Fantastic Beasts, People and Things: On Vanja Cuculić’s posters for Gavella Drama Theatre

detalj za naslovnicu cuculic

“Unmistakably belonging to our time, particularly with respect to the use of typography and the choice of typographic fonts, Cuculić’s style de¬veloped for Gavella is still basically eclectic. In a way, his theatre posters are also a reflection on what has been done in this specific genre through¬out its glorious history, including the golden age of the sixties and the seventies when the poster as a promo¬tional medium was still relevant and represented the pinnacle of creative expression.” – written by: MARKO GOLUB

It is always a privilege to have an op­portunity to suddenly dive into a rich collection of good graphic design. This type of image overload is differ­ent from the one to which we are ex­posed daily, us much more than any other generation before. From the passivity of swiping newsfeed that stretches before us like an infinite mil­itary parade, our attention is instantly captured by a procession of images of extraordinary communicative charge, tiny explosions in the avenue of sur­veillance capitalism. A series of im­ages that in an articulated visual way embody more or less complex ideas, meanings and information shaped so to preoccupy our minds, stimulate our perception and in the process teach us the very art of reading images. To professionally create such design is also a privilege that Vanja Cuculić had for 15 years as the poster designer for Gavella Drama Theatre. As far as I know, it is the longest commission of that kind in the last three decades, which resulted in one of the most con­sistent and most powerful oeuvres in Croatia in general.

 

2011 Dundo Maroje

Vanja Cuculić, “Uncle Maroye”, 2011

From his beginnings until now, it was Cuculić’s work for Gavella that largely defined the high standards of theatre posters in the 21st century Croatia, particularly in the context of public theatres. It was only recent­ly that the Croatian National Theatre in Zagreb, commissioning design from Lana Cavar, Zoran Đukić, Dario Dević and collectives NJI3 and Oaza in succession, has become another public repertoire theatre to actually make a great leap in visual commu­nications. Despite a couple of famous predecessors, posters for City Drama Theatre had been designed by Alfred Pal and Boris Bućan, the current dis­tinctiveness of Gavella Theatre in Zagreb comes from Cuculić’s own de­sign efforts. His posters, one by one, have built the theatre’s visual identi­ty. It does not pertain only to graphic standards and a certain strict order of things, but primarily to visual concep­tions that one relates to that theatre, to its magical imagery intrinsically heterogeneous and developing in unexpected ways, but determinedly different from everything else currently on offer.

 

“The distinctiveness of the posters done for Gavella rests specifically in the com­bination of elements from different sources, which like tributaries flow into a main stem river, creating new forms and new meanings.”

 

Unmistakably belonging to our time, particularly with respect to the use of typography and the choice of typographic fonts, Cuculić’s style de­veloped for Gavella is still basically eclectic. In a way, his theatre posters are also a reflection on what has been done in this specific genre through­out its glorious history, including the golden age of the sixties and the seventies when the poster as a promo­tional medium was still relevant and represented the pinnacle of creative expression. Not only that many post­ers designed by Cuculić really echo, among other things, the celebrated Polish school of posters, but the very choice of nowadays anachronistic technique of silkscreen printing, that left the most profound mark especial­ly in the mentioned period, is particu­larly telling. The technique, with all its specificities, significant advantages and equally significant limitations, en­tails the mentioned historic referenc­es and aesthetics but also directs the designer’s way of thinking. Cuculić’s posters done in silkscreen printing are always, at least to a certain degree, the expression of fetishist relation with the very technique and its extremely sharp contrasts, intensive layers of color and their ratio, graphic quali­ties of the raster and high-contrast lines. In them, silkscreen printing is not merely a technical framework but an equally important artistic device. They speak the language, or rather the specific idiom of silkscreen print­ing, that their designer has polished to perfection.

 

Vanja Cuculić, "Bash" 2007

Vanja Cuculić, “Bash”
2007

Creating theatre posters inevi­tably means creating a dialogue with one’s predecessors and contempo­raries. Cuculić himself openly talks about influences of Boris Bućan and Mirko Ilić, his former mentor from the School of Design Nenad Dogan, Roman Cieslewicz, Reza Abedini and Isidro Ferrer. Occasionally it is a direct homage, like the poster for Bash (2007), which evokes several well-known illus­trations by Mirko Ilić from the 1990s and the 2000s containing the varia­tions of the motif of Ku Klux Klan tri­angular hood and the flashlight beam. Cuculić builds on the associative train hiding the hood in the shirt behind the buttoned up black formal suit and the eyes in the bow tie. Ilić’s influence is present elsewhere too, but not from the expected graphic and stylistic perspective (for example Ilić’s post­ers for &TD from the late seventies and early eighties), rather it can be connected to witty visual metaphors of Ilić’s later political illustrations and magazine covers.

