On Fashion and Revolution

Eastern Europe, Uncategorized

This short text was commissioned by the curators of Left Performance Histories, a pioneering and thought-provoking exhibition at NGBK, Berlin in spring 2018.


In paying attention to queer and radical actions in the gallery, on the stage and in the street in Eastern Europe in the 1970s and 1980s, Left Performance Histories not only puts a spotlight on overlooked and forgotten histories, it also suggests the extent to which communist authority in the region emphasised conservative and conventional social values. Sex, for instance, was understood in very prurient terms in the Soviet Union and even in the more liberal settings of, say, the Hungarian People’s Republic and Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, it was managed through licensed pornography and ‘glamour’ (though the tawdry strip joints which were found in many Eastern European cities in the 1980s hardly lived up to this claim). Homosexuality was almost invisible, too. Always at risk of stimulating unmanageable desires, Fashion was also a ‘problem’. It is unsurprising then that the authorities in the 1970s often encouraged a kind of ‘ersatz’ fashion – largely copied from the West – in order to vent the desire for fashionability.

Historians and political commentators have often supplied accounts of culture and life in the Eastern Bloc and Yugoslavia which are in themselves highly conventionalising. Often, state artists have been lined up against dissidents in a tidy arrangement which produces the impression of two distinct zones – official and unofficial culture. The former is associated with illusion, deception and propaganda, and the other with transparency and a commitment to what Vaclav Havel called ‘living in truth’. So how can we explain the remarkable set of practices gathered under the title of Left Performance Histories? After all they were hardly predicated on ‘truth’. Often spectacular and sometimes conducted in public, events like Mode von Frauen für Frauen in Erfurt in 1988 or El Kazovszkij’s androgynous ‘Dzsan’ brought excess and fantasy to societies which are often understood in terms of shortage and control. Neither hymns to authority or the expression of the earnest politics of dissent, underground catwalk shows, wilfully absurd performances and bold declarations of sexuality were self-consciously ‘other’.

Many works included in Left Performance Histories might be understood as ‘queer’. This, of course, means an eschewal of heteronormativity, but is also the practice of subverting the straight lines of convention. Recalling her activities as a video artist (with Aina Šmid), activist and writer in Yugoslavia, Marina Grzinič writes: “queer positions – every form of non-heterosexual positioning we understood, exclusively and entirely, as a political stance. This queerness – and the word queer means literally ‘not right/not quite’ – demands, of us and of the viewer, a rethinking of the conditions of life, work, and possibilities of resistance.”


Tamás Király, Red star dress, 1987. Photo by Jonathan Csaba Almási

The symbols and ideological claims of socialism were ‘made strange’, sometimes by simply being declared. In the early 1970s Bálint Szombathy, for instance, produced a remarkable note of ideological disturbance by the simple gesture of carrying a placard with the portrait of a portrait of Lenin through the streets and workplaces of Budapest. Others took a more wilful an even perverse approach – Tamás Király, a Hungarian fashion designer, created a self-consciously ridiculous ‘red star dress’ to mark the 70th anniversary of the October Revolution. Elsewhere, Vladimir Mamyshev-Monroe and close colleagues Yuris Lesnik and Timur Novikov in the Soviet Union, created ‘Pirate TV’ in 1988 – an underground television programme distributed on VHS cassettes. Mamyshev-Monroe presented improvised and uncensored ‘series’ that had the liveliness and busy energy of MTV, the global cable and satellite channel, if not its production values. One was entitled ‘Culture News’ and another, ‘The Deaths of Famous People’. Dressed extravagantly for the screen, Mamyshev Monroe set about queering the icons of history, politics and popular culture. Mamyshev Monroe assumed a hybrid persona combining Adolf Hitler and Marilyn Monroe, dissolving ‘both of them in myself, this appearing as the model of the new man’. At the end of the Soviet Union, a figure who once been announced as the harbinger of a world to come was, it seemed, invoked to announce the utopia of queer futurism. But irony allows one thing to be said, but another meant. And ambiguity can – in some circumstances – be productive – should we take Szombathy and Mamyshev-Monroe’s performance of these left histories as dissimulation or sincere call to revolution?


Dan Perjovschi: The Power of the Margins

Contemporary Art, Eastern Europe, Uncategorized

A piece written in 2010 ….


The international art world ‘discovered’ Dan Perjovschi in 1999 when his drawings were displayed in the Romanian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale.[1] Under the title ‘rEST’, he covered the floor with cartoons and slogans in thick marker-pen reflecting on life in Eastern-Central Europe since the overthrow of communist rule 10 years earlier. Over time, his cartoons slowly disappeared under the traffic of visitors.

But just as Columbus could hardly discover a populated continent, the art world could not ‘discover’ this Romanian artist. In 1999 Dan Perjovschi had already been active for more than a decade in North America and throughout Europe. Moreover, the techniques of erasure and abjection that brought poignancy to his drawings in Venice were already key features of his practice. In ‘Anthroprogramming’ made in 1996 in New York, he had laid a loose grid on the walls of the Franklin Furnace artspace and then fill each box with a quick-fire portrait sketch. He then spent ten days systematically erasing the grid and its occupants. Perj 2In ‘Live! From the Ground’, a 1988 performance in Chisinau in Moldova, he crawled prostrate along the city’s main street. Addressing the cracked tarmac, he called out ‘Ground to centre! Come in! Come in! I can’t hear you’ like some kind of desperate army telegraph operator. Dan Perjovschi saw this action as a metaphor for life in the communist and post-communist years when Romanian society moved at a crawl ‘unable to tear ourselves off the ground’.[2] Witty and sometimes sardonic, the Venice drawings also owed much to his work as a cartoonist for 22, a fiercely independent political magazine published in Bucharest to which he had contributed since the early 1990s. Dan Perjovschi’s work in Venice drew praise for pointing to the disappearance of ‘the East’ in the face of ‘Western’ values and the rise of the market conditions: it also signalled the rise of a new phenomenon, that of the Eastern European artist, a new exotic species in the fauna of art.

In the years since, Dan Perjovschi has drawn commentaries on life in the era of globalisation directly on the walls of many galleries and museums around the world. His thick pen has marked the crisp white surfaces of the Museum of Modern Art in New York (2007) and the crystalline walls of the extension to the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto (2009) designed by Daniel Libeskind. When invited to participate in biennales and other short-term art events, he often works in chalk on the exteriors of buildings or on the paving stones of the street. Increasingly Dan Perjovschi himself features as part of the visual spectacle, working while the public looks on. This is an aspect of his practice which causes Dan Perjovschi some disquiet: ‘We live in a cannibalistic period,’ he has said. ‘People simply want you’.[3] Never permanent additions to the collections of the institutions which commission him, his drawings are painted over a few weeks later or, when produced in an ephemeral medium like chalk, disappear naturally. TateAt Tate Liverpool in 2008-9 this pattern was reversed: Dan Perjovschi’s blackboard drawings were slowly overwritten over the course of two months by chalk cartoons and graffiti by the city’s school children. A frenzy of buzzing lines and words slowly swallowed his work. At the end, the only way to leave a mark on this billowing surface of chalk dust was to draw with a wet fingertip.

Despite the enthusiastic embrace of his work in the high temples of the art world, Dan Perjovschi continues to occupy the margins, sometimes literally. He draws in corridors, around the doorways on ceilings and on floors, sometimes making a feature of the edges of the space. Occupying the dizzying atrium space in the monumental lobby of MOMA in New York in 2007, Dan Perjovschi’s drawings were ‘interrupted’ by the floor and folded around the corners of the wall. Edges are not necessarily marginal spaces. In fact, they offer up ideal positions for critical perspectives.


late C13th copy of Aristotle’s Physics

Here, an analogy can be drawn from the past. In the Middle Ages, artists illuminating books would sometimes add mocking glosses and grotesque figures to the borders of the page. The anxieties which lurked in the dark spaces of the human imagination were given material form as dog-headed men, one-footed beasts and ape-angels. An illuminator might supplement his portraits of venerable saints and wise philosophers with depictions of profane acts and erotic fantasies. Off-centre and often humorous, these devices provided a kind of imaginative escape for the illuminator and the reader wearied by the orderly and uplifting content of the missal or book of hours. Some marginalia went further, seeming to offer critique of the text itself. The British Library, for instance, possesses a late thirteenth century copy of Aristotle’s Physics, a controversial text when it prepared for scholars in Europe’s universities (to the extent that it was ordered to be burned in Paris as a text which might encourage heresy[4]). On a page discussing the Heavens, a scholar in his study stares into the space above the block of text. His vision of the starry firmament is, however, obscured by a scabrous fool being transported in a wheelbarrow over bumpy ground. [no image but would like one] In his analysis of this marginal image, Michael Camille suggests that it is a satirical commentary on the consequences of acquiring too much knowledge.[5] Had the body buckled under the weight of all the lofty ideas contained on the very same page? Irreverent and witty, illuminated marginalia was inevitably dependent on the centre. The fact that these unruly images appeared on the same page as the sacred Word or brilliant philosophical treatises is what gave them such potency (and, as Camille suggests, perhaps, as a result, the centre was made all the more secure and stable by the presence of fantastic images on the edge[6]).

Perj 6What is the relation of Dan Perjovschi’s graphic marginalia to the institutions on which they are quite literally inscribed? In many of his cartoons and slogans, he reflects on the condition of the museum and gallery in the twentieth-first century, deprecating the commercialism and sponsorship of culture. Like many Eastern European intellectuals, Dan Perjovschi possesses a sharp sense of freedom and so ‘free’ – whether attached to humans or things – is a word which invariably raises suspicion.[7]  The excess and profligacy of the international biennale, a seemingly unending cycle of bonanzas, is ridiculed too (‘DUE TO GLOBAL WARMING THE VENICE BIENNALE WILL BE LOCATED TO STOCKHOLM’). Curators are identified as minor dictators, in one drawing framing the eyes of a faceless artist. Dan Perjovschi does not exempt himself from his critical pen: the figure of the ‘international artist’ who lives his or her life from a suitcase appears regularly in his cartoon cast. In one image that featured in his 2010 Royal Ontario Museum show, two figures, hands in pockets, exchange small talk. ‘WHAT YOU DID AFTER THE FALL OF THE BERLIN WALL?’ asks one. ‘BASEL ART FAIR’ replies the other. Positioned next to the text panel describing Dan Perjovschi’s art, this cartoon points to the art world’s keen embrace of the Eastern European artist (as well the commodification of politics in the form of artworks with expensive price tags[8]). In fact, the curatorial statement on the wall nearby begins by describing Dan Perjovschi as ‘One of Eastern Europe’s most sought-after artists.’

Dan Perjovschi’s wall-drawings look unplanned, unfinished and even instinctive (and, as such, a suppression of all that he had learned at the conservative George Enescu University of Art in the 1980s). Occasionally, scratching out ‘errors’ in thick black marks, his lines are quick and bold. He writes in English in hasty capital letters, seemingly with little concern for penmanship. Figures, buildings and actions are reduced to a simple graphic lexicon of silhouettes and loose geometric shapes. National and political symbols are drafted in as graphic ready-mades. His wall drawings are not, however, always as spontaneous as they might seem. While some figures are conjured up on the spot, others are distilled from the sketchbook he always carries with him. Over the years Dan Perjovschi’s sketchbooks function as a kind of archive of ideas, always ready when needed. The same figures and motifs appear in his wall drawings, still resonant 10 years or more after their first appearance. They pass from one context to another. The phrase ‘I AM NOT EXOTIC I AM EXHAUSTED’ often resurfaces, most recently at his show at the Centre for Visual Introspection (CIV) in Bucharest in 2010. Each time it materialises on a wall, it gathers new poignancy.

When commissioned to draw in situ, Dan Perjovschi absorbs himself in the press. This is not just a matter of expediency. When he was commissioned by the Ludwig Museum in Köln in 2005 to fill the white cube of its DC-Room over several weeks, copies of Le Monde, The Guardian, The International Herald Tribune and Newsweek were arranged on tables in the centre of the gallery. [image 8] In effect, viewers were invited to reflect on the relation between the detailed reports in print and his telegraphic images. (The exhibition extended beyond the walls of the Ludwig when, each week during the exhibition, die tageszeitung printed a visual digest by Dan Perjovschi on current events). 22One conclusion to be drawn from the comparison is that he is a brilliant visual and textual editor. In English, his word plays are often as sharp as any newspaper headline and his drawings deliver their message in a few telegraphic lines. These are skills honed over many years. When he joined the team of 22, the first independent weekly in Romania after the 1989 Revolution, he was involved in all aspects of the press from layout to proofreading. Established by a group of dissidents and intellectuals called the Group of Social Dialogue, 22 continues to defend freedom of speech and democratic rights in Romania. Loyal to the cause, Dan Perjovschi, wherever he is in the world, still sends cartoons to the weekly today.

