This gut wrenching poster, designed by the Polish graphic designer Jan Lenica, was produced to advertise the Polish National Opera’s 1964 production of Alban Berg’s avant-garde opera Wozzeck in Warsaw.  An icon of Polish graphic design, the poster was awarded a Gold Medal at the 1966 Warsaw International Poster Biennale, and is Lenica’s best known design. Though the poster is often considered in the context of the anxiety of life under Communism in Poland in the 1960s, the featured imagery is a haunting literal and evocative depiction of one of the final scenes in the opera.

Wozzeck was composed by Berg from 1914-22, after a play by Georg Büchner.  It was Berg’s first atonal opera.  The title character, Wozzeck, is a struggling soldier, working to make extra money by participating in medical research.  The mother of his child, Marie, engages in a flirtation with the Drum Major.  Wozzeck is consumed by jealously, and ultimately stabs her to death in the forest.  To dispose of the bloodied knife, he throws it into the water of a nearby lake.  Wozzeck becomes transfixed by the moon, which appears above him blood-red.  The brightness of the moon concerns him, and Wozzeck becomes convinced that he must retrieve the knife and cast it deeper into the water.  As he wades into the lake, the water seems to turn to blood.  Overtaken by the lake, Wozzeck drowns.  His moans, which seem to come from within the lake itself, are loud enough to startle passersby.

Lenica’s beautiful composition unites the form of the drowning Wozzeck, his mouth agape, with the rippling currents of the bloodied water and the full, blood-red moon above.  The image, which drew from the emerging popular sensibilities of the psychedelic poster movement, provides a contemporary relevance to the decades old opera and remains shockingly powerful to this day. In Lenica’s poster, the themes of poverty, oppression, and jealousy all appear to converge into one bloody, primal scream.

Caitlin Condell is the Curatorial Assistant for the Drawings, Prints & Graphic Design Department at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.

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