Investigating the artist behind some of the most iconic movie posters.
About ten years ago I was invited to Trieste for a retrospective of the films of Andrzej Zulawski. Back in 1981, Zulawski’s Possession was awarded a Golden Asteroid at the Trieste Fantastic Film Festival. I asked the director if he still had the award.
“No, I never received it. Pity. I always wanted to know what a golden asteroid looked like.”
Then I thought of the poster for Possession – signed ‘Basha’.
“Who is Basha?”
Long before I got to see Possession, I had acquired a copy of the French poster in a Paris shop called Cine Doc.
It has long since disappeared. Then in my late teens, I frequently took the bus to Paris and scoured those cluttered film bookshops stacked high with battered posters, fading stills and dogeared press books… this was, of course, the time when eBay was still in its infancy and stores like Cine Doc seemed destined to be permanent fixtures of those Parisian arcades. I have never cared too much for Truffaut’s films, but I always related to the recurring dream in La nuit americaine, where the director dreams of stealing Citizen Kane lobby cards from a cinema foyer. In those days, both posters and stills were like talismans for films which you couldn’t see, or might never see. Possession was one such film. However, I fell in love with the poster long before I got a chance to see the film. In fact, sometimes think I love the film because of the poster. Or, maybe the poster is part of the film. Pars pro toto.
The Possession poster is wonderfully kitschy in a way that the most brilliant surrealist paintings are – Magritte’s incongruities, Dali’s eccentricities, Delvaux’s reveries… a woman’s torso, her head pulled back and arms drawn tight behind her waist by a clump of writhing tentacles. Her breasts are spherical – not unlike a socialist realist sculpture (judging by the friezes deep down inside the Moscow metro, if the Communist experiment did work, there would be no need for implants or push-up bras). Then there is the colour, a kind of translucent blue, except for a lone pink tentacle snaking towards a nipple. Garish, erotic and very politically incorrect – this was the poster that would be pinned above my desk throughout much of my late teens and early twenties.
‘Basha was my first wife’, Zulawski said, before relating a story about he first glimpsed her when he was a student in Warsaw and how he thought that she was the most beautiful woman in the world. Basha was born into a Polish noble family in Katowice.
Indeed, there is something noble about Basha’s art. First and foremost, there isn’t that much of it. One gets the sense that she only did an assignment if she thought it was worthwhile. After studying painting at the Krakow Academy of Fine Arts, she designed the covers for several books by the Polish-Jewish writer Adolf Rudnicki, some of which she illustrated with mysterious drawings in pen and ink. Rudnicki isn’t as well known outside of Poland as he should be. Usually, he is relegated to a footnote in Jewish literature relating to the Holocaust. Rudnicki’s stories mix observation, history and philosophy.
Unsurprisingly, the ‘Polish experience’ casts a long shadow over much of his work. In Warsaw, during the late 1950s and early 1960s, Basha mixed with personalities in both Polish art, literature and film. She knew both Jan Lenica and Roman Cieslewicz, who, like Basha, subsequently moved to France. Zulawski wasn’t the only person struck by her beauty – Roman Polanski tried to cast her as the girl in Knife in the Water, and Janusz Morgenstern persuaded her to make a cameo alongside ‘the Socialist James Dean’, Zbigniew Cybulski, in See You Tomorrow. However, acting was of no interest to Basha. Cameo aside, the closest Basha got to cinema was posters… like Cieslewicz, Basha frequently turned to photomontage. Like Lenica, she also painted.
Her paintings are fairytale-like, but rarely cute. If anything, there is a primal, sexual undercurrent to the curves and colours she makes use of. Basha moved to Paris in 1968 where she has been based for the most part ever since. For me, it is her French posters which I am most keen on: Taking Off, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Life Size…I’d like to think we could see such posters on the streets once again: outrageous, colourful, mysterious. Unlike Lenica and Cieslewicz, who have been appropriated by today’s hipster graphic designers looking for something retro, Basha’s posters are probably just too damned weird for most people. Good.
I sometimes wonder what today’s advertising agencies would make of Basha’s posters – you might as well lob a hand grenade into a focus group – there would probably be less fallout. Ultimately, Basha’s posters belong to a bygone age – but for me, their perverseness, lack of relevance and thorough inappropriateness render them all the more vital.
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