Resolutely anti-communist, Dan Perjovschi has, by an accident of history, fulfilled a communist vision of the radical newspaper. After the October Revolution in Russia in 1917, the young Bolshevik state encouraged the production of wall-newspapers or what in Russian are called stengazety.[9] Workers and school children were encouraged to paste up news, cartoons, to ‘publish’ documentary photographs and commentaries on the transformation of their world. Soviet citizens were, as the Communist Party loudly trumpeted, living through the greatest social transformation in the history of mankind. Their reports, sketches and cartoons were displayed on the streets, in factories and hospitals as well as in schools and apartment blocks in Soviet Russia.

The wall-newspaper was not just a medium for the transmission of ideas: it was, according to its champions, a mechanism for the transformation of consciousness. In recording and reporting their world, not least on the walls of the stengazeta, the new Soviet man and woman would become conscious of their own progressive influence in the world. In other words, they would become real revolutionaries. The efflorescence of proletarian creativity was an illusion: in fact, considerable effort went into providing ‘advice’ about how and what to write for the stengazeta, all material required permission of communist authorities. Although the wall-newspaper was exported to the newly-formed Eastern bloc in the late 1940s including to Romania, regulation and control eventually did for the format. The wall newspaper became a moribund relic of revolutionary socialism. By the 1960s, state printers in East Germany were turning out wall-newspaper ‘cut and paste’ kits. Printed reports, logos and stencils turned the act of authorship into one of assemblage (not unlike writing for the official communist press). The events of 1989 in Eastern Europe put an end to the wall newspaper: in the years since, Dan Perjovschi has restored this low-tech medium reviving its critical, comic and unruly energy. Preparing ‘The Room Drawing’ at Tate Modern in London in 2006, he took the views of museum staff, Tate members and representatives from Tate Modern’s Council. The drawings which filled the Members’ Room – a clubish space for fee-paying affiliates, open to the public for Dan Perjovschi’s exhibition – incorporated their comments and views of local and international events and ‘personal issues’.

Offering a distinctly critical perspective on the interests at work in the world without the heavy hand of propaganda, Dan Perjovschi’s work is often described as ironic. Irony is a form of dissimulation: an ironist says one thing but means another. Dan Perjovschi’s images are irreverent but they feign little. They show the world exactly as he sees it, albeit often in its most incongruous forms. When his drawings are absurd, it is because life is absurd. Looking at his wall drawings and slogans we see what we already know: communities living on fault-lines (East-West/Christian-Muslim) fail to understand each other; politicians are ruled by their egos and their libidos; and advertising makes us unhappy. In an age infected with the plague of irony (sometimes glossed as ‘postmodern irony’) Dan Perjovschi’s direct humour seems to point to an earlier, though no less sophisticated, way of viewing the world which exposes the vanity of people and the irrationality of systems which organise life. In this regard, he seems closer to existential skepticism than the postmodern taste for irony. ‘No society has been able to abolish human sadness, no political system can deliver us from the pain of living, from our fear of death, our thirst for the absolute’ wrote playwright Eugène Ionescu 50 years ago. ‘It is the human condition that directs the social condition, not vice versa.’[10] These words might be used to caption Dan Perjovschi’s drawings today.

Refusing to be anyone’s representative, Dan Perjovschi has repeatedly expressed his dislike of the label ‘Romanian artist’ or even ‘Eastern European artist’, viewing both terms as limitations. To judge from the tremendous popularity of his work around the world, his art has a universal appeal which transcends such narrow categories. Nevertheless, Dan Perjovschi’s relations to Romania – past and present – are complex and ultimately productive. In 1993, he staged his commitment to the country by having a tattoo of the word Romania on his shoulder as a public performance at Zone 1, a festival in Timişoara. PerjAn ambiguous gesture, the tattoo implied both choice (this I chose to do) and compulsion (‘my’ national identity is marked on me). In 2003 he had this tattoo removed in three public sessions at ‘In the Gorges of the Balkans’ exhibition in Kassel, Germany, a gesture which marked a break with the nation. Kristine Stiles, in her landmark study of Dan Perjovschi and Lia Perjovschi’s art, identifies this action with a renewal of their vows of dissent. Thereafter, they became increasingly critical of the activities of the political and cultural elites in Romania.[11]

There is reason to be critical. Despite the violence that it unleashed, the 1989 Revolution channelled tremendous hopes for democracy, freedom of speech and the dignity that comes from an improved quality of life. Those who took power in 1990 – and their successors – have been keen to hold on to it, sometimes with little regard for the actual workings of democracy. The bodies responsible for ‘decommunisation’ – the process by which those who supported or benefited from the Ceauşescu regime are denied power or influence – have been neutralised. Capital is concentrated in the hands of a small number of oligarchs, many closely connected to political cartels. The courts and the media seem to serve the interests of the elite. Meanwhile, Romania remains one of the poorest countries in Europe with broken roads, schools and hospitals.[12] Dan Perjovschi has been highly critical of the political culture in Romania, refusing to be swept up in the populist nationalism which stirs the country periodically. His 2010 CIV exhibition in Bucharest offered brilliantly incisive commentaries on the failures of the Revolution. One figure carries a national flag which has had its central motif excised. In 1989, revolutionaries cut out the coat of arms which signalled the Romanian Socialist Republic, producing an icon of erasure. In Dan Perjovschi’s 2010 image, the flag-carrying figure has placed his own face in the hole or, perhaps, the hole has become his face, a device which points to the arrogance and petty nationalism of the politicians who have led Romania in the last two decades.


Art Space Alina Romania, 2011

Despite his strong criticisms of Romania today, Dan Perjovschi continues to make his home in Bucharest (and, as such, is unlike ten per cent of the adult labour force who have left the country to work abroad[13]). The country remains a productive place for his art and for reflecting on the processes of globalisation underway in Europe. When, in 1989, communism collapsed, bankrupt and exhausted, many in the West predicted a future for the countries of Eastern Europe in terms determined by neo-liberal capitalism. This was the ‘natural’ and incontestable face of the modern society. What Dan Perjovschi’s art exposes is the hubris and injustice in the ‘New Global Order’. One cannot help but think that his perspectives on the political, social and economic interests shaping the world are more sharply focused because of his Romanian vantage point. This view is all the more powerful because it is taken from the margins.














[1] This was a joint show with subREAL, a group formed by artists Cãlin Dan and Josif Király in 1990.

[2] Dan Perjovschi cited by Kristine Stiles, States of Mind. Dan and Lia Perjovschi (Durham, NC., 2007), 73.

[3] Dan Perjovschi, interviewed Ileana Pintilie (December 2006) www.artmargins.com/index.php/5-interviews/154-drawing-for-freedom-an-interview-with-dan-perjovschi – accessed July 2010.

[4] Haig A. Bosmajian, Burning books (Jefferson, NC, 2006), 49.

[5] Michael Camille, Image on the Edge: The Margins of Medieval Art (London, 1998), 22-23.

[6] Camille, Image on the Edge, 26.

[7] See Svetlana Boym, Another Freedom: The Alternative History of an Idea (Chicago, 2010), particularly chapter five.

[8] Of course there is nothing new in this. See Christina Kiaer, Imagine No Possessions: The Socialist Objects of Russian Constructivism (Boston, MA, 2008).

[9] Catriona Kelly, ‘”A Laboratory for the Manufacture of Proletarian Writers”: The Stengazeta (Wall Newspaper), Kul’turnost’ and the Language of Politics in the Early Soviet Period’ in Europe-Asia Studies (June 2002), 573-602.

[10] Eugène Ionescu (writing in The Observer, 29 June 1958) cited in Martin Esslin, The Theatre of the Absurd (Harmondsworth, 1968), 126.

[11] Stiles, States of Mind, 79

[12] See Tom Gallagher, Theft of a Nation: Romania since Communism (London, 2005).

[13] See Tom Gallagher, ‘Romania and Europe: An Entrapped Decade’ (March 2010) – www.opendemocracy.net/tom-gallagher/romania-and-europe-entrapped-decade – accessed July 2010.

Études with a camera – Dóra Maurer’s films and photoworks

Contemporary Art, Eastern Europe, Music, Uncategorized


What can one do with a cobblestone?


What Can One Do With a Cobble-Stone? 1971

This was a question asked and answered by Dóra Maurer in 1971. It is the title of a series of photographs in which she documented a cobblestone being obliged to participate in various activities. After tethering it with string for one photo, in another she pulls it along a run of marshy ground like a reluctant animal. Later in the sequence, Maurer washes and caresses the stone cube like a child. Then, after wrapping it in a sheet of paper, she sets fire to the package; the cube survives its ordeal. She then casts it into the air, as if attempting to rid herself of an encumbrance. Organized in a grid of 15 photographic prints, both the first and last images suggest different discoveries of the same cobblestone. It is an object that seems, at least in this arrangement, to keep reappearing like the proverbial bad penny.

Maurer was not the only Hungarian artist thinking with cobblestones that year. Film-maker Gyula Gazdag had just completed his movie, Sípoló macskakő (The Whistling Cobblestone), the story of a group of Hungarian teenagers at a KISZ (Young Communist League) work camp on a collective farm. Their listless summer is interrupted by a visitor from Paris who has a toy cobblestone dangling from the rear-view mirror of his Citroën, a ‘souvenir’ of the events of May 1968 in the French capital. The visitor encourages the students to follow the lead of the Les Enragés in France, to little effect. The taboo subject of the failed Hungarian Uprising of 1956 – when cobblestones had been loosened to impede the progress of Soviet tanks – haunts their conversation. As one student notes, the cobbles in Budapest are now covered in Tarmac

In March 1972, inspired by Gazdag’s film and in support of demonstrations marking the anniversary of the 1956 Uprising (and the War of Independence in 1848), Hungarian critic and curator László Beke called for artists to make works featuring cobblestones (and, tellingly, gravestones[1]). In fact, this idea already had its proponents: Gyula Pauer made replicas of cobblestones incapable of bearing the weight of traffic (1971–72), and Gyula Gulyás fashioned a portable paving block with handles bearing the words ‘Made in Hungary’ (1972). Unlike, perhaps, the works of some of her colleagues, Maurer’s ‘What can one do with a cobblestone?’ expresses a cautionary view of revolutionary politics and of political art. This is not surprising. Under the influence of the Soviet Union, art in the Hungarian People’s Republic at the end of the 1940s had been turned into a tense zone of censorship and propaganda. Even the liberalization of Hungarian culture in the late 1960s was accompanied by prohibition, with officials identifying three types of art: that which could be supported and so can be called official; that which might be ‘tolerated’ (a category which included expressive forms of Modernism); and that which remained prohibited. Maurer was a central figure in a close and resolutely independent community of artists, musicians and poets that strove to create its own culture outside of this grading system. They organised their own exhibition spaces in apartments and, famously, a disused chapel in the resort town of Balatonboglár, over 80 miles from the capital;[2] they commissioned each other to make work with common themes; and they issued samizdat (self-published) journals. Usually described as ‘conceptual artists’ (or, sometimes, ‘concept artists’), this loose community is estimated to have created more than 50 such collective ‘actions’ in the first half of the 1970s.[3]

Writing in 1972, Béla Hap described the attitude of ‘unofficial’ artists to power in Hungary:

It is an artistic ‘movement’ that neither supports not attacks the establishment, but remains outside of it. Any attack on the establishment would acknowledge its existence. Being a real organized movement is another form of engaging in the game of the superficial world. The underground does not forbid its supporters from political subjects, as it does not forbid or order at all, but the appearance of such subjects is the private business of the artist.[4]

Demonstrating his point, Hap’s words appeared in Szétfolyóirat (Writing that Flows Apart), a short-run samizdat edited by Maurer in February 1973. Featuring experimental art and poetry, art criticism and philosophy, Szétfolyóirat was as much a concept as a magazine. Five copies were made of each issue (each edited by a different person) and then passed on to a trusted recipient who would add in at least 15 more pages and then send the augmented publication on to five new recipients. Szétfolyóirat not only put uncensored ideas in circulation, it knitted together a community of readers and writers.

‘Hungarian_ issue of SchmuckWhile Maurer has been resolutely independent in her career as an artist, she has often worked closely with others, most regularly her husband, Tibor Gáyor, a Hungarian who escaped the country after the political repression that followed the Uprising. The couple met in Vienna in 1967 when Maurer was in the city on a Rockefeller Scholarship. Their marriage brought dual nationality, which meant that she could travel between Austria and Hungary with relative ease, becoming a key means of contact between unofficial artists in Hungary and their international counterparts. Maurer has also enjoyed productive exchanges with figures active in other areas of the arts. She has curated many exhibitions and edited anthologies including a ‘Hungarian’ issue of Schmuck magazine (in collaboration with Beke), which was published in Britain in 1972. With Miklós Erdély and György Galántai, Maurer developed a series of experimental workshops at the Ganz-MÁVAG Cultural Centre in the mid 1970s that were later known as ‘Kreativitási gyakorlatok’ (Creativity Exercises). Rejecting conventional art training and encouraging collective activities, participants were given playful group exercises, sometimes using video cameras – a rare resource in Hungary at the time.