Tartuffe (2010) Candide or optimism (2013), Leda (2011)

Tartuffe (2010) Candide or optimism (2013), Leda (2011)

 

The poster for Molière’s Tartuffe (2010) evokes won­drous Cieslewicz’s photo graphics done in the mirror symmetry style, but with sexual ambiguity present in a series of Cuculić’s posters (eg. Leda, 2011, Candide, 2013, Uncle Maroye, 2011, A Midsummer’s Night Dream, 2007). Dense graphic structures and phan­tasmagoric silhouettes, like those by Iranian designer Reza Abedini, also span a series of posters (Barbelo, Tales of Common Insanity, Iliad 2001, Life is a Dream, all from 2009), but without the calligraphic element characteris­tic of Abedini. Finally, three-dimen­sional compositions that he creates and then photographs for certain posters (e.g. Push up 1-3, 2013; Heart Larger Than Hands, 2017; A Romance of Three Loves, 2017) are indeed in their spirit similar to playful surrealist as­semblages by Spanish designer Isidro Ferrer.

Barbelo, on Dogs and Children (2009), Tales of Common Insanity (2009), ife is a Dream (2009)

Barbelo, on Dogs and
Children (2009), Tales
of Common Insanity (2009), ife is
a Dream (2009)

 

As much as these influences can be inferred from fragments of Cuculić’s body of work, they are man­ifested more as a residue of what he read and received, a result of love for the poster as a medium and for a wide array of its expressive possibilities, than as a dependence and observance of practices of other designers. The distinctiveness of the posters done for Gavella rests specifically in the com­bination of elements from different sources, which like tributaries flow into a main stem river, creating new forms and new meanings. Looking at the posters from the first couple of sea­sons of this collaboration, they seem as if they could have been done then or twenty, thirty years earlier.

 

Madame Bovary (2016)

Madame Bovary (2016)

 

For their creator, it was a con­scious departure from his posters done earlier for Zagreb Youth Theatre in which photography and distanced, slightly clinical aesthetics dominated. In the first couple of seasons, Cuculić developed the “house style” on illus­tration, collages based on elements of old graphics from encyclopedia and photographs supplemented by draw­ings and treated as monochromatic graphics, on textures of silkscreen printing, and on titles and basic in­formation (in new typefaces by Nikola Đurek) which cut illustrations razor sharp horizontally and vertically.

 

“It is not imperative to be fa­miliar with the dramatic text, even less with its theatrical interpretation, to be able to experience the poster. In other words, designer’s role is not to explain the play, but to provide a strik­ing image that will help us enter it.”

 

Many of those were printed on matted color paper, which gives special intensity and contrast to the illustra­tion and text against the background. Even though this description could apply to some of the most distinctive characteristics of his poster oeuvre for Gavella, and even though they are present almost until the end of the collaboration, Cuculić is not a hos­tage to one style, technique, process, signature. He rather steps aside after a few plays in a row. Occasionally, there would be a poster with typography in a dominant role (e.g. The Blizzard, 2007, The Weir, Caligula, Orpheus Descending, 2008), and later on there would be lettering (e.g. King Richard III, Invisible, 2017, Tesla Anonymous, Heart Larger Than Hands, 2017) mostly in col­laboration with Leo Kirinčić. For ex­ample, if he needs a subtler technical quality of the image than the one pro­duced by silkscreen printing to convey an idea, he will temporarily abandon silkscreen and the reduced palette will open up in full color photography. Finally, there is a series of posters for which unusual objects were created, composed and photographed in won­drous spatial situations.

 

Heart Larger Than Hands (2017),A Romance of Three Loves (2017)

Heart Larger Than Hands (2017),A Romance of Three Loves (2017)

 

Images created in that process usually emerge from the combination of two or three more or less “common” motifs which together create unusu­al, slightly surrealist, tense and some­times diabolic scenes. Indeed, they are interpretations of the new title, dra­matic text, play, but we have to keep in mind that the theatre poster and the meaning it visually articulates are still relatively independent of the content. It is not imperative to be fa­miliar with the dramatic text, even less with its theatrical interpretation, to be able to experience the poster. In other words, designer’s role is not to explain the play, but to provide a strik­ing image that will help us enter it. On the poster for Kvetch (2006) various fears and neurosis slither through the character’s head only to come out of his throat in the shape of a venom­ous snake. On the poster for Master and Margarita (2006) we can see a passing black cat whose body is trans­formed into three demonic figures. One doesn’t have to know about the cat Behemoth nor about Walpurgis Night, the red carpet is already rolled out and the door of Bulgakov’s mys­tical satire is left ajar. These weird combinations of animals transform­ing into objects or people, or vice ver­sa, often appear on Cuculić’s posters for Gavella: the figure with crossed legs and mouse head in The Inspector General (2007); the barefoot buffoon with the raven head in the Ballads of Petrica Kerempuh (2009); the dog paws in stiletto shoes in Barbelo, on Dogs and Children (2009); the armchair with animal legs on which Calderón de la Barca’s prince Segismundo is leaning on the poster for Life is a Dream (2009); the birds in the nest (The River Takes Us, 2011), actually silhouettes of hands that are desperately trying to surface.

