Rafal Olbinski, Prince of Surrealism

When one thinks about surrealism, what might immediately come to mind is André Breton’s Surrealist Manifesto of 1924, calling for the rebellion against the accepted conventions in art, and instead going in the direction of dreams, hallucinations, subconscious, and myth.  In the ordinary sense “surreal” refers to the absurd, the unreal, the fantastic, the bizarre.  It just so happens that all of these terms could be used to describe the reality of everyday life for an artist growing up in Communist Poland.  One of the elements of that reality was a constant game with censorship, requiring skillful handling of the metaphor.    

Rafal Olbinski was born on February 21, 1943 in Kielce, a small town where the gray reality of post-war life was colored with youthful dreams.  His high school teachers introduced him to classical poetry as well as Greek and Roman mythology.  After graduating from high school he enrolled at the Department of Architecture at the Warsaw University of Technology.  During this period of political repression Polish posters had great popular appeal because they played the game of metaphors while implementing surrealistic humor.  While still in school, Olbinski began to design his first posters and decided that creating art, not architecture, would be the source of his livelihood.

In 1970, Olbinski began working as art director for Jazz Forum, the iconic international jazz magazine founded in Poland in 1965.  For the next decade he was the magazine’s primary artist, creating cover illustrations and layouts that were graphically unique.  In Communist Poland, jazz was synonymous with freedom and Jazz Forum was a window to the world.  It was during this period when he developed his unique visual language of symbolism in a precise and painterly style, touched by a piquant wit and the element of surprise. His also became known for his practice of freehand lettering in his posters, which is an integral part of the composition.   His work at Jazz Forum opened many doors, leading to his design of several Polish record labels and album covers.  He also created posters for jazz festivals such as Warsaw’s famous “Jazz Jamboree” and its “Golden Washboard” and to the south, in Lublin, the “Jazz Vocalists’ Meeting.” Olbinski’s jazz posters in Poland have never been surpassed.  During this decade he also joined a group of artists creating circus posters, often using humorous or ironic metaphors to depict a subject. Most of his illustrations were executed in a realistic style with a static composition, limited to a palette predominantly in warm browns.

Olbinski continued to develop his own catalog of intriguing metaphorical imagery, always presenting visual puzzles for the viewer.  At the same time, his approach is tempered by a quest for classic harmony and beauty. Both his settings and his characters are grounded in realism but they oscillate around unexpectedly playful and surreal associations.  Viewers are drawn in by what appears to be a conventional approach only to discover that the elements of his imagery are far more complex.  

While independent of movements and schools Olbinski has certainly drawn upon the achievements of his predecessors in surrealism. His approach developed within the rich tradition of the Polish School of Posters, which since the early 1950s has exerted a significant influence upon international graphic design. That movement is celebrated for its painterly vivacity, expressive line, the use of collage, surreal language, allusions, humor, handwritten typography, and a lyrical and romantic character.  During the reign of Communism there was far less need for commercial advertising. Posters provided practical information but they were also artistic in nature because they were created by the best Polish artists in favor with the State. Paradoxically, these artists disguised the political criticisms they frequently inserted in their posters.

Olbinski was quickly categorized as a surrealist but he says it was not his intention: “I guess I’m an inborn surrealist.  Back then I was completely uninterested in René Magritte, Paul Delvaux, Marcel Duchamp, or Max Ernst.  Everything I did stemmed from the observation of our reality, which was extremely surreal.”1  Nevertheless the distinct impact of Magritte’s surrealistic imagery would become increasingly evident in Olbinski’s paintings — especially after his trip to New York in the fall of 1981, when he was asked to appear at the opening reception for an exhibition of his posters at The Polish Institute of Arts & Sciences of America (PIASA).  Suddenly, on December 13, 1981, martial law was declared in Poland. Once again Olbinski found himself in a surreal reality: this time the borders of his native land were closed to him. He was surprised to have found himself “trapped” in America, the land of freedom, the promised land for many immigrants.  During that first poster exhibition he met Carveth Cramer, the artistic director of Psychology Today.  In March of 1982, that magazine published Olbinski’s first cover in America. This accomplishment was followed by covers for Time, Newsweek, Business Week, Playboy and many other magazines. Despite having to adjust to the requirements of editorial policy, his distinctive hand-painted covers stood out in a market that would soon be dominated by computer graphics. In a remarkably short time Olbinski was established as a prominent illustrator.