‘The Form-language of film art’


Reversible and Changeable Phases of Movements No.4, 1972

With its grid structure, What can one do with a cobblestone? expresses Maurer’s interest in motion and change. The vigorous and full-body actions documented by this work were, however, soon replaced by a focus on small human gestures. Her ‘Reversible and Changeable Phases of Movements’ series of 1972, for instance, examines mundane activities such as throwing and catching a ball, the demeanour of a face or common hand signs. The first work in the series concentrates on interactions between a hand and a stone. Here the reproducibility of the photographic image allowed a small number of images – in this case, just three – to be placed in many different permutations. Like the syntax of words in a sentence, some of these image combinations – when read left to right – seem meaningful (a hand puts a stone in the corner); others do not (corner, corner, corner). When the order of the sequence is reversed, the meaning of the gesture changes (puts down becomes picks up). Highly systematic and accompanied by terse instructions or even diagrams, these works have the aura of a scholarly semiotic investigation into the logical relations of words.

Maurer was by no means alone in her interest in the operations of language. Conceptual art had kindled in others an enthusiasm for logic and linguistics, as well as systems and experiments. In 1973, the young film-maker Gábor Bódy established an experimental film-making programme at the state-run Balázs Béla Studió (BBS), which commissioned artists and composers to explore ‘film language’. The intention was for the techniques and tools of film-making to be put under scrutiny by creative artists using the resources and professional expertise of a well-equipped film studio. Later known as K/3, the programme provided remarkably unfettered opportunities for experimentation, even if its output was rarely screened. ‘K/3 was established,’ according to Miklós Peternák, ‘with the ambition of becoming a Bauhaus-like centre for research in the audiovisual area’.[5] In fact, Bódy imagined László Moholy-Nagy, the Modernist artist, film-maker and Bauhaus teacher, as an ally from the past (Bódy once planned to make a film in which Moholy-Nagy would appear on screen).[6] One of the greatest theorists of the modern image, Moholy-Nagy was only – and somewhat belatedly – being rediscovered in the People’s Republic after the prohibitions on Modernism had been relaxed.


Relatív lengések (Relative Swingings, 1973)

Maurer’s three-part film Relatív lengések (Relative Swingings, 1973) was a product of the experimental programme at BSS. The ostensible subjects of her film are a cone-shaped lamp and a simple cylinder (like the elemental volumes that were the trademark of so many Bauhaus artworks and designs). Suspended from the ceiling, they are swung in horizontal and circular movements, as is the 35mm camera that films them. Maurer systematically explored the full range of combinations of swinging camera and swaying subject. Sometimes the image of motion is produced by moving the lamp and sometimes by moving the camera. Later in the film, all three elements are in motion, the light from the moving lamp creating different effects on the moving cylinder. To demonstr

Reversable 3

Reversible and Changeable Phases of Movements No.2, 1972

ate the techniques involved in conducting this set of experiments into the nature of perception, this film is accompanied by another that shows how Maurer and the cameraman, János Gulyás, achieved a range of subtly different perceptual effects.

Ostensibly Maurer’s serial photographic works and structural films from the 1970s seem systematic, objective and rational. And in many ways they are. But images are not words, and bodies are not abstract symbols. The stuttering repetition of images or the viewer’s capacity to compare one sequence with another in the grid seem, perhaps inevitably, to point to human associations and limitations. Maurer also interrupts her own systems. The second work in the ‘Reversible and Changeable Phases of Movements’ series (1972), for instance, combines three photographs of a male figure in a field, in three different phases of the act of sitting. Like other works in this series, the piece explores all the permutations of these phases. A pattern logic seems to organize the composition until a ‘rogue’ image appears in the last frame: a photograph of a chair. Once the viewer becomes aware of this interruption, Maurer’s study suddenly seems to acquire existential associations – this is not just a chair but an empty chair. There is also something of this ineffable quality in her attempts to measure natural materials in works like Schautafel 3 (1973), which Maurer called ‘quantity boards’. Laying a cord grid of tidy squares over straw and sand gathered from a river bank, the piece is an invitation to count the infinite. Later – in 1976 – Maurer made a simple experiment with a piece of paper that was as long as she is tall. Folding the sheet four times, she created a proportional system for measuring her own body. Unfolding her new yardstick on the ground, Maurer then attempted to assess the span of her outstretched arms, the roll of her shoulders and other dimensions of her body against this new proportional system – an improvised version of Le Corbusier’s Modulor Man or Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. The video documenting this action – entitled Proportions – records both a bodily ideal and the ‘failure’ of a system.


Film music

While most of Maurer’s works can be – and often are – described as experiments, it is not always evident what is being tested or measured. In some, such as Relative Swingings, one can trace the outline of ‘the scientific method’: an experiment is set up in controlled conditions to test a hypothesis; the results of that test are recorded, ideally by an objective instrument, and then repeated as a ‘proof’. But increasingly over the course of the 1970s, Maurer’s films and photographs seem to be less documents of her activities than experiments on the viewer. Perception itself is being tested. Here one might sense a connection with the utopian Scientism that underpins Moholy-Nagy’s monumental and posthumously published book, Vision in Motion (1947). In this study, the former Bauhausler set a new agenda for progressive art that emphasises the body as much as the machine: ‘It is the artist’s duty today to penetrate yet-unseen ranges of the biological functions, to search the new dimensions of industrial society and to translate the new findings into emotional orientation.’[7] But rather than extend human potential, Maurer’s experiments seem to draw attention to the limits of human perception.

This focus on perception owes a good deal to her training and practice as a printmaker in the late 1950s and early 1960s, but also has much to do with Maurer’s interest in ‘displacements’, a term which she adopted as the title of her solo exhibition at the Neue Galerie in Graz in 1975. Shifts in the placement of regular forms create associations with spatial depth and movement even in static, flat works. Many of these investigations into displacement take the form of abstract paintings. Maurer’s ‘5-from-4’ works, for instance, are painted boards that combine a series of four squares and five rectangles, as well as empty spaces between the reliefs. Organized as a horizontal band, the squares are ‘displaced’ onto the next relief in these works. Maurer points to the uncertainty that these combinations produce, writing ‘the interference of the two series trouble the viewer in concentrating on one single form’.[8]

Kalah182This idea of presenting the viewer with irreconcilable perceptual effects perhaps reached its apogee in Kalah, a 1980 experimental film made in creative partnership with Zoltán Jeney, one of the founders, tens years earlier, of Budapest’s celebrated Új Zenei Stúdió (New Music Studio). The structure of both sound and images in Kalah was provided by the traditional Arabic game of the same name that is played with 72 stones. Maurer prepared coloured panels – which corresponded to the volume and pitch of notes on a chromatic scale – which she shot on film in the Pannonia Film Studio in Budapest over three days. She then spent a further three weeks carefully editing the film and Jeney’s music, itself ‘composed’ from existing recordings on magnetic tape. The same aleatory system, derived from the way numbered stones are used in the source game, governed both sound and image. The result is unsettling as the viewer struggles – and fails – to make sense of the rapid combinations of sounds and notes. Kalah captures Maurer’s preoccupation with the effects of the shift – the marginal movement or dislocation of a filmic image – on cognition. Kalah was not made simply to be seen but to be experienced: Maurer and Jeney imagined viewers lying under a curved projection screen.

The fact that Maurer calls some of her photo works ‘études’ and has read Anton Webern’s writings on serial music is significant. Meaning ‘study’, but usually describing a composition that is used by musicians to practice technique, an étude conventionally features a set of variations on a theme. Embraced by the 20th-century avant-garde, the form was extended to include experimental compositions that explored the structures and formal qualities of music itself. Famously, in his Quatre études de rythme (Four Rhythm Studies, 1949–50), Olivier Messiaen allocated numerical values to pitch, duration, dynamics and timbre. Maurer’s analogy becomes all the more vivid when one imagines a relationship with the work of American composer Steve Reich (a visitor to Budapest in 1977, where he performed and gave a lecture, and again in 1985 where he supervised recordings of his compositions by the Hungarian new-music ensemble 180-as Csoport (Group 180)). Reich’s minimalist compositions often involve subtle phasing of rhythms and musical phrases. In his works for ensembles of two, four, six or even 18 musicians, one player will follow another, playing the same material perhaps a quaver later each time, or slowly speeding up while the other remains at the same tempo. ‘Displaced’ in this way, simple musical elements – such as the single chord of Four Organs (1970) or the rhythmic pattern of Drumming (1971) – come to produce a huge diversity of unexpected rhythmic and harmonic possibilities; moreover, they generally follow a kind of cyclical structure as the musicians wheel through the phases. As in Maurer’s ‘Reversible and Changeable Phases of Movements’ photo series, repetition in Reich’s compositions is often combined with other expressions of restraint. Pieces like Six Pianos, as the title makes clear, achieve their mesmeric effects using the musical colour of a single instrument, albeit in phased layers. Tuning into the ever-shifting patterns, the listener becomes aware of the subtlest modulations of rhythm and harmony.



The musical qualities of Maurer’s art are more than mere analogies. Affinities between the worlds of experimental music and conceptual art were stronger in the 1970s than perhaps at any other time, as Maurer’s creative partnership with Jeney in making Kalah testifies. Perhaps the work that in its attention to displacement comes closes to Reich’s employment of the phase is Maurer’s Triolák – 18 variáció 3 objektívre és énekhangra (Triolák – 18 variations, 3 objectives and a singer), a BBS film made in and around Maurer’s studio in 1980–81. The film is divided into three horizontal bands, each of which features a one-second camera pan in opposite directions. Each pan has been shot with a different lens (standard, wide angle and telephoto), which adds to the sense of multi-perspectival space. The movement of the film camera starts relatively gently and the displacement of the image is minor. Thereafter, the sweep of the pan extends and the camera moves faster. Some of the variations combine elements that feature different viewpoints – looking into and out of the studio, or at Maurer’s face and that of her cameraman. The effect is one of growing perceptual disorientation as the viewer struggles – and fails – to reconcile the three moving images. Each camera pan is accompanied by improvised vocal glissandos by the singer Eszter Póka. Rising and falling as if produced by the movement of the camera (or as if the camera had a voice), these shifting pitches create unexpected and sometimes jarring harmonic effects. Maurer’s work is a remarkable experiment into audio and visual perception.

As Reich’s music makes clear, striking differences can be created from subtle shifts within a framework of repetition. What is required is remarkable focus on the part of those playing the music. In both her resolute individualism and her close and productive relationships with other artists, as well as in the remarkable consistency of her ideas and interests over a wide range of media, the same can be said of Dóra Maurer. Above all, displacement – the concept which she developed more than forty years ago – remains fixed at the centre of her practice as an artist.



[1] See Dékei Kriszta, ‘A szabadság szele’ in Beszélő (October 2008) – available online at http://beszelo.c3.hu/cikkek/a-szabadsag-szele

[2] See Júlia Klaniczay and Edit Sasvári, eds., Törvénytelen avantgárd. Galántai György balatonboglári kápolnaműterme 1970–1973 (Budapest, 2003)

[3] See Miklós Peternák, Concept.hu. The Influence of Conceptual Art in Hungary (Paks, 2014)

[4] Béla Hap, ‘Halk magyar underground-kiáltvány’, Szétfolyóirat (February 1973) – available online at http://www.artpool.hu/Aczelkor/Hap.html

[5] Miklós Peternák, ‘A Short History of the Avant-Garde in Hungarian Cinema’ in Undercurrent 18, (Autumn, 1989), p.34

[6] Miklós Peternák,’Gábor Bódy. Film and Theory’ in Bódy Gábor, 1946–1985: életműbemutató, exhibition catalogue (Budapest, 1987), p.25

[7] László Moholy-Nagy, Vision in Motion (Chicago, 1947), p.12

[8] Dóra Maurer, ‘Über die ‘5 aus 4’ – Arbeiten (QUAD 1, Maarssen, 1980) cited in Dieter Ronte and Lászlo Beke, Dóra Maurer Arbeiten Munkák Works 1970–1993 (Budapest, 1994), p.116

‘Consumer Art’ and Other Commodity Aesthetics in Eastern Europe under Communist Rule

Eastern Europe, Sexuality, Uncategorized


This essay was written for a book which was published by Centrum Sztuki Nowoczesnej in Warsaw in January 2017.


lokal_30_natalia_ll_consumer_artIn 2015 works from Natalia LL’s ‘Consumer Art’ (1972-5) series featured in Tate Modern’s exhibition, The World Goes Pop. Here, Natalia LL’s reflections on desire and satisfaction were placed in in the company of Komar and Melamid’s ‘Post-Art’, as well as works by Yugoslav artists (Boris Bućan’s 1972 ‘Art’ canvases of corporate logos and Dušan Otaševič’s 1967 portrait of ‘Lenin, Towards Communism on the Leninist Path’).[1] Putting attention on Pop in Eastern Europe under communist rule, as well as Latin America and East Asia, the curator of the show, Jessica Morgan, set out not only to extend the phenomenon beyond its conventional geography, but also to find new critical perspectives on Americanisation, consumerism, and the mass media image. In an essay introducing the exhibition, she writes

Countering the mainstream impression that pop art operated as a simple adaptation of the techniques and images of consumer culture, global pop mined the media as a critical, material source for artists exploring the effects of everyday culture. Pop – and this of course can also be said of the more ambivalent work of Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol too – was rarely just an affirmative aestheticisation of commodity culture or consumer behavior but employed the language of advertisements and marketing, the language of the magical commercial environment as identified by McLuhan, to turn establish communication strategies into political opposition, satiric critique, subversive appropriation, and utopic explorations of collective and individual identity.[2]

The World Goes Pop was an attempt to revise what might be called the master-narrative of pop art which has placed a narrow emphasis on the Anglo-American experience (despite the merits of exhibitions ‘Les Années Pop 1956–68′, organized by Centre Pompidou in Paris in 2001). In fact for some art historians the identification of works of art from Eastern Europe as ‘Pop’ is been a category error or, at best, evidence of ‘second rate’ art.[3] Piotr Piotrowski, in one of the more sophisticated discussions of the question, points to the problem of embracing popular culture when it was in such short supply in Eastern Europe and when artists had accepted a mission of sustaining high cultural values: ‘They felt that they had a mission to defend art, not to discredit it, since they knew that the latter was a goal of the power, the regime originating with the Soviets’.[4] In other words, how could Eastern Bloc societies produce the strangely paradoxical compound, authentic pop art?

