Does art exist in and of itself? Contrary to Oscar Wilde’s pronouncement in 1890 that “all art is quite useless”, the 20th century birth of Modernism expressed a tension between the romantic notion of the poet or artist’s higher calling to spiritual or metaphysical truth, untrammelled by social reality, and the heteronomous world in which the artist lives. Art in the early 20th Century expressed a breakaway from the past, embracing the dawn of the machine age of cars, aviation, communication and modern warfare. Italian Futurism is probably the most virulent expression of this revolution:
We will sing of the great crowds agitated by work, pleasure and revolt; the multi-colored and polyphonic surf of revolutions in modern capitals: the nocturnal vibration of the arsenals and the workshops beneath their violent electric moons: the gluttonous railway stations devouring smoking serpents; factories suspended from the clouds by the thread of their smoke; bridges with the leap of gymnasts flung across the diabolic cutlery of sunny rivers: adventurous steamers sniffing the horizon; great-breasted locomotives, puffing on the rails like enormous steel horses with long tubes for bridle, and the gliding flight of aeroplanes whose propeller sounds like the flapping of a flag and the applause of enthusiastic crowds.
The Futurist Manifesto, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti (1909)
Five years after this glorious paean to the destruction of the old order, World War I, also known as “The Great War” broke out, with over 30 nations involved between 1914-18. It was a war of technological innovation and meaningless destruction. As the sociologist Professor Frank Furedi cites in his essay, The First Culture War (2018):
Rites of Spring, Modris Eksteins’ fascinating study of the cultural and aesthetic impact of the Great War, highlights the war’s disruptive, indeed destructive, effect on the prevailing system of meaning. The radical loss of cultural continuity called into question the prevailing system of values without offering any plausible alternatives. ‘Old authority and traditional values no longer had credibility’, yet ‘no new authority and no new values had emerged in their stead’, asserts Eckstein….In this sense, the Great War called into question everything and solved nothing.
However, not every nation or aspiring nation embraced the ensuing loss of meaning or values that such devastation brought about, and the exhibition A New Beginning, Modernism in the Second Polish Republic, currently on at the National Museum in Krakow, Poland offers a much needed breath of optimism and vision of a new society, the rebirth of a destroyed nation. It is easy to simplify European history without engaging with the complex dynamics of respective individual and emerging nations, and in my opinion as a British citizen of immigrant South Asian descent, we can learn so much about the human condition and how a nation can rebuild itself based on values of national sovereignty, independence, republicanism and democracy, by examining this highly overlooked period of history, that took place in Poland.
The history of Poland is steeped in narratives of invasion, colonisation and consequently freedom and independence from the Russians, Prussians and Austrians. The Partitions of Poland that took place towards the end of the 18th century meant that Poland as a country completely disappeared from the European map for 140 years. The Second Polish Republic was established in November 1918 by commander-in-chief of the Polish Army, Józef Pilsudski who established a parliamentary democracy to “replace the rule of violence which has weighed heavily on Poland’s destiny during the last 140 years”.
How to build a nation? Unlike the western European countries, Poland didn’t experience an industrial revolution in the 19th Century, but as it caught up a sense of national pride, optimism and patriotism led to a burst of creative activity that led to, as the part-title of this exhibition states, “a new beginning”.
This exhibition charts an impressive journey of how Polish artists were both enchanted and alienated by modernity, by employing modernist aesthetics, shifting from realist modes of representation, yet also embracing the sacred, folklore and the metaphysical.
Stanisław Brzęczkowski’s (1897-1955) woodcut, handmade paper piece Loneliness in a City (1924) could be an expressionist-style black and white film or stage set of urban despair with high-rise buildings towering over an atomised individual, claustrophobically encircling him.
One of the most important artists to embody a modernist technique and sensibility was Karol Hiller (1891-1939) who was murdered by the Gestapo. The exhibition displays a number of his works that embraced his approach to modern art movements such as Cubism, Constructivism and Abstraction. Modern industrial cityscapes of factories are depicted in two pieces; the fluid, soft angular, realist style painting is of a fiery red factory billowing smoke (Factory, Oil, paper 1929), while the second work, Courtyard (Lithograph, paper, 1922-1924 is executed as a stark, bare, geometric representation. Both works, emptied of people, convey a foreboding sense of dehumanisation in the drive for human progress and industrial development. The by-product of this progress - alienation - is counterpointed by the gestural human action of another lithograph on paper work by the socialist leaning Hiller. Embracing a Christian humanist quality, Peace be with you (1922-1924) and Angel (tempera, paper, 1920) hints at a Byzantine influence.
