How Gary Cooper Saved Warsaw

It was a Sunday morning in 1989, and Gary Cooper was all over Warsaw. Nearly 10,000 posters, plastered around the city at daybreak, bore the image of the marshal from the 1952 Western High Noon. His photograph was black and white, save for the red Solidarity logo placed on his chest, and he carried a paper ballot in place of a pistol. The poster's inscription was simple: IT'S HIGH NOON, JUNE 4, 1989.

That paper sheriff was on a mission: to encourage Poles to vote for Solidarity in that day's parliamentary elections. In the Western, the hero always wins; in the elections, Solidarity secured a landslide victory, and the High Noon poster became an emblem of triumph and new beginning. Yet the poster itself marked an ending. It was the last great work of the Polish Poster School.

Half a century before Twitter became the medium of choice for underground communications in Iran, artistically innovative Poles used the power of images to slip subversive messages past the communist watchdogs. In an age when "print" means "old," and visual appeal takes a back seat to speed, it's hard to believe what a powerful weapon lithography could once be.

Twenty-four posters from the heyday of the Polish school are on view at New York's Museum of Modern Art until November. The works, clustered together as they would have been on a poster kiosk in Warsaw, chronicle a movement that actually benefited from the oversight of the communist regime. Posters advertising plays, films, circuses, and exhibitions were subject to strict control, but they also received state funding. Censorship also provided a strangely nurturing environment for creativity, especially in the way artists borrowed from surrealism and expressionism to develop a language of metaphor. In one poster advertising a 1981 production of Macbeth, the king's face appears trapped in a kind of brick bandage resembling a castle. His eyes are obscured, his jaw locked in place. To the censor, it showed a face with a castle; to the viewer, it could speak volumes about the blinding, mind-numbing danger of power.

It's been 20 years since Cooper's marshal marched into Warsaw, leaving the country—and its posters—changed forever. Poles remembered his influence on the anniversary of the election this year by displaying an oversize reprint of the poster on Warsaw's Palace of Culture. But today, state support for artists is gone, and sales-driven, artless advertising is king. In Poland (as in the United States), visual culture is saturated with pop-up ads and all-too-obvious sales slogans. It's nearly impossible to find socially compelling commercial art. Maybe the Polish Poster School can take us back to that high noon, when a picture really could speak a thousand words.