Putting aside the problem of authenticity of an aesthetic which enjoyed the ironies of ‘elevating’ the imagery of popular culture for a moment, this question is somewhat undermined by the simple material fact of various forms of pop art practices in Eastern Europe. A number of young artists went through a pop phase at the end of the 1960s. Hungarian painter László Lakner, for instance, who has admitted a debt to Rauschenberg, started doubling and fragmenting his careful renderings of documentary photographs and masterpieces of art history. Instead of using the mechanical process of screen printing, Lakner painted these photographic details by hand. Later, in the 1970s, he was to extend his interest in documents in conceptual and photorealist works. In former Yugoslavia, Tomislav Gotovac – later well known as a performance artist and filmmaker – made numerous collage works throughout the 1960s using advertisements, packaging and pages from magazines from the West and, as Yugoslavia underwent its own consumer revolution, from local sources too. Leonhard Lapin, the central figure in nonconformist art in the former Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic, was one of the founders of a short-lived pop alliance called ‘Soup 69’ (a reference to Warhol) at the end of the 1960s.[5] For these and other artists, pop was often a brief experiment in careers that were later made in performance, conceptual art, experimental film or other artistic practices that established deeper footings in the artistic cultures of Eastern Europe in the 1970s. Pop provided an introduction to the practice of appropriation, a rebuttal of the shibboleths of modernist art: self-expression, originality and individuality. This was what made this embryonic and fleeting engagement with pop at the end of the 1960s an important watershed: the revival of modern art, and of abstract painting in particular, after the death of Stalin and the so called ‘Thaw’ of the mid-1950s had been strongly motivated by humanist principles, not least intellectual and artistic freedom.[6] Ten years later new questions about the effects of the mechanised image seemed to press on the minds of artists in Eastern Europe.

Natalia LL’s ‘Consumer Art’ films and photoworks made between 1972 and 1975 can, I think, be viewed in similar terms. Models, sometimes topless, lick, play and, eventually eat different food stuffs. Bananas, bread sticks and sausages are treated like phalluses; whilst jelly and cream perhaps suggest body fluids. Sexualising food and emphasising orality, they offer a provocative commentary about the elision of desire and need. This was, of course, a theme explored by many pop artists in the West. In 1962 article in which British artist Richard Hamilton, for instance, reflected on the sources ‘$he’, his 1957 study of a woman and a refrigerator employing images and techniques of American advertising:

The worst thing that can happen to a girl, according to the ads is that she should fail to be exquisitely at ease in her appliance setting – the setting that now does much to establish our attitude to a woman in the way that her clothes used to. Sex is everywhere, symbolised in the glamour of mass-produced luxury – the interplay of fleshy plastic and smooth, fleshier metal.[7]

Like much pop, Hamilton’s work eschews sharp judgment of mass media images, and is better understood as a kind of primer into their techniques and sensibilities. In a similar fashion, might Natalia LL’s ‘Consumer Art’ (1972-4) series be understood as a kind of dispassionate deconstruction of the relations between commodities, sex and women’s bodies formed in advertising of the period? Viewed in this way, might they be a visual expression of arguments about the alienating effects of ‘the female fetish’ found in the writings of prominent feminist Germaine Greer at the same time? In 1970 she wrote:

The gynolatry of our civilisation is written large on its face, upon hoardings, cinema screens, televisions, newspapers, magazines, tins, packets, cartons, bottles, all consecrated to the ruling deity, the female fetish. Her dominion must not be thought to entail the rule of women, for she is not a woman but a doll: weeping, pouting or smiling, running or reclining, she is a doll.[8]

Such contemporary precedents and parallels notwithstanding, I should acknowledge East/West differences too. No ringing libertarian feminist voices could be heard in Poland in the early 1970s.[9] (And in fact, as Agata Jakubowska has shown, the ‘Consumer Art’ series was first discovered by Western women art critics’[10]). Natalia LL’s works also seem to have different emphases than the better known works of Anglo American pop like Hamilton’s ‘$he’. Their wetness, for instance, is unsettling: it is a kind of excess which most pop works shy away from, preferring the cooler, dryer aesthetic of packaging, of logos, and of branding. Sex was as carefully managed in pop as it was in mass advertising, usually appearing as a set of controlled codes or gestures: here, in Natalia LL’s works, the act of consuming is carnal and fleshy, perhaps overly so. Equally, in those occasional moments when Natalia LL’s model’s eye catches the camera or when she laughs, perhaps a little self-consciously, the deadpan aesthetic of pop disappears and the gap between simulated and real pleasure opens up.

So what is to be made of the problem of the pop image in societies which were, reportedly, marked by their failure to produce consumer bounty? After all, pop art itself is a form of commodity aesthetics. Writing of the work of celebrity artists like Andy Warhol, Jean Baudrillard in 1970 made his reading of pop and consumption clear: pop art was the end of the avant-garde myth of subversion and the ‘total integration’ of art into consumerism, writing: ‘If the consumer society is trapped in its own mythology, if it has no critical perspective on itself, and if that is precisely its definition, there can be no contemporary art which is not, in its very existence and practice, compromised by and complicit with that opaquely self-evident state of affairs’.[11] Frederic Jameson said something similar a few years later when he wrote ‘Andy Warhol’s work in fact turns centrally around commodification, and the great billboard images of the Coca-Cola bottle or the Campbell’s soup can, which explicitly foreground the commodity fetishism of a transition to late capital, ought to be powerful and critical political statements. If they are not that, then one would surely want to know why, and one would want to begin to wonder a little more seriously about the possibilities of political or critical art in the postmodern period of late capital.’[12]

Adapting Jameson’s point but accepting the logic of his critique, his question can be extended to ask what did it mean to ‘explicitly foreground … commodity fetishism’ in Eastern European societies which had announced the eradication of this particular instrument of alienation as one of their goals? After all, the Kremlin built its declaration to ‘beat and overtake the West’ on the rational management of supply and demand, not the irrational manipulation of consumers. Admittedly, this was a stop-start-stop world; promises were made and occasional boosts in production achieved; crisis would then follow. Nevertheless, the 1960s and 1970s saw the growth of ‘socialist consumerism’ across the Bloc and Yugoslavia;[13] a phenomenon found largely, if not entirely in the realm of images rather than things. But perhaps this distinction does not matter much. What defines a modern consumer society is not access to consumer goods but knowledge of them. In this regard, the role of advertisements, magazines and other forms of publicity is key. They – alongside branding and design – form a particular order of ‘commodity aesthetics’ or what, in German, Wolfgang Haug called ‘Warenästhetik’. In order to understand advertising and its effects, Haug argued in his 1971 book, Kritik der Warenästhetik, it is necessary to consider how it intersects directly with the realm of human needs and the domain of sensuality: ‘The transformation of the world of useful objects into commodities triggers instinctual responses, and the functional means by which not only the world of sensual objects but also human sensuality itself is remoulded again and again.’ This is its own form of manipulation, ‘whoever controls the product’s appearance can control the fascinated public by appealing to them sensually.’[14]

ReklamaIn the 1960s and 1970s the citizens of the people’s republics might have been unable to consume many branded consumer good, or everyday luxuries like cars, washing machines and fashionable clothes but they were aware of the aesthetic codes which accompanied modern consumerism. ‘Socialist consumerism’ across the Bloc and Yugoslavia was a phenomenon found largely, if not entirely, in the realm of images rather than things (or, in Marxist terms, as exchange values rather than as use values). Post-stalinist states, for instance, created agencies and professional guides for the production of ‘socialist advertising’ which would manage popular expectations or, in Haug’s terms, desires. The first International Conference of Advertising Workers (Mezinárodní konference reklamních pracovníků), held in the International Hotel in Prague in December 1957, laid down three cornerstones of socialist advertising:

Ideovost (political enlightenment)is theeducationalroleof advertising.Enlightenedtradepoints outusefulfeatures and benefitsof the goods for sale and, in this way, expressesthe socialist state’s care forworkersand consumers.

Pravdivost (truthfulness) of advertising lies in the fact that all information about quality and character, as well as uses can be demonstrated.

Konkrétnost (concreteness) of business advertising means speaking to consumers in clear and persuasive language. In this context, formalism in artistic expression as well as slogans, which undermines the clarity and understandability of advertising is not acceptable.[15]

The point was socialist advertising should be different. It should resist the fetishistic hold that advertising in the West has on its viewers. Rational and honest advertising would overcome the hollow illusions of the commodity by educating consumers about the correct attitude towards things.[16] In the event, very little print, television and cinema advertising produced in the people’s republics can be explained in such ideological terms. Whilst print advertising and product packaging often lacked the sophistication of their western counterparts, they sought the same kind of effects.

Moreover, one of the defining features of the post-Stalin years, was the steady creep of commercial imagery into the ‘ikonosfer’, much of it from the West. Polish and Hungarian film distributors made arrangements to screen many of the most popular products of the American and Western European film industries in their cinemas.[17] Popular magazines increasingly featured advertising and fashion spreads. In the case of one of the most vivacious publications of the 1960s in Poland, Ty i Ja LR this was created by the title’s own designers but adapted from French sources. Eastern European states also provided shop windows for Western consumer goods in the form of so called ‘hard-currency shops’ like the Tuzex chain in Czechoslovakia and Pewex in Poland. Western consumer goods were put on sale for Western currency in an effort to extract Western currency from its possessors, whether citizens or foreigners. These shops were often criticized for their obvious ideological contradictions: With writer in Nove Slovo announced ‘Tuzex fosters petit-bourgeois fetishism and worship of goods of Western provenance’ whilst another in Tribuna asked ‘Is not Tuzex a way to confuse people, to convince them that “West is Best”?’[18]

What the Tribuna writer alluded to was a particular form of fetishisation which occurs in Eastern Europe. According to Marx, the worth of commodities is determined by the social relations of their production. But the existence of the exchange system in capitalism makes the production process remote and misperceived, and, as such, it ‘masks’ the commodity’s true worth. This masking was reinforced by the conditions of the Cold War. Far from destroying the phantasmagorical form of the commodity, one could say that the division of East and West actually amplified it. Consumer goods and images acquired from the West – particularly clothes, cosmetics, foodstuffs, and LP records – acquired special significance in the East, precisely because of their provenance. Mundane in their original, capitalist context, such things came to carry heightened significance in the East, and not only because of their rarity: the unfamiliar materials and seductive forms of Western consumer goods could trigger fantasies about capitalist civilization.

RewistaThis is explored in ‘Personal Search’ (1972), a Polish movie directed by Witold Leszczyński i Andrzej Kostenko telling the story of the arrival of a group of travellers – a mother and son accompanied by a cousin bearing a strong resemblance to Brigitte Bardot – at a customs office on a border post between Poland and, strangely, Switzerland.[19] Driving a FIAT sports car, these travellers have come from the West accompanied by a cornucopia of consumer goods – luxury foods, chic clothes and glittering trinkets. To cross the border into a world where such minor luxuries are in short supply, they have to strip these things of their exchange values: in other words, they have to turn commodities into personal possessions. So they divest the products of their glossy packaging and scuff them to give them a patina of use before packing them into their car. The opening titles roll over a bonfire of discarded consumer packaging.

