by the military, airports closed and internal travel severely restricted.  Such an information clampdown is hard to imagine today, but back then there were no social networks or mobile phones (many homes didn’t even have a landline).  All people could do was to sit tight, scrabble around for supplies, and think of what had happened to Solidarity’s bid – and that of virtually the entire population – for greater freedom of action and belief.

Mementos of the Solidarity period became even more iconic: badges, publications, photographs, posters.  I had visited Warsaw in September 1981, not only to attend the ‘Warsaw Autumn’ festival but also to experience the excitement and activism of the Solidarity movement.  I visited one of the Union’s headquarters and while there bought a number of items, including a small A3 poster that quickly became a prized possession.  My copy of ‘Kardiogram’ is now a bit crumpled and faded (it was then a bright Polish red on white), but it still speaks volumes.

‘Kardiogram’s’ direct design is typical of Polish poster art.  It may be a bit crude in its fervent execution (its typed dates at the top are skew-whiff), but that’s the point.  Its rallying message was a powerful one.  As Jacek Kaczmarski said about his 1981 album of songs Muzeum, Solidarity was just the latest in a continuum of Polish social and political movements that stretched way back before the 20th century.  In this brilliant image, the timeline peaks at moments of insurrection and brutal deaths: the 1944 Warsaw Uprising, the food riots and crisis that came to a head in October 1956, the student and intellectual protests of March 1968, the food riots in northern Poland, especially in Gdańsk, of December 1970, the workers’ protests of June 1976, and finally the lock-in at the Gdańsk shipyards that led to the formation of Poland’s first free trade union Solidarność in August 1980 under its leader Lech Walęsa.  The image culminates in one of the world’s most memorable graphics, a proud march of letters (figures) waving the Polish flag aloft.

‘Kardiogram’ was designed by Czesław Bielecki in 1980 and is stamped at the base: ‘Druk: Komitet Wydawniczy NSZZ “Solidarność” Region Mazowsze’ (Printing: Publication Committee of the Solidarity Trade Union, Mazowsze Region).  It’s worth noting that printing presses and materials, like paper and ink, as well as the new-fangled photocopiers, were not publicly available in those years in Poland.  Such activities were carried out almost entirely ‘underground’.

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