 

Vanja Cuculić, Kvetch (2006),Master and Margarita (2006), The inspection general (2007)

Vanja Cuculić, Kvetch (2006),Master
and Margarita (2006), The inspection general (2007)

 

Images in Cuculić’s posters al­ways seem surreal, there is always at least a slight hint of wonder and fantasy giving a specific tinge even to the posters that directly touch upon social issues and economic re­ality. When we think that we have seen it all, we find a new element in a certain detail or texture, like on the poster for Iliad 2001 (2009) with Christ-like figure swaying between tragic and comic and revealing scars all over the body. Upon close inspec­tion, we understand that the scars are payment order slips used for paying bills. In Odyssey (2012), right when we think that it represents sea straits where the main charac­ter meets monsters, we realize that the outlines of the mystical islands on the diligently processed photo­graph show former Yugoslav repub­lics. We start reading the poster in a different way, meanings are flow­ing into each other, the known and the unknown merge. Sometimes, our own visual memory takes us to places that the designer probably had not thought about. The main motif on the poster for Dark Eyes (2011) is a wooden fence like the one from the iconic films Jaws (1975) and Invaders from Mars (1953). In both films, this fence, probably symbol­izing some nostalgic carelessness of life in small towns, leads to the site of someone’s death or disappearance.

 

Dark Eyes (2011), Odyssey (2012), Hidden fees (2013)

Dark Eyes (2011), Odyssey (2012), Hidden fees (2013)

 

On Cuculić’s poster it is commu­nicated so simply and strikingly when on the first turn of the imagined path, at the point we don’t see because it is beyond the poster’s frame, the fence becomes a row of graves, this time not connected to Hollywood extra­terrestrials or gigantic shark, but to real war horrors of the 1990s. On the poster Push up 1-3 (2012) the cruelty of liberal capitalism is clearly illustrat­ed by crossbreeds of office chairs and cocks trying to poke each other’s eyes, while the poster for Hidden Fees (2013) contains the motif which has a clear meaning on its own – the cut up credit card – mercilessly underlined by mak­ing this piece of plastic the blade of a guillotine. One poster in particular, Fine Dead Girls (2013), caused such an uproar by conservative public that it was a controversy for weeks because it touched a social topic which has remained hot until today. Had they not been theatre posters, many of the latest works would have perfectly functioned as political illustrations for some international newspapers or magazines. Similar to the already men­tioned Mirko Ilić, Cuculić really has a knack for finding a perspective from which even the stalest symbols look fresh, like on the poster for Invisible (2017) where we look aslant at the sym­bol of the European Union, the circle with twelve stars, under whose super­ficial brilliance lies a toothed tower packed with surveillance cameras.

 

Invisible (2017), King Richard III (2017), The Trial (2018)

Invisible (2017), King Richard III (2017), The Trial (2018)

 

 

Invisible are just one of the posters for which three dimensional objects or compositions were creat­ed, usually from common, everyday things that can be found at home. Cuculić doesn’t even hide this “com­monness”. On the contrary, it makes the presented situations even more weird and ambivalent – for example, the crown cut out of an old instant coffee can from which red color spills out is a cheeky interpretation of Shakespeare’s King Richard III (2017). Kafka’s The Trial (2018) is illustrated with a broken chair on which “Josef K. was broken”, which in such a bro­ken state, to make it even more clear, forms the letter K and is thus identi­fied with the main character. Three broken plates on the set table on the poster for Our Boy (2008) indicate that it is a family story loaded with some kind of conflict. A bunch of sneakers pushed in the corner from which one, even though tied, is trying to detach (Alabama, 2010), or two wilted tooth­brushes which “wither” in common glass (I’m Afraid We Know Each Other Now, 2015) also show us how the most common things can tell a proper fam­ily drama.

 

Vanja Cuculić, Our Boy (2008), Alabama (2010), I’m Afraid We Know Each Other Now (2015)

Vanja Cuculić, Our Boy (2008), Alabama (2010), I’m Afraid We Know Each Other Now (2015)

 

 

By the end of the collaboration with Gavella Drama Theatre, there were created three posters which seem to open a whole new series, complete­ly different from anything hitherto. On the posters for The Drunks (2018), Cyclops and Stela, the Flood (2019) it is as if the earlier method of work with found and manipulated objects turns into the work with documen­tary digital images taken from the media. In that sense, The Drunks are an expression of a resolute turn – af­ter all painstakingly designed visual metaphors, suddenly it is the poster on which events in the streets, their media representation and theatre overlapped perfectly. In the photo­graph documenting the euphoric welcome of the national football team from the World Championship there was, completely accidentally, a ban­ner reading Drunks, which in this case equally refers to the theatre play the poster advertises and the very scene in the street. A framed eye of Donald Trump happened to be on the poster for Marinković’s Cyclopes, as if by acci­dent taken from the covers of internet portals or newspapers. But it wasn’t, because Cuculić uses it to draw our attention to the parallels between the time in which the story takes place (right before World War II) and our time. The times of fear, alienation, the collapse of the existing social values, rising fascism. Theatre and Cuculić’s posters stepped out into the street, into the daily politics, media and life itself. Ironically, the designer walked out with them and brought them to our gallery. Hi Vanja!

 

The Drunks (2018), Cyclopes, (2019)

The Drunks (2018), Cyclopes, (2019)