But their labours are insufficient: the customs officer and his young colleague suspect the returnees of smuggling. The film then turns into a psychological drama; a tense battle between officialdom and the prosperous travellers fought with flirtation, hollow flattery, veiled threats and bribes. In an inflationary cycle which starts with a plastic cigarette lighter and culminates in the sexual ‘gift’ of her niece to the younger guard, the woman seeks to avoid the scandal that would follow from the ‘Personal Search’. This cycle is only brought to an end by the arrival of her high-ranking husband in his official car. From then, the film moves towards its dramatic climax.

The film’s most striking cinematic innovation takes the form of television advertisements which intrude unexpectedly into the narrative. When the young customs official opens the boot of the car, the screen fills with a French advertisement for ‘invisible’ ‘huit’ brassiere filmed on a Mediterranean beach. The footage is apparently an answer to his question ‘What is this?’, asked when he fingers the packages of underwear which fill her suitcase. [film shots]Later, a bottle of Cointreau, the French aperitif shared by the customs officials and their unwilling guests, becomes the magic elixir at the heart of a 30-second commercial from French television filmed in the style of a James Bond movie. In this way, the tense chess match between the officials and the tourists is broken – momentarily – by the clichéd suspense provided by this mini-espionage drama. These are hardly conventional uses of montage, particularly in the context of socialist Poland. In his classic conceptualization, Eisenstein in the Soviet Union in the 1920s and 1930s had argued that montage was ‘dialectical’, capable of marking the clash between the forces of progress and reaction shaping the world. Leszczyński and Kostenko’s movie has far closer kinship with Godard’s ‘collage’ films.

The French ads are not the film’s only lessons in consumer aesthetics. The cinematography reproduces many of the clichés of advertising too. Early on in ‘Personal Search’, a long tracking shot follows the young woman through the countryside at dawn to bathe au naturelle. At the end this ‘Eve’ catches the glance of the camera/viewer in the mirror. In another shot, the juice of a freshly-peeled orange is dripped on to her lips whilst she sleeps. Conflating sexual and consumer desire, both scenes could have been taken from a primer on advertising written by Madison Avenue psychoanalyst in the 1960s. But, of course, they were not. These scenes were filmed in a country – the People’s Republic of Poland – which had declared its commitment to the liberation of its citizens from alienation. The seductive but hollow French advertisements and the vigilant operations of a customs post guarding the entrance to the socialist world should, according to the official creed of Marxist-Leninism, maintain the sharp differences between West and East. But Poland was undergoing its own consumer revolution. A new leadership which took power in 1970 had promised a ‘double Poland’ (druga Polska): double the productivity, double the consumer goods, and, eventually, double the debt to the West. The film ends by passing sharp judgment on the regime – the material luxuries which the elite had appropriated, as well as the strange phenomenon of ‘socialist consumption.’

The label ‘Second Poland’ pointed – inadvertently – to the phantasmagoric aspect of a ‘new’ Poland made in the image of Western modernity. In its pursuit of growth, the People’s Republic was to become a double, a simulacrum of countries the West. ‘Personal Search’ – made at the time when Gierek was formulating his ambitious vision for Poland – seems to anticipate this emerging programme of simulation. In a moment of filmic tension, the car which has delivered the trio to Poland attracts the attention of the eagle-eyed customs officer. It is a new, ‘bahama’ yellow FIAT ‘mille cinquecento’ (And the camera, like his eye, lingers over the car’s glittering marques). It seems that the trio are attempting to import a new foreign car, an illegal act. The nature of this offence is, however, rendered ambiguous by the official love affair with FIAT conducted the communist authorities in Eastern Europe. In 1965 the Polish government – like the Kremlin one-year earlier – had signed the first of a series of deals with the Italian car manufacturer to make copies of its products under license in Warsaw. Gierek accelerated the policy by establishing new factories in Tychy and Bielsko-Biała to manufacture FIAT’s cars in large numbers. Owning a FIAT was not only a legitimate ideal in the Second Poland: it was a ‘socialist achievement’.

The key thing is that critique here is not a celebration of consumerism (critique à rebours). In fact, Konstenko and Leszczyński’s film sustains a long-standing distrust of the fetishistic hold of things on their users. This was a Marxist conception which I think alludes to the anti-communist and anti-capitalist reflexes of many intellectuals in the East. Never explicit in its political address, ‘Personal Search’ offers an ambivalent approach to commodity aesthetics which mirrored the ambivalence of the Polish authorities. As I’ve already hinted, Natalia LL’s ‘Consumer Art’ works cannot be explained as an orthodox critique of the alienating effects of commodity aesthetics, nor do they seem to point to prohibition or asceticism. In their attention to pleasure and, in particular, to unrestrained orality, they eschew moral frameworks for consumption.

Chytilová_s ‘Daisies_A similar claim could be made for Věra Chytilová’s ‘Daisies’ (1967). In this extraordinary movie made in Czechoslovakia, two young women, sharing the same name and seemingly the same persona, embark on a spree of gluttony in Prague, funded by the gullible old men who expect (but never receive) sexual favours in return. In fact, the two women only seem interested in food, though not necessarily in eating. Although the film does not have a clear narrative structure, it reaches a crescendo in an excessive and spectacular destruction of a banquet. [film shots] The two woman dance on a table laid with luxurious food and alcohol, destroying everything under their stiletto heels. In between these bouts of excess, the young women sunbathe on the banks of the Vltava and play bored games in the bedroom. Like ‘Personal Search’, some of Chytilová’s techniques seem to be directly drawn from Godard: sound and images are often discontinuous; still images are cut into the action, sometimes appearing so briefly that they barely register; and scenes are are shot with coloured filters. Chytilová’s embrace of collage is important too. The eschewal of narrative was also a rejection of the tendentiousness which Soviet culture after Stalin seemed to treat as the sine qua non of progress. The idea that all actions should point to a radiant future made narrative clarity a requirement of all Soviet films at least until the 1970s. Of course Czech new wave cinema had already shaken off its Soviet shackles in the 1960s. But her use of collage also eschews the Bildungsroman narrative structures of films made by contemporaries like Jiři Menzel (‘Closely Watched Trains, 1965 for instance). The idea that an individual should confront the absurdity of the world or shape his or her own fate – motivating ideas after Stalinism – shaped many of the most celebrated the New Wave movies and documentaries made in Czechoslovakia in the 1960s.

Chytilová’s duo are anti-heroines. The director does everything to inhibit our identification with them – yet they remain fascinating. Choreographed by the soundtrack, their actions are exaggerated, comic even. A reviewer writing in Film Quarterly in 1968, observed: ‘It seems that the greedy little creatures are specimens of the capitalistic (or, for that matter, socialist) drive for acquisition, the rage for appropriation; the connoting factor that they are “schnorrers” or “spongers” brings in the idea of social or economic parasitism.’[20] Might these two girls in their fashionable dresses, and with their voracious and insatiable appetites, their amorality, their selfishness, their gluttony, be Chytilová’s way of passing judgment on the consumer spectacle? After all, in one scene they run out of food and eat advertisements on the pages of German and French magazines. This might have been reason to interpret Daisies as a critique of the West. However, Czech commentators understood the film in local terms. One deputy in the National Assembly, for instance, protested the waste of food during the film’s production ‘at a time when our farmers with great difficulties are trying to overcome the problems of our agricultural production.’[21] But the Czech viewer would be justified in asking just whose meal was being destroyed here? In fact, one reading is that the girls reveal and destroy the privileges which the gerontocratic elite had reserved for itself. ‘Daisies’ is about pleasure. And the question of where pleasure was located was important in Eastern Europe in under communist rule: was pleasure something given or something taken?

Neither ‘Daisies’ nor Natalia LL’s ‘Consumer Art’ series express the cool ambivalence and ambiguity which characterised so much pop in the West in the 1960s – a ‘disinterested engagement’ with consumerism and mass media images. In fact, they raised the rare prospect of a kind of feminist politics of female pleasure in the people’s republics. Perhaps the deployment of food in both works is important here: in spoiling and toying with it, these young women announce their disinterest in questions of need – a central plank of Marxist ideology.[22] In the case of Chytilová’s heroines, the focus of their desires is on luxury, whether in the form of banquets or Western European advertising. In so doing, they make an excess of what was already excessive. Perhaps more radically, Natalia LL’s models engage with ordinary foodstuffs, depriving them of their use values. Bananas may have been rare in the PRL (as numerous interpreters of the Consumer Art series have been keen to remind their readers[23]), but the other foods – sausages, paluszki (bread sticks) and jelly – were not.


Germaine Greer

Selected for their shape and texture, they are conscripted to speak about pleasure not sustenance. In focusing on desire, albeit in different ways, Chytilová and Natalia LL’s films were remarkably aligned, albeit unconsciously, with the writings of Germaine Greer in London: ‘Ultimately the greatest service a woman can do to her community is to be happy;’ she wrote, ‘the degree of revolt and irresponsibility which she must manifest to acquire happiness is the only sure indication of the way things must change if there is to be any point in continuing to be a woman at all.’[24]



[1] In the same year, Natalia LL’s ‘Consumer Art’ was also shown in ‘International Pop’, an exhibition organized by the Walker Art Centre (11 April-29 August 2015) and in Ludwig Goes Pop’ at Mumok, Vienna 12 February – 13 September 2015 – note from editor.

[2] Jessica Morgan, ‘Political Pop: An Introduction’ in The World Goes Pop (London, 2015) 17

[3] ‘By definition, Pop could blossom only in highly industrialised societies, and therefore there has been no direct pendant to this movement in the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe or the communist China’. Marco Livingstone, Pop Art: A Continuing Story (London, 2000) 141.

[4] Piotr Piotrowski, ‘Why were there no great Pop Art curatorial projects in Eastern Europe in the 1960s’, a lecture prepared for publication on http://balticworlds.com/ – a scholarly journal from the Centre for Baltic and East European Studies (CBEES) Södertörn University, Stockholm (19 November 2015) – accessed 09 April 2016.

[5] See Sirji Helme, Popkunst Forever. Eesti popkunst 1960. ja 1970. aastate vahetusel, Tallinn 2010.

[6] Piotr Piotrowski, In the Shadow of Yalta: Art and the Avant-garde in Eastern Europe, 1945–1989, London 2011, pp.61–105.

[7] Richard Hamilton, ‘An exposition of She’, in Architectural Design, XXXII, No. 10 (1962) p. 485.

[8] Germaine Greer, The Female Eunuch (London, 1970) 60

[9] On this, see various essays in Bojana Pejić (ed.) Gender Check. Femininity and Masculinity in the Art of Eastern Europe (Vienna, 2009),

[10] Agata Jakubowska, ‘The Attractive Banality of Natalia LL’s “Consumer Art” (1972–1975)’ Nordlit, nr. 21 (2007) p. 243.

[11] Jean Baudrillard, The Consumer Society. trans Chris Turner (London, 1998) p. 116

[12] Fredric Jameson Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Duke UP, 1991.

[13] See ‪David Crowley, Susan E. Reid, eds., ‘Introduction’ to ‪Pleasures in Socialism: Leisure and Luxury in the Eastern Bloc (Evanston, Il., 2010) pp 3-53; Patrick Hyder Patterson, Bought and Sold. Living and Losing the Good Life in Socialist Yugoslavia (Cornell University Press, 2012); Paulina Bren and Mary Neuberger, Communism Unwrapped. Consumption in Cold War Eastern Europe (Oxford, 2012).

[14] Wolfgang Fritz Haug, Critique of Commodity Aesthetics: Appearance, Sexuality and Advertising in Capitalist Society (Minneapolis, 1986) 17.

[15] The proceedings of the conference were published in Reklama (1958) cited by Daniela Nebeská, Hospodářské Reformy N. S. Chruščova thesis submitted to Vysoká škola ekonomická v Praze (2012), pp. 71-2.

[16] Marx’s writing on the fetishistic relations characteristic of commodities under capitalism were invoked by Hungarian critics of ‘Goulash Socialism’. See G. Gömöri, ‘Consumerism in Hungary’, Problems in Communism, vol. 12, no. 1 (1963), p. 64.

[17] See Dina Iordanova, Cinema of the Other Europe: The Industry and Artistry of East Central European Film (London, 2003) 28.

[18] Both authors writing in 1974 and cited in J. L. Kerr ‘Hard-currency shops in Eastern Europe’ (27 October 1977), RAD Background Report/211 commissioned by Radio Free Europe Research

[19] This discussion is derived from my introductory essay in the booklet published to accompany the DVD release of Andrzej Leszczyński and Witold Kostenko’s film by Piktogram/Centrum Sztuki Współczesnej in an anthology entitled Satisfaction. Sztuka konsumpcyjna w socjalistycznej Polsce lat 70, Warsaw in 2009.

