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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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!