THE PEOPLE of Pland weren't really surprised when the military government banned the sale of paper a few days ago. Posters are made from paper, and in Poland the poster can be a weapon.

"The Poles have brought it to a fine point," said Barbara Lazo, whose Old Warsaw Galleries at 319 Cameron St. in Alexandria will have its annual poster exhibit Sunday through Jan. 31. "Of course, graphics have been very strong in Poland for many years, but the posters really took off after World War II."

The problem was to reconcile the needs of artists and the demands of the state, scrambling back from chaos. Concerned mostly with health and cultural themes, not specifically political, rarely promotional in the sense of travel ads, the posters have grown steadily more sophisticated, branching out into op art, surrealism and hard-edge effects. The tradition -- like that of Cuba -- is so energetic today that Lazo had no trouble collecting more than 700 posters for this year's show.

Many designs promote the circus, not for any specific date but generally, and the variety of styles and approaches ranges from playful cartoon to stark abstraction. There is a haunting portrait of John Lennon, a schizoid Othello, an elegant Copernicus, a stunning and heroic Che Guevara, and any number of opera, theater, film and jazz pictures.

Since the Polish crisis began, Lazo said, the posters have stopped coming. There are a few political fliers and related items from this country, like the AFL-CIO poster: "Polish workers hve told the world. We want free and independent unions." She regrets that she didn't get to Poland last year on her regular biennial buying trip.

Usually she visits the cultural capital, Krakow, where she was born, to check out the work of the latest crop of art students. The artists shown in her amazing gallery, however, must not only be Polish, but must be graduates of the academy of fine arts and must have a reputation outside Poland.

Old Warsaw Galleries is a true labor of love. Though Lazo has lived in this country since 1960, she is still very Polish, and it infuriated her to find so little Polish art in American galleries. An art collector herself, she got her husband, a Peruvian who works for the Organization of American States, to help set her up in business in Alexandria's Old Town. It is a family operation, with the Lazo daughters, 16 and 12, sharing the chores, too. Recently the gallery expanded its horizon with temporary shows in other cities. Not even New York, Lazo said, has a gallery devoted exclusively to Polish art.

The showrooms on two stories are very strong on graphics and tapes-tries, for which Poland has been famous for centuries. There are some striking huge wood blocks, 2 by 4 feet, in dramatic colors by Zbigniew Lutomski. There are the avant-garde etchings of Lesjek Rozga and Andrzej Pietsch, lithographs by Lucjan Mianowski and Wlodzwierz Kunz, who depicted the death camps as did so many Polish artists. There are the photo-realist oils of Andrzej Urbanowicz and the remarkable granite and metal and driftwood compositions of Lubomir Tomaszewski.

"Tomaszewski is working in burned wood now," said Lazo, who recently became the sculptor's agent. "It's very different from this." His work here is pictorial, finding the shape of an eagle's wings in a stone; turning a slab of granite into the storm-blown robe of a biblical prophet, whose head and arm are in metal.

There's something Polish for everyone in the Old Warsaw Galleries. There are even some Polish jams and jellies.

"I came here 25 years ago," Lazo said, "but Poland is still my home."