[20] Claire Clouzot, ‘Daisies by Vera Chytilova’ in Film Quarterly, Vol. 21, No. 3 (Spring, 1968), p. 36.

[21] Josef Škvorecký, All the Bright Young Men and Women: A Personal History of the Czech Cinema (Toronto, 1971) 110.

[22] An observation kindly made to me by Agata Jakubowska.

[23] Not least Jessica Morgan in her introduction to The World Goes Pop (London, 2015) 25.

[24] Germaine Greer, The Female Eunuch (London, 1970) 282.

Király’s Immoderate Fashion

Design as Critique, Eastern Europe, Sexuality, Uncategorized

89_30X40cmIn 1986 Tamás Király arranged for his latest collection to be photographed on the steps of the Műcsarnok, the kunsthalle in Hősök Tere in central Budapest. A group of adults and children – barefooted, with stiff sculptural caps and belted robes – occupy the steps. The men are peacocks in bright silks; the woman, in black. The appearance of this extended family is so conspicuously alien, so strange, it is as if they belong to some kind of cult or perhaps have arrived in Budapest from another world.

Never produced, Király’s designs far exceeded what was required of fashion in the Hungarian People’s Republic at the time. Fashion performed the role of persuading citizens that they lived in a modern society; one orientated to meeting their consumer needs. In fact, the emancipatory project of ‘socialist dress’ based on principles of utility and egalitarianism had long been abandoned in recognition of the pragmatic task of managing desire. Upmarket Budapest boutiques (introduced after the economic reforms of 1968) as well as mass-market brands, and glossy fashion magazines presented a world of choice and moderate fashionability, albeit one which Hungarian factories usually failed to deliver.[1] In fact, the authorities entered into co-production arrangements with Western brands in the late 1970s – including Levi Strauss & Co. – to profit from the pent up demand for these ordinary luxuries.[2] Style, in János Kádár’s Hungary, was largely a matter of staving off the lingering sense amongst consumers of being démodé. If it had a social role, fashion was not to promote individualism but a common sense of the Hungarian People’s Republic as a permissive environment.

Király’s collections played no part in the project of managing consumption: usually one-offs, his designs formed part of ‘underground’ culture in Budapest in the early 1980s. It is telling that his first show in 1983 was called ‘Rejtett divat’ (Hidden Fashion), though there was little about his work which was introverted or secret. In fact, with close creative relationships with artist film-makers (including Gábor Bódy, János Xantus and Gábor Bachman) and new wave groups (A.E. Bizottság, URH, Kontroll Csoport and Sziámi), his designs lent themselves to spectacularisation. Fantastic ‘catwalk’ shows of Király’s garments were organized in Petőfi Csarnok, a popular concert venue in the Hungarian capital, that also featured live new wave acts and, sometimes, animals. Exercises in improvisation and punky iconoclasm, Király appears to have made little use of the techniques of the trade like pattern cutting. In ‘Baby’s Dreams’, his 1985 show, crowds of amateur models swarmed across the stage in garments that looked like they had been roughly pinned onto their bodies moments earlier.

The New Art Studio, a boutique established by Gizella Koppány in Budapest in 1980, was a vehicle for Király’s exuberant imagination. He introduced ‘moving displays’ into the store’s window in which living models presented the boutique’s garments. Designs – created with Koppány and Nóra Kováts – were often ‘hacks’ of existing clothes, some of which had been collected on trips to the countryside. _GEL3407Király and his young friends also organized informal ‘fashion promenades’ through the capital in 1981 in which they brought a kind of sartorial élan to colourless streets. Unannounced and exuberant, these walks were an example of what writer Dick Hebdige once called ‘hiding in the light’ – the blinding quality of subcultural style to be both arresting and incomprehensible, at least to those lacking the cipher to crack its codes.[3]

kiraly tamas 80s ruhak tranzit.huOver the course of the 1980s, Király’s designs began to take on more recognizable forms. Wearing his highly structured, monochrome dresses, models were given geometric silhouettes. One visitor to Budapest, a reporter from Stern magazine who went to Hungary in 1990, noted a strong resemblance to the puppet-humans of Oskar Schlemmer’s ‘Triadische Ballett’ (Triadic Ballet, 1922).[4] Making few claims on utility, these garments existed to be seen and, above all, to be photographed and filmed. Király’s contribution to Xantus’s otherwise conventional film profile of Hungarian Goth band Neurotic, ’Rocktérítő’ (1988), was to dress the clientele and staff of a basement bar – a glamorous vision of Hades. The stiff wings, exaggerated collars and long tube skirts worn by the women obliged them to walk with jerky steps and their arms projected forwards. It is as if the garments – glittering in the low light – have more life than the people wearing them.

Király’s conception of fashion far exceeded anything else created in Hungary at the time. He announced an expanded notion of style which owed more to the streets and clubs of London than perhaps anywhere else. In the aftermath of punk, ‘street style’ had been trumpeted in the UK as the triumph of youthful, uninhibited imagination over the stale elitism of the fashion houses. For cultural theorists searching for evidence of youthful opposition to commodity culture, the resourceful bricolage of punk and new wave style was even taken as heartening signs of resistance. Behind the bondage, workmen’s boots and reworking of early rock n’ roll style worn by the first punks, ‘lay hints of disorder, of breakdown and category confusion: a desire not only to erode racial and gender boundaries but also to confuse chronological sequence by mixing up details from different periods’, according to one writer at the time.[5] To do its job of unsettling conventions, style was deployed to queer the world. Sometimes this meant embracing non-heterosexual desire; more often, it meant a kind of inversion of the norms which ordered society.

Face 68Street style was elevated to style culture a few years after punk, first in Britain and soon elsewhere. This was a kind of reimagining of the idea of the avant-garde for the consumer age: the style cognoscenti were a vanguard, testing new looks and, ultimately, shaping the tastes of others. And style magazines (or ‘style bibles’ as some commentators liked to call titles like The Face and i-D in the UK, Tempo in Germany) set themselves the task of recording the rapid turns of fashion, naming and charting embryonic trends before, its seems, they had even had a chance to become a fully-fledged look.           Of course, there was a good deal of self-promotion in the valorization of style. This was hardly new either: the transmission of culture and commodities has long depended on taste-makers. What, perhaps, did mark out a difference was a ‘cool’ attitude which penetrated deeply into the the pages of the style press; into the new medium of the pop video; and in the theatrical catwalk shows of fashion designers like Jean Paul Gaultier and Vivienne Westwood and, of course, Király, even when their designs teetered on absurdity. Irony allowed hyperbole, theatricality, politics, and history to be embraced without commitment: to wonder how seriously these images were to be taken was, of course, to risk being uncool. When the sober-minded monthly Marxism Today published a commentary on British style magazines in 1987, its writer was both disturbed and fascinated by the ways in which politics and history were flattened on their pages. Serious matters and trivial subjects were treated with equivalence: ‘In the fashion photographs and general deployment of “looks”,’ he wrote, ‘history exists as one large set of slides to be wittily back-projected behind the models. History as hair conditioner – it makes everything more manageable and free of knots. Coalminers, the 40s, bikers, Red Indians, Palestinian solders, and lately even the 70s have been plundered in search of new “angles”, new “looks”. Inevitably then, everything becomes plaything, meaning does not seem that meaningful anymore – the history of Cuba is really the history of salsa.’[6] In approaching history not as politics or even as effects, but as images to be appropriated, style culture was infected by a kind of ironic detachment (as well as the pleasure which could be generated by occasional shock and outrage). Irony – the capacity to say one thing but mean another – allowed budding entrepreneurs in the music and fashion industries in the West to imagine that their activities were somehow outside the commercial frameworks in which they operated.

In this context, it is perhaps not surprising that the communist world provided the new stylists not with ideology but with images. Fashion and graphic designers occasionally looked to the Soviet avant-garde of the 1920s to provide dynamic blueprints for their new designs. The art director of The Face magazine, Neville Brody, raided Alexander Rodchenko’s portfolio for his spreads; LPs by new wave and electronic groups were packaged in sleeves which looked like posters from the Russian Civil War; and designers dressed models in Red Army chic. What Agata Pyzik calls the ‘proto-Ostalgie’ of much new wave music in the West drew deeply from an imagined Eastern Europe, populated with revolutionaries and commissars, new men and new women.[7] Of course, immersed in these myths of the avant-garde, it was rarely the present-day Soviet Union or its Eastern European satellites which attracted the style-makers except, perversely, as a wasteland of style. (And an ironic commentary on The Face’s sovietophilia came in the form of a television advertisement made in 1986 for Levi’s in which a Soviet customs official confiscates a copy of the magazine from the suitcase of young man arriving in the USSR, overlooking the jeans hidden underneath). Király was almost unique among Eastern European fashion designers in the fact that his work enjoyed attention in the West before the Berlin Wall was pulled down, featuring on the pages of i-D in 1989 and presented alongside collections by Vivienne Westwood and Yoshiki Hishinuma at the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin in 1988.[8]

Király too seemed to have his own Soviet fantasies. Working with young architect Gábor Bachman on a short video entitled ‘Kelet-európai riadó’ (Eastern European Alarm), Király designed a dress which turned its wearer into a red star. In Bachman’s film, she marches up the steps of Műcsarnok, arm-in-arm with a commissar. Fashioned from shiny satin and clad in blood-red boots, she was like some kind of latter-day Octobriana. Her partner – a copy of Pravda in his hand – looked as if he had just stepped off the tribune after delivering a rousing speech. They embrace – she without much enthusiasm – under a long red banner announcing ‘Művészet és forradalom’ (Art and Revolution) and then argue over a bottle of vodka. At that time (November 1987), Műcsarnok was hosting an exhibition with the same title, ‘Art and Revolution’, recording Hungarian and Russian art from 1910-1932. Mounted on the seventieth anniversary of the October Revolution, the exhibition was probably the most extensive show of Eastern European avant-garde art held in the Bloc. And yet the response of the public was muted and the audiences small. Few seemed to have much enthusiasm for the Soviet avant-garde, except perhaps for Király and the underground culture to which he belonged. Bachman – with architect and samizdat publisher László Rajk – designed a number of conceptual schemes, interiors and film sets which imported El Lissitzky’s Red Wedge into contemporary Hungary;[9] György Soós promoted his industrial music group, Art Deco, with imagery from Sergei Eisenstein’s 1928 film ‘October’ and the visionary architectural schemes of Yakov Chernikhov.

Na-Ne posterLater, in 1990 Király was one of the founders of the short-lived NA-NE gallery in Budapest (with seven other artists and designers including Bachman, Rajk and Soós). Meaning ‘Oh No, This Cannot Be’, the interiors and many of the exhibits of the gallery experimented with the forms and artistic languages of constructivism, albeit in a critical, deconstructive manner. One suspects that these late expressions of Hungarian enthusiasm for the Soviet imagery owed less to a sense of living in the Eastern Bloc, than in their affinities to the new wave culture which had its origins in London, New York and Berlin. The NA-NE artists and designers to have developed a kind of ironic taste for their own estrangement and alterity, perhaps not unlike the way that the punks had turned anomie into an aesthetic in the UK and elsewhere. Art historian Éva Forgács describes the NA-NE aesthetic as ‘an iconic collection of formal elements which may have had a function of an original Constructivist work, but now all they reference is the falling apart and the historic failure of the one-time beauty and one-time idealism of Constructivism.’[10] In other words, the imagery of revolutionary socialism was queered in their art and design.

Few of Király’s garments from the 1980s survive today, except, of course, in the form of videos, film and photographs. This has much to do with the improvised nature of his designs, often created for one-off events. It is also an effect of their excessive qualities too. Király’s designs refuted moderation. Uncompromisingly excessive and unfunctional, they denied the possibility of any kind of productive return, even in the moderated form of mass fashion in Hungarian People’s Republic. The politics of his designs did not reside in the manipulation of signs and symbols. After all, style culture achieved its effects by hollowing out meaning. If any kind of political significance is to be attached to Király’s activities before 1989, it is to do with their immoderation. And as excess, the fate of his designs – to be destroyed – was certain, even at the time of their conception.

[1] Djurdja Bartlett, FashionEast. The Spectre that Haunted Socialism (Boston, MA: MIT Press) p. 239.

[2] Michael Dobbs, ‘Budapest’s Blue Jeans Revolution: Levi’s Sets Up Shop To Meet the Craze’ in The Washington Post (11 May 1978)

[3] Dick Hebdige, Hiding in the Light. On Images and Things (London: Comedia, 1988).

[4] Jan Kromschröder, ‘Folklor und strenge Linien: Die Kreationen des Tamás Király’ in Stern Magazin, 14 (29 March 1990) pp. 150-154.

[5] Dick Hebdige, Subculture. The Meaning of Style (London: Methuen and Co., 1979), p. 123.