The 1980s was also a time when the editors of The New York Times, were looking for a new approach to illustration for the paper’s op-ed section. They were impressed by the surrealist style of émigré artists from Eastern Europe who, after experiencing years of censorship had developed a unique visual language marked by an outstanding ability to express concepts with metaphor and a sarcastic sense of humor.  Along with Olbinski, Polish artists such as Andrzej Dudzinski and Janusz Kapusta surprised editors with their unusual ideas and technical excellence — and became very visible in the op-ed pages. Jerelle Kraus, then the art director of The New York Times, considered Olbinski a virtuoso of a surrealism.2  The black and white nature of the press illustration did not diminish his work; on the contrary, it added a new dimension, enhancing the artist’s formal solutions.  By employing the elements of landscape to lend a sense of space and depth, and by referencing Magritte, Olbinski enhanced his repertoire in illustration. And, rather than giving up its application to the poster, he gradually made it the most wide-reaching ambassador for his work.  

In the early 1990s the New York City Opera was looking for someone who would continue its poster style as created by Richard C. Hess [1934-1991], also influenced by Magritte. Olbinski became the natural successor and went on to create a famous series of posters in which he constantly surprised the viewer not only with his technical virtuosity, but with original iconography, creativity, and his unique sense of surrealism to convey the narrative libretto.  His opera posters are distinguished by their mastery in transferring the emotion and dynamics of opera.  Often, he travels back in art history and quotes parts of famous paintings.  Examples include Carmen, naked and dressed (the latter version forced by the The New York Times censor), which is analogous to the two versions of Goya’s Maya; and, The Visit of the Old Lady, which recalls a coffin from Magritte; and, Gloriana, based on a drawing by Zuccari. When Olbinski draws from the figurative surrealism of Magritte, he is most often attracted to the conceptual juxtaposition of elements and metaphor to create surprise.  His New York City Opera posters brought him such great popularity that to this day he continues working for many opera theaters in the United States and Europe, charming viewers with his surrealism not only in posters but in stage sets.

It was also during the 1990s when Olbinski brought his technical prowess to perfection.  His vivid imagination, artistic vocabulary, and technical skills had matured together. His earlier monochromatic palette had become cleansed — it had become more intense, especially with the reds and blues.  And the simplified modeling of the 1970s had given way to soft modulations in tone that reinforced the sense of form. Ever the painter, he always leaves a clear brush trail to remind the viewer of the reality of the canvas ground.  

In the United States, the art market has often viewed the commercial purpose of commissioned illustration as antithetical to the fine art sold in galleries. American illustrators who earn a living through their commissions sometimes exhibit their private works under a different name, effectively leading double lives.  But in European countries such as Poland poster artists and illustrators enjoy broad popular recognition.  This observation has been repeated by many emigré artists.  For Olbinski, however, his opera posters served as a bridge between illustration and the gallery world.  He debuted as a painter in 1990 at André Zarre Gallery in New York, and to his own surprise his first show was sold out and drew the favorable attention of art critics.  In 1994 he began a long relationship with Nahan Galleries in New York, captivating their audiences with each new show and increasing demand for his work.  The beginning of the twenty-first century has continued with exhibitions in numerous galleries, museums, and cultural institutions around the world.   

