Bohdan Butenko ǀ A Book Is Made Like a Sweater


The exhibition held in Bunkier Sztuki, which is the first initiative of Mały Instytut Polskiej Ilustracji (the Little Institute of Polish Illustration), is an attempt to adopt a new approach to the works of Bohdan Butenko, one of the best known and most successful Polish graphic artists, representative of the so-called Polish School of Illustration. Butenko, along with Daniel Mróz, Janusz Stanny, Jan Marcin Szancer, Franciszka Themerson and Józef Wilkoń, is ranked among the greatest in this field. His designs have already shaped the tastes of three generations of readers, and continue to influence artistic explorations of young illustrators.

The exhibition focusses on the phenomenon of “architecture” of books created by Bohdan Butenko. Highly conscious of the aspects of creation, the artist elevated typography and graphic design to the status of art. Butenko designs each volume meticulously, from cover to such details as imprint. ‘You have to knit so that it won’t rip’, he says with his characteristic sense of humour, comparing design process to knitting a sweater. Highly developed aesthetic sense and utmost attention to detail make Butenko’s books works of art, where all features – typographic, photographic, bookbinding – form a multi-level visual narration.

What makes Butenko’s style unique is not only the expert choice of figures and typefaces, but also the ability – rare among contemporaneous illustrators – to find printing solutions that would overcome the constraints of the rough Communist era.

During the exhibition period a debate will be held, featuring Bohdan Butenko, Ewa Gruda, director of Muzeum Książki Dziecięcej (the Museum of Children’s Books in Warsaw), Doctor Anita Wincencjusz-Patyna, art historian specialising in illustration theory and history, and Sebastian Frąckiewicz, editor-in-chief of lubimyczytac.pl (Polish readers’ community website) and comic book critic at “Polityka” (leading weekly newsmagazine).

The artist will also conduct an art workshop for children as part of Mały Klub Bunkra Sztuki (Bunkier Sztuki Little Club).

Bohdan Butenko, born in 1931, graduated from Warsaw’s Academy of Fine Arts (ASP) in 1955 and soon began working as Art Director for the publishing house Nasza Księgarnia, which in 1956 issued his first books: Pan Maluśkiewicz i wieloryb (Mr. Tiny and the Whale) by Julian Tuwim and 35 maja (May 35th) by Erich Kästner. Since then approximately 250 titles marked ‘Butenko pinxit’ have come onto the market, many of them abroad as well. Butenko designed several well-known comic characters, including Gucio and Cezar (Gussie and Caesar), Gapiszon (Gapey) and Kwapiszon (Eager), having conceived the last two himself. He illustrated and designed children’s books of successful writers: Jan Brzechwa, Julian Tuwim, Joanna Kulmowa, Joanna Papuzińska, Adam Bahdaj, Wanda Chotomska, Wiktor Woroszylski, Edmund Niziurski, Kornel Makuszyński, Erich Kästner, Edward Lear and others. But children’s literature is not the only field of Butenko’s creation. His graphics flavoured prose of Gustaw Morcinek, Bohumil Hrabal, Hanna Krall; poetry of Adam Asnyk, Tadeusz Kubiak; and many more publications oriented towards adult readers. His output also includes posters, typography for popular science books, theatrical and television scenography, magazine layouts, drawings for cartoons, as well as original books, which seamlessly combine pictures and words.

Many of Butenko’s works were recognised as the Most Beautiful Book of the Year (Najpiękniejsza Książka Roku) by Polish Association of Book Publishers, or Book of the Year (Książka Roku) by IBBY Poland. He was also awarded in numerous international competitions. Treasure List of the Museum of Children’s Books in Warsaw, compiled since 2009, includes PKP czyli Poczet Królów Polskich (The Gallery of Polish Kings) by Grzegorz Wasowski and Gucio i Cezar (Gussie and Caesar), a comic book written by Krystyna Boglar.

Selected international awards

IBA prizes (Leipzig) for Dong, co ma świecący nos (The Dong with a Luminous Nose) by Edward Lear (in 1965), Krople na start (Ready, Steady, Rain!) by Ludwik Górski (in 1971) and Pali się! (Fire!) by Jan Brzechwa (in 1977)

Premio Europeo (Padua) for Całe życie Marianny, czyli historia Francji (Marianne’s Life, or History of France) by Jean Duché (in 1976)

IMGE prize (Istanbul) for Wyczyny niezrównanego hodży Nasreddina (The Incomparable Nasreddin) by Idries Shah (in 2003)

Inclusion of reprinted Pan Maluśkiewicz i wieloryb (Mr. Tiny and the Whale) by Julian Tuwim among the White Ravens of Munich’s Internationale Jugendbibliothek (in 2010)

Mały Instytut Polskiej Ilustracji (the Little Institute of Polish Illustration) is an independent artistic and research initiative aimed at systematising and popularising the extensive output of the so-called Polish School of Illustration, analysing its reception home and abroad and presenting its works in the context of broadly defined visual culture.

Although a sensation on a global scale during its boom back in the fifties, sixties and seventies, Polish illustration has not yet been discussed, nor has it been duly researched by native art historians. Meanwhile creations of Polish illustrators mirrored all the most important trends of modern art, and widely read books were being designed by eminent artists: Bohdan Butenko, Jan Młodożeniec, Daniel Mróz, Janusz Stanny, Jan Marcin Szancer, Franciszka Themerson, Józef Wilkoń and many others. Educational qualities of children’s book illustrations were significant too; such publications have been shaping the tastes of the youngest readers and so contributed to blurring the conventional distinction between ‘pure’ and applied art.

Nowadays, having overcome stagnation apparent in the eighties and nineties, Polish illustrators gain recognition again, redeveloping ideas put into practice by the past generations of artists. One of the primary goals set for the Institute is to analyse relationships between traditional and new schools of Polish illustration, reopen a closed chapter of history and throw classic works into the tide of culture.