[6] George Barber, ‘Nick Logan’ in Marxism Today (September 1988), p. 52.

[7] Agata Pyzik, Poor But Sexy. Culture Clashes in East and West Europe (Winchester: Zero, 2013) p. 113.

[8] CD. ‘Fashion Hungary’ in i-D, no. 71 (1989) p. 83.

[9] See Péter Esterházy, ‘Egy építészeti kérdéshez’ in Magyar Építőművészet, (February 1986) pp. 56-7.

[10] Éva Forgács, ‘Deconstructing Constructivism in Post-Communist Hungary’ in David Ayers et al, eds., Utopia: The Avant-Garde, Modernism and (Im)possible Life (Berlin: Walter De Gruyter, 2015) pp. 320-321.

Art, Emotion and Activism in the Post-Socialist Cityscape in Eastern Europe

Architecture, Cold War, Modernism, Uncategorized

In 2014 developers in Kraków in southern Poland proposed the construction of ‘Nowa Cracovia’, an office and retail development on the site occupied by the ‘old’ Cracovia, a hotel owned by the state tourist company which opened its doors in the late 1960s (designed in 1959 by Witold Cęckiewicz for Miastoprojekt, Kraków, with structural engineers Jerzy Tombiński and Andrzej Kozłowski. A long, low modernist slab, the Cracovia claims its place in architectural history as the first building in the People’s Republic of Poland (PRL) to employ a glass curtain wall. With chequerboard glass panels on the exterior and the glittering, abstract murals inside, this hotel and cinema complex were a bold declaration of the revival of modernism after the austere Stalin years. Crowley BETON 1The hotel closed in 2011, its small and poorly serviced rooms unable to meet the demands of contemporary tourism and, apparently, riddled with toxic materials like asbestos. The Cracovia stands empty today, with no other function than to act as a framework for mammoth mesh advertising. It occupies what developers like to call a ‘prestigious site’ close to the city centre. This quarter has been protected from urban development, chiefly because it is the setting of national landmarks – not least the Błonia, a park where the Polish aristocracy once elected its kings, and kopiec Kościuszki (Kościuszko Mound), a monument erected to the Polish national hero in the late nineteenth century. The hotel faces the National Museum, a massive block which looks so uninviting that visitors often imagine that it was designed in the Stalin years, despite its pre-war origins.

Nowa_Cracovia.1The ‘Nowa Cracovia’ scheme went through the offices of various architects, until it ended up on the drawing boards of DDJM, a practice led by architect Marek Dunikowski , that specializes in efficient and well detailed, if fairly anonymous office design. To pay respect to the historical setting, Dunikowski proposed fronting the Nowa Cracovia with what he called a ‘Pergola’, a double-height arcade dedicated to the history of the site in the national memory. Part picture-frame, part platform, the ‘Pergola’ would orientate the visitor to history. In the patriotic climate of Poland today, this is a familiar gesture: so much that is new in architecture declares a connection to the Second Republic of the inter-war years, before the communist take over. Sometimes this means restoring ‘lost’ building lines (a claim made for the Metropolitan office in Warsaw (2003) designed by Norman Foster Associates); at others, architects claim inspiration in the order of classicising modernism which thrived in the country before 1939. In fact, Dunikowski’s ‘Pergola’ seems to refer to the designs of Adolf Szyszko-Bohusz, the city’s leading architect in the 1930s.

What is more surprising is the way in which Dunikowski’s 2014 scheme also makes reference to the Cracovia hotel, even before the proposed demolition of this PRL landmark had occurred. A climate-controlled and artificially-lit shopping mall, the retail spaces in Dunikowski’s scheme were to be contained in a opaque box floating over an open ground floor lobby. The stone cladding the upper floors was to be engraved with the pattern of the distinctive rhythm of mullions, panes and aluminum panels of the curtain wall of the original Cracovia. This would have been most evident at night when external lighting would have picked out spectral traces of the old hotel

If the ‘need’ to invoke the pre-communist heritage reflects a desire to strike a line through the recent past, why invoke the architecture of the socialist era? After all, the prevailing sentiment in so much discussion in Poland until fairly recently has been that the Soviet system threw up almost no architecture of merit. Even when it is conceded that architects operating in the massive state planning offices did produce original and inventive schemes, critics continue to stress the shoddy construction and energy inefficiency of regime architecture. This argument is loudest when a case is being made for demolition. When the Supersam supermarket in Warsaw was flattened in 2006 to make way for a new high-rise office development, the recent collapse of a structure at the International Trade Fair in Katowice which killed more than sixty people was invoked in the arguments for ‘modernisation.’ [1] Crowley BETON 2The fact that Supersam (designed by Jerzy Hryniewiecki, Maciej Krasiński and Ewa Krasińska with structural engineer Wacław Zalewski, 1962) was a landmark in the history of architectural engineering – not least for the funicular roof system of tensile cables and compressive arches that formed its roof designed by Wacław Zalewski, later an MIT professor – and that it was still viable in structural terms counted for naught.

With socialist era the subject of so much opprobrium, how can we explain the ghostly lines of the old Cracovia on the new building? Is this some kind of flimsy attempt at branding – the post-modern badging of place? Or perhaps we should see this as a kind of haunting of the architecture of capitalism by the revenants of the socialist past? Or maybe they are better understood as ‘spolia’, signs of the victory of one system over another. Whilst plans for the site have, as I will show later, moved on, this kind of architectural haunting is by no means a one-off. In fact, it belongs to a pattern in Polish architecture over the last decade. In centre of Katowice for instance, the new Galeria Katowicka, a mammoth shopping centre housing 250 retail units and parking for 1200 cars contains remnants of the building which once occupied the site, Katowice Railway Station (designed by Wacław Klyszewski, Jerzy Mokrzyński and Eugeniusz Wierzbicki with structural engineer Wacław Zalewski, 1959-1972). One of the most ambitious brutalist buildings of the PRL era, the station took the form of a raised platform in the centre of the city. A hub for transport in the region, cars and buses would deliver passengers to its lower levels, while foot-passengers could enter the station across an elevated walkway. The raised pavilion housing the ticket offices and cafés was covered by a roof supported by tapering columns in thick concrete columns. crowley-beton-3.jpgA number of these kielichy (goblets) – as they are popularly known – survive today, reinforced and subsumed into the new shopping centre, a fashionable parametric structure designed by Sud Architects for the developer in 2010. Boutiques now occupy the spaces between the concrete kielichy, structural elements that the developer Neinver called on its website, ‘a distinctive motif in post-War Polish architecture ’. It is – a presumably unintended – irony that Brutalism, so often accused of being indifferent to context, has been adopted as the means for making familiar. Similarly, the Nove Praha, a modern multiplex in an aestern district of Warsaw, stands on the site of its forbear, Kino Praha designed by Jan Bogusławski in 1948. The ground floor windows of new structure display casts of the socialist realist scenes of labour which once decorated the curved sweep of the stone and glass facade of Bogusławski’s cinema. Announcing the power of the workers on eve of the formation of the People’s Republic, these signs now act as advertising for leisure.Crowley BETON 4

The fate of Supersam, Katowice Railway Station and more recently, the Cracovia Hotel have been the matters of public controversy. In fact all three have been subjects of highly visible crusades in Poland to ‘save’ the structures. Similar campaigns have been mounted, as I shall show, in the Czech Republic too. Events tend to follow the same pattern: a developer sets out to demolish a communist era building, usually with the support of the city authorities, to free the land for new development. This, in turn, triggers the formation of a broad alliance of interests which mount lively on-site protests and an on-line social media campaign. And, in the case of the Katowice Railway Station, a petition signed by architects and historians around the world. Often those wishing to save the building are a mixed bunch combining heritage groups, community organisations concerned about the effect on local businesses or the environment, and, sometimes, anti-capitalist groups too. Campaigners attempt to get these buildings listed as sites of historical importance to ensure that they are given special protection. Listing, however, has not always meant a guarantee of survival with developers pressing higher authorities to get decisions overturned. These debates often spill out into the mainstream media, triggering discussion about urban development, public space and the power of government in the face of powerful commercial interests; the effects of globalisation on the cityscape. In fact, many of the most active defenders of late modernist buildings are as interested in investment patterns, and the ‘cosy’ relations of architects and developers with politicians, as they are with matters of modernist style and design. And they often use social media to put a spotlight on these relationships which have been formed behind closed doors.

In early 2014 for instance, the Hotel Praha in the Dejvice district of Prague was demolished after a loud and vigorous campaign to save the building from the bulldozer. Crowley BETON 5Commissioned in 1971, and opened a decade later, this hotel was a powerful sign of the privilege that the communist elite reserved for itself. With bespoke interiors and fittings, some created by celebrated Czech decorative artists, like glass artist Stanislav Libensky, supporters of the hotel claimed that the artistic merit of this late communist Gesamtkunstwerk outbalanced its dubious past. The story of the hotel’s privatization in the 1990s is indicative of the operations of capital in the Czech Republic after communist rule. Becoming property of Prague City Council in 1992, the hotel’s swimming pool and grounds were welcome additions to the public spaces of the city. However, in 2002, the hotel was sold to Falcon Capital, an investment company established by Georgian and Armenian businessmen in 1996, with murky connections to Russia that have perplexed journalists and commentators.[2] Then, in spring 2013, a Cyprus-based investment company Maraflex bought the hotel, before quickly selling it on to Petr Kellner, the richest individual in the Czech Republic. He then announced plans to demolish the hotel to build a private housing and a school. At the same time, appeals to list this late Socialist building were turned down, on the basis that the building – completed in 1981 – was too recent to warrant protection.[3]

Whilst the cycle of investment and divestment of former state property is not unusual in Eastern Central Europe, the response to Kellner’s acquisition is. In June 2013 protests were mounted outside the hotel and Kellner’s home and a banner with the words ‘Vekslak Bourá Prahu’ (Racketeer Destroys Prague) was draped over the entrance by anti-capitalist activists. Similar banners appeared outside the headquarters of Kellner’s office in July too. Derived from the German word ‘wechsel’ (english: ‘exchange’ or ‘switch’), ‘vekslak’ (racketeer) is often used to label those who have benefited from the precipitous privatization programmes after 1989, often – though not exclusively – members of the former elite. The term points not to the productivity of capitalism but its interest in accumulation and asset-stripping. These – ultimately unsuccessful – campaigns had the paradoxical effect of turning anti-capitalist protesters into the defenders of a luxury hotel. One activist, Dominik Forman, wrote:

Events which promote the preservation of Hotel Praha are important – not only because they are attempts to save a unique building, but mainly because the anger of the people is finally pointed in the right direction. The target of this anger is the richest oligarch, a financial speculator, who wants to demolish the hotel. He represents exactly the class of people responsible for the financial crisis … which falls on the shoulders of the poorest and weakest.[4]

The activists outside Kellner’s offices were met by counter-protests in his defence: figures wearing masks of Joseph Stalin, Fidel Castro and Gustáv Husák carried banners with slogans parodying party-speak: ‘Soudruzi, toť naše snaha, ubráníme hotel Praha! (‘Comrades, with our efforts, we’ll defend the Hotel Praha!’) announced one. Crowley BETON 6And mirroring the use of social media by defenders of socmodernist architecture, a Facebook ‘community page’ was set up under the name ‘Zbourejte komunistický hotel Praha’ (Tear down the Communist Praha Hotel). It introduced itself with these words:


This (Facebook) page supports the demolition of inefficient, megalomaniac communist buildings such as the Hotel Prague in Dejvice. This building, nicknamed Hotel Bolshevik, ranks among the examples of socialist architecture fashioned from iron and concrete, and, in its megalomania, is so inefficient that it is currently unable to operate. This page was created in response to the actions of communists who want to create an outdoor museum of communism in the country.[5]

While the origins of this organization is not clear, its purpose was. It set out to seal the relationship of the building to a detested regime: to render the building as the past was to deprive it of any kind of future.

Demolition does not necessarily mean oblivion. Some buildings which disappeared in Central Eastern Europe more than a decade ago continue to be vividly remembered today. In Poland, ‘Supersam’ has enjoyed an impressive afterlife in the form of artworks, articles in the press and online discussions, and even ‘retro-style’ ceramic models. The shop continues to trade in an out-of-town industrial shed bearing the logo of the communist era business. Relics from the building – like its neon signage – are on display in museums. Presented as a salutary warning for the future, ‘Supersam’ is invoked in the press every time, it seems, a communist era building is slated for demolition. Much of this might be put down as a kind of late ‘ostalgie’, particularly when the building is rematerialized in the form of a knowingly kitsch ceramic ‘souvenir’. But as one writer put it in a 2016 article in Gazeta Wyborcza, ”The wrecking of Supersam caused such a stir in Warsaw that we started to look more closely at socmodernism, seeking its protection.”[6] It is clear that the brutalist and late modernist structures have become the focus of genuine feeling, often on the part of those who were too young to have had a direct or personal connection to those spaces. Emotion is a diffuse, instinctive and often highly individuated response to circumstance: nevertheless, it is capable of having material effects in the world. After all, anti-communist feeling is precisely what the enemies of the Hotel Praha sought to tap.