The necessity of the Second Republic to create a national Polish identity of not only ethnic Catholic Poles, but also Orthodox Ukrainians, Jews and Protestant Germans meant that artists and creatives played a significant part in national reconstruction. It must be remembered that the Second Polish Republic that emerged after 1918 was largely agricultural, agrarian and religious. Polish artists of the second republic did not reject the spiritual and cultural significance of folk traditions, paganism and religion. Instead they embraced these sources as a means to cohere, heal and regenerate. Władysław Skoczylas (1883-1934) and Zofia Stryjeńska’s (1891-1976) art are hardly modernist in aesthetics, but neither are their work mimicking past traditions. Stryjeńska’s colourful, illustrative style leans towards art nouveau illustration, embracing a mythic past untrammelled by the brute colonisation and partition of Polish soil and its people, it celebrates a Slavonic folk tradition.
These tensions between modernity and tradition reflected the Second Republic’s rural/urban, agricultural/industrial, progressive/traditional, radical/conservative dialectic. Count Aleksander Skrzyński (1882-1931) who briefly served as Prime Minister of Poland from 1925-1926, saw the agrarian conditions had not changed at all since the feudal times of the eighteenth century:
There is no doubt of the need for land reform in Poland, from both a social and a political perspective. Anyone who wishes to govern the country must accept that land reform is inevitable, and no one can deny its importance. In discussing this question, it has to be concluded that it cannot be solved unless the agricultural colonisation of Poland is directed towards the east, where there still exist some very extensive landed estates. But here the Polish colonist runs up against the claims of the native population, which is also land-hungry and can justify its claims by indicating that these lands were always worked by their hands.
An anti-industrial sentiment is prevalent in the art depicted in the first sections of A New Beginning; the alienating experience of capitalist progress, a magical vision of a mythic past…yet Stryjeńska’s art brings joy and sublimity, a sacred illumination into the material, social and economic reality of Poland’s difficult marriage between the agrarian and the urban cosmopolitan culture, the latter being more closely associated with the Jews and with socialism. How to heal the psychical damage brought about by past colonialism, by Russian Bolshevism in the early 20th century and later the growing threat from Nazism?
Poland was a divided self, to the west of Warsaw and Krakow a becoming modernity and to the east a territory rooted to the past. Historians describe the foundation years of 2018-19 as Poland’s “year zero”. Warsaw was that aspired to be a capital city, vibrant with style and culture, a growing embodiment of a modern Poland, but still an infant compared to Paris, Berlin, London and across the Atlantic, New York. However, none of these cultural capitals experienced extreme colonial degradation by foreign invaders for centuries. Nevertheless, Warsaw was seen as liberal and progressive, going against the grain of predominant Catholic conservative values and norms.
Modernism as an aesthetic began to flourish rapidly within the realm of architecture, graphic design, media advertising and technological development. On display is a wonderful mock up model of a pioneering futuristic theatre building and stage design, “Simultaneous theatre” (circa 1929) by Szymon Syrkus (1893-1964) and architectural designer Andrzej Pronaszko (1888-1961). Inspired by the avant-garde of other European countries, such as Walter Gropius’s Bauhaus Total Theatre concept, Erwin Piscator’s multi-media theatre and Bertolt Brecht’s theories on epic theatre are evident in this ambitious design, where the tradition of static proscenium arch theatre is done away with and replaced with a revolving stage, free from stage curtains. The idea is that action and performance are witnessed simultaneously rather than linearly, with possibilities of sound, film and lighting design to create collages-like mise en scène. This design for a modern theatre and opera building with a capacity to seat an audience of 3000 was commissioned by the magistrate of the City of Warsaw, an ambitious vision that sadly was never realised.
Grand utopian visions were tempered both by conservative social mores and economics as such a building may well have proved far too costly for a country that had only just lifted itself out of poverty. The Great Depression, which started at the beginning of the 1930s brought many innovative and ground-breaking initiatives to a halt.