Olbinski’s visual language combines specific motifs in a variety of configurations: a tree, a vast meadow, a blue sky dotted with white clouds, a long stretch of road, birds, a curtain, a starry night sky, the coast, or a sailboat.  These familiar elements reach all of us.  Who hasn’t once experienced the depth of a forest, admired a quiet stream, or been captivated by the beauty and sound of crashing waves?  Their memories instill in us a sense of security, a kind of a comfort zone.  When one thinks about a vacation destination or even paradise these are the elements that come to mind.  This is how Olbinski immediately gains the trust of the viewer who is willing to enter into his world of imagination.  Sometimes that bucolic landscape is discovered to be a scene of betrayal, loneliness, and longing — perhaps related to issues of exile and leaving loved ones behind.  However, owing to the beauty of these familiar surroundings these difficult concepts do not leave the viewer with a sense of anxiety, but rather a momentary reflection.  Olbinski’s need to tell stories may be an attribute of illustration but his uniquely expressive style consistently infuses them with an allure and intrigue.
Olbinski points not only to Magritte as inspiration but to many artists, including Waldemar ?wierzy, Milton Glaser, Paul Davis, Bruno Schulz, and Francisco Goya.  Certainly, the key to a full understanding of his work is Magritte’s poetry found in some of Olbinski’s earliest works created in Poland.  His imagery matures in the illustrations for the The New York Times, the magazine covers, and the opera posters. Ultimately, each is in dialogue with Magritte while telling a completely different story — a story told in a visually provocative manner, be it one where humor and lightness prevails or the dark mystery of his Belgian surrealist predecessor comes forward. Clues are also found through the paintings’ titles. For Magritte titles served to define the objects represented, whereas for Olbinski titles are narrative introductions to the story itself.

One subject of Olbinski’s paintings that is largely separate from his illustrations is the female nude.  Free from any art director’s impositions of censorship, Olbinski found complete artistic freedom in his depictions of women and their idealized everlasting youth.  Initially, he often depicted a woman dressed in a long, airy dress, often with her back turned to the viewer. Gradually, he presented her in increasingly bold acts, while letting her dress become an integral part of the landscape or an interior.  

Olbinski refers to the influence of the Polish painter Bruno Schulz [1892-1942] — especially The Booke of Idolatry, and the way in which Schulz portrayed women.3  Like Schulz, the woman in an Olbinski painting is the central figure of the composition, unsurpassed, mysterious, and of pristine beauty.  Any male presence is typically relegated to a secondary role. Both the literary and visual imagery of Schulz inspired Olbinski to paint poetic realities.  In Magritte’s paintings, too, the female figure is often only a part of the picture whereas for Olbinski she is positioned as the central character around which the story is built.  In this way the artist creates an atmosphere of greater intimacy as he introduces the viewer to the world of his erotic fairy tale.

Olbinski’s remarkable continuity of imagery — from illustrations, to posters, to paintings — is owing to their central role as “vessels of communication” regardless of their ultimate purpose. While other contemporary surrealists, especially those associated with neo-surrealism, often oscillate in the direction of a fantasy that employs photo-realism and digital manipulation, Olbinski has broken new ground in oil painting picked up where Magritte left off.  His lyrical paintings depict emotions absent from the work of his contemporaries. Every time we see his paintings he takes us on a poetic journey.  This explains why, thirty years after leaving his native country, Olbinski has remained one of the pillars among Polish émigré artists while at the same time being claimed by America as one of its greatest surrealists.  

Olbinki’s symbolic artistic partnership with Magritte has earned him the title of Prince of Surrealism. In 1995 Polish photographer Ryszard Horowitz created a beautiful homage in a portrait that combines these two masters of Surrealism. It employs a visual quote from Magritte’s Castle in the Pyrenees, replacing a maritime landscape with a typically empty Olbinski clearing.  The sky is covered with clouds and the rock from Magritte’s painting takes on Olbinski’s facial profile, at the top breaking into pieces, and from which a beautiful white dove escapes into the sky.  As with Olbinski’s art, the dove spreads its wings to fly into worlds yet to be discovered.

— Izabela Gabrielson

1 Krystyna Gucewicz, “Zycie towarzyskie i jazzowe” Jazz Forum, April-May,1997, p. 38.
2 Jerelle Kraus, All the Art That's Fit to Print (And Some That Wasn’t): Inside The New York Times Op-Ed Page (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009, p. 151)
3 Rafal Olbinski: Women, Motifs and Variations (New York: Hudson Hill Press, 2005, p. 151)