Modern Art movements such as Futurism, Constructivism and Dadaism inspired Poland’s burgeoning, predominantly Jewish avant-garde, who were more cosmopolitan and urban in tone and feeling. Artists such as the Warsaw born Henryk Berlewi (1894-1967) came from a secular Polish Jewish family, studying in Antwerp and Paris. Along with Władyslaw Strzemiński he founded Blok, a constructivist group, in 1923. The work on display Mechano-Faktura in White, Red and Black (Gouache, paper, 1924) of rectangles, squares, circle and minimalist waves contains all the classic constructivist tropes of the human spirit contained through the clean lines of modern architecture, the machine, the graphic and geometric.
Technology in the form of film, radio, the motor car/cycle, aviation, shipbuilding, modern buildings and civic amenities, furniture and home design, medical science and public healthcare are featured in the content of this extensive exhibition. The patriotic Polish painter Wojciech Kossak (1856 – 1942), known for his epic realist large paintings of Polish regiments, cavalries and battles was commissioned by Polski Fiat car manufacturer. Under license from the Italian company FIAT, the Polish government created its own brand in 1932. The image by Kossak, Polish Fiat (Lithograph, paper 1934) is an optimistic one, depicting the motor car cheerfully racing a two-horse drawn carriage in the idyllic countryside, it shows a harmonious marriage between rural life and the vibrant modernity of Warsaw before the outbreak of World War 2, when the factory was seized by the Germans in 1939. Witold Chomicz’s (1910 – 1984) beautiful poster Krynica. Summer Season, May – October, Poland (Colour lithograph, paper 1938) highlights this coming together of the folkoric and the modern even further; a fantastical depiction of a goddess-like woman, with flowers in her hair cradling what looks like the sun, held like a floodlight casting a spotlight, in the dark of the blue skies, over two modernist buildings in an environ of pine trees, with the Polish national flag just about visible on top of one building.
Unlike some of the purist concepts of modern art these posters bridge the contiguous space between the artistic intellectual realm of modernism and popular patriotic values, a syncretism.
Unlike the better-known and more internationally studied and exhibited art of the Weimar Republic, Poland’s Second Republic made a revolutionary attempt to bring all Polish people together under one nation based on democratic, plural values without the decadence of the Weimar Republic. There are no images of cabarets, prostitution, gambling, or the bawdy seediness of city life as exemplified by the German artist Otto Dix.
Political and ethnic tensions undoubtedly existed between socialism/communism, Jewish and conservative Catholicism but it must be emphasised that Anti-Semitism existed in every European country and Poland had its fair share, but unlike Nazi Germany or other countries such as Hungary, Italy and Romania there was no anti-Jewish legislation in Catholic Poland.
…the overall situation of the Jews was far more propitious than is usually credited. Anti-Semitism existed, but it was not nearly as widespread, nor as profound or as significant, as has so frequently been claimed. Both Poles and Jews were caught up in a range of circumstances which was bound to create difficulties for their relationship, particularly as the Polish State was handicapped in so many diverse ways.
It did not help the Republic that the majority of Jews were opposed the rebirth of an independent Polish state.
The lack of Polish Jewish artists in this otherwise excellent exhibition is regrettable, considering that just over 10% of the total population of Poland, approximately 3,500,000 were Jews in the mid-1930s. However, this is an important exhibition illuminating the birth of a new nation, an important moment in European history that by 1940 had collapsed through the defeat of the Polish armed forces, and the evacuation of the Polish Government to France and then London. The horrific invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany and the Russian Soviet Union is another story to be told through art.
Manick Govinda – co-curates the “Culture Tensions” public discussions at the Ujazdowski Castle Centre for Contemporary Arts. He is also an independent writer, arts commentator and artists mentor. Previously he worked as an arts commissioner and artists producer within the genres of film/video and performance art.
 Monitor-Polski, 1918, No. 206, cited in Peter D. Stachura, Poland 1918-1945: An Interpretive and Documentary History of the Second Republic (Routledge, 2004)
 A. Skrzyński, Poland and Peace, 1923.
 Peter D. Stachura, Poland 1918-1945: An Interpretive and Documentary History of the Second Republic (Routledge, 2004).