Artists have done more to channel emotion, more than perhaps any champions of late socialist modernism. For instance, artists Cecylia Malik, Mateusz Okoński and Marta Sala organized a rolling demonstration through the streets of Kraków to the door of the Cracovia hotel in March 2014. Crowley BETON 7Around 300 people dressed in gold masks and clothes – some carrying banners or playing instruments, others transporting a golden calf in a shopping trolley – took part in a rally that the artists called ‘Chciwość Miasta’(Greedy City). Approaching protest in an emphatically ludic and spectacular manner, Malik and her friends  were effective at attracting the media and of course public attention too. But this was more than a photo-op. Focusing interest on the Cracovia’s striking and high quality decorative scheme, including an exuberant 37m2 mosaic of global landmarks from the 1960s that had been plastered over at some time in the early 1990s, Malik and Okoński were engaged in a project of architectural re-enchantment.

In the Czech Republic, one of the most distinct voices attacking the interests of commercial developers, as well as the architects and politicians with whom they form alliances, is the Arch Wars’ Facebook page. Much of the content takes the form of photographs with acerbic captions pointing out the absurdities of unchecked privatization on one hand, and the results of literal application of building regulations, particularly in small towns. Much of the content is submitted by Arch Wars’ 30,000 FB friends. The page also features witty animations fronted by an anonymous comic character, ‘Arch Vader’, dressed in black with a pirate’s tricorn.[7]  Crowley BETON 8Arch Vader’s animated messages owe more to the language of console games and super-hero movies than the architectural press. Commenting on the plans demolish and remake the modernist railway station in Havirov, a factory town near Cieszyn that is an example of what the Czechs call Brussels Style (after the Expo in 1958), Arch Vader accuses the local authorities and Czech Railways of leaving the building to decay in order to make the case for a new building, a cheap box under a tented roof. To be paid for with EU funds, this is an example of what Arch Vader calls the new ‘Brussels Style’ of the twenty-first century. Darkly sardonic and, for that reason, highly entertaining, these short films are reposted, acquiring large audiences as they travel through social media.

Whether expressed as a carnivalesque project of re-enchantment or as sardonic publicity, this creative energy needs to be judged by its effects. What does all this effort to attract public attention achieve? The attention given to images – gold calves, Arch Vader, etc. – is itself perhaps the problem. This activism is predicated on the idea that images can change attitudes and that developers, local authorities, and architects can be held to account in the ‘court of public opinion’. It is hardly surprising then that campaigning images are met with images in response: viewed in these terms, the ghostly lines of the old Cracovia Hotel traced on the DDJM Nowa Cracowia scheme or the kielichy inside the Galeria Katowicka are gestures to sentiment which leave the developers’ plans unchanged.

It would be wrong to suggest that these actions have no effects. It seems to me that these campaigns often fail in their own terms (i.e. relatively few buildings have been ‘saved’) but they have had a slower influence on the attitudes of architects, and city authorities. This is perhaps evident in the programme to improve the chain of railway stations which punctuate the East-West lines running through the centre of Warsaw (Warszawa Ochota; Warszawa Śródmieście, Warszawa Powiśle, Warszawa Stadion and Warszawa Wschodnia). Crowley BETON 9Small pavilions with ambitious and expressive structures, the stations were designed by Arseniusz Romanowicz and Piotr Szymaniak in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the very height of the post-war wave of modernism. With ‘op art’ decorative schemes and sculptural rooflines, they were signs of a new optimism not just for new architectural forms but even for the renewal of socialism. By the 1990s, they were in a sorry state, with the concrete suppurating and the bright glazing obscured by advertising and shabby kiosks. Dark and decaying, these stations were invariably described as rotting structures: some were even subject of gruesome urban myths. One was even believed to house an underground illegal meat processing plant, with the animal fat leaking into the city’s sewers. However, the pressing need to ensure functioning communications in the city during the Euro 2012 football championships, and the state of the global economic downturn meant that repair was the only option. Sometimes the architects charged with the task  came to realize that what was required was not architectural additions but removal, at least of the elements which obscured the original design. Michał Błaszczyk of PPMB was responsible for restoring ‘Stadion’, a double-height rectilinear box clad in rough stonework and a bold spherical entrance. He recalls: ”My first idea was to generate a new quality. But when together with Krzysztof Charewicz from the Warsaw Municipal Monument Preservation Office we started delving into the station’s documentation, looking at archival photos, it turned out that in the past it had looked different. It was then that the idea emerged to restore it and unveil its original appeal.’[8] Similarly, Henryk Łaguna (MAAS Projekt), the practice responsible for Upper Powiśle Pavilion, said: “Iin the 1960s and 1970s a tremendous amount of interesting interiors and buildings were carried out in Warsaw, which should be preserved and cleaned, since years of dereliction turn them into ruins. And then everybody goes: “How ugly! Tear it down immediately.”[9] The ruination of these buildings, according to Łaguna, was not a product of socialism but of the indifference of the 1980s and the forms of raw and uncontrolled capitalism that Warsaw experienced in the 1990s.[10] In their own way, these architects were also engaged in a project of re-enchantment.

Among the various socialist-era buildings slated for demolition, the Cracovia hotel is perhaps the most likely structure to benefit from the slow turn in opinion that has occurred in the last decade. An extension to the listing of the building on the heritage register in November 2016 protected the front elevation, the building’s entrance and the foyer of the cinema which forms part of the original ensemble: any future designs for the site are now obliged to preserve these elements. Coming after months of public discussion about the future of the building and the protests described above, perhaps listing encouraged the building’s current owner, Echo Investment, to sell the building. And, in a tidy two-step, the hotel’s neighbour, the National Museum, secured the funds from the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage a month later to make an offer. Proposing to turn the building into a new gallery of architecture and design, as well as Museum stores and offices, the scheme has been presented as a new public space in the city – forming a ‘square’ between the Museum and the former hotel. Parts of the hotel which were closed off years ago, like the courtyard, will become a sculpture garden.

This turn of events in Kraków might be claimed as a triumph, even as an illustration of the power of popular protest. Yet the response of those who have campaigned on behalf of the building has been rather muted, even suspicious. The explanation for this lies in the fact that the project has been backed by the right-wing conservative nationalist government which has mounted a wholesale assault on liberal culture since taking power in October 2015. The proposal – first floated by the vice-director of the Museum, Andrzej Szczerski, twelve months earlier, and widely debated in the city’s media – was, it seems, another negotiation behind closed doors. With the building being bought with state funds, the Cracovia will be renationalised by a right wing government. This result is as paradoxical as anti-capitalist activists campaigning to save a luxury hotel.



[1] When Supersam closed, material summarising a report by Warsaw Polytechnic engineers appeared in its windows, including photographs of the poor state of the structure. Making the case for demolition, these signs announced that the ‘technical state of the building … threatens us with a building catastrophe on the scale of Katowice.’

[2] See for instance, Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty’s ‘Corruption Watch: September 4, 2003’ (4 September 2003) http://www.rferl.org/a/1342381.html – accessed February 2017.

[3] See Kateřina Samojská, Bourá se (hotel) Praha’ in Za Starou Praha, XLIII, no. 1 (2013), pp. 19-25

[4]Dominik Forman, ‘Mají argumenty pro bourání hotelu Praha smysl?’ (2013) – http://solidarita.socsol.cz/2013/nezarazene/maji-argumenty-pro-bourani-hotelu-praha-smysl – accessed November 2016

[5] https://en-gb.facebook.com/zbourejtekomunistickyhotelpraha/ – accessed November 2016

[6]Dariusz Bartoszewicz, ‘Supersam. 54 lata temu otwarto pierwszy samoobsługowy sklep’ in Gazeta Wyborcza (6 June 2016) – http://warszawa.wyborcza.pl/warszawa/1,34862,20192183,supersam-54-lata-temu-otwarto-pierwszy-samoobslugowy-sklep.html – accessed November 2016

[7] See https://www.facebook.com/arch.vader

[8]Błaszczyk interviewed in Grzegorz Piątek, ed., AR/PS (Warsaw, 2012), 264.

[9]Łaguna interviewed in Grzegorz Piątek, ed., AR/PS (Warsaw, 2012), 257

[10] On this, see my book Warsaw (London, 2003) and Olga Drenda’s excellent Duchologia polska. Rzeczy I ludzie w latach transformacji (Kraków, 2016).



The Peasant in the City

Architecture, Cold War, Design Exhibition, Eastern Europe, Modernism, Uncategorized

This piece was written for a Zacheta show, Polska – kraj folkloru? You can download the catalogue in English here. It includes excellent essays by Gabriela Świtek, Błażej Brzostek and the curator, Joanna Kordjak.

A Socialist capital – a city for every citizen … the worker, the peasant and the working intelligentsia’ – political slogan Poland, early 1950s

zrzut-ekranu-2013-01-8-o-14-00-12In the 1952 romantic comedy ‘Przygoda na Mariensztacie’ (Adventure in Mariensztat), Hanka, a country-girl, arrives in Warsaw as a tourist. A socialist realist fairytale, ‘Przygoda na Mariensztacie’ was the first full colour feature film in Poland and the director Leonard Buczkowki made full use of the bright fabrics of her festive dress, and the even brighter red horizons of the city. Her route though the capital’s streets, conducted at an exhausting ‘Warszawskie tempo’ (Warsaw tempo) by an animated guide motivated by the spirit of socialism, takes her from Mariensztat, a new housing district, past romantic poet Adam Mickiewicz on his plinth and Stanisław August’s picturesque palace which seems to float on the surface of the lake in Łazienki Park. Her tour ends abruptly when she seems to be lost in Constitution Square, the monumental showpiece of new socialist realist architecture in the city. Unperturbed, the joy of finding herself in the radiant future of socialist Warsaw is written in her smile. She is a peasant who is on the way to becoming a socialist activist. She joins a work brigade, becoming a bricklayer. The agent of her transformation was not a lecture or a political tract but the city itself. Warsaw had done its ideological work in this fable. Not only were the workers making the city; the city was making workers of peasants. Access to education, to homes of the kind being built in Constitution Square and to houses of culture would, it was claimed, overcome what Marx and Engels had classed the ‘idiocy of rural life’ in The Communist Manifesto one-hundred years earlier.

Social transformation was declared to be a priority of the new political order in the People’s Republic of Poland. Vice-Minister of Culture Włodzimierz Sokorski announced:


there is progress, a constant grappling with the new life conditions, a process of transforming peasants into proletarians. And take a look at the newly accepted university students who come from the working classes of cities or villages. Look how they have to struggle, how they are initially oppressed with the dominance of the pseudo-elites that they meet at the start of their student life. How they don’t give up, nonetheless, how they push themselves up to the surface and hold on tight to the positions achieved. They will be our leading and militant intelligentsia.[1]


Yet state attitudes to peasant life were contradictory. At the same time as calling for peasants to be made into proletarians, Sokorski also claimed that peasant culture was the beating heart of national life: ‘Folk art’, had he claimed, ‘formed itself in opposition to aristocratic, courtly culture. And at the same time its roots can be traced to a form of society founded on the drudgery of the masses, the feudal peasantry. When aristocratic culture severed itself from its national origins by becoming a source of docile cosmopolitanism and fossil-like formalism, peasant art nourished itself from a perpetually creative, richly national and deeply class-marked social stream.’[2] Peasant culture was ‘a living movement which renews itself everyday and every hour in the creative march of the Polish countryside to Socialism’.[3] This claim was allegorised in countless representations of the peasant in the company of her fellow builders of socialism. zulawskaHad Hanka looked up during her visit to Constitution Square in Buczkowski’s ‘Przygoda na Mariensztacie’, for instance, she might have even caught a glimpse of herself. The monumental arcades which flank the square were decorated with mosaics created by ceramic artist Hanna Żuławska to represent the seasons. Spring features a brightly dressed peasant woman marching arm-in-arm with a miner from Silesia, a factory worker and a ZMP-owiec (member of the socialist youth organisation) carrying a red flag. Here was an illustration of the national unity so loudly proclaimed by the state at the time. Countless other representations – posters, magazines, and in newsreels – recreated this happy scene. Almost invariably embodied as a woman in these images, the Polish peasantry was identified with femininity and the proletarian worker with masculinity. The peasant was both romanticised and emasculated in such representations (just as the political parties which represented peasant interests had been in the late 1940s).

The paradoxes of official representations of the peasantry was evident to many, even if censorship meant they could not be admitted. Writing abroad Czesław Miłosz in his critical account of the Stalin years, The Captive Mind, accused the state of making a fetish of peasant culture at the time when it was attempting (and failing) to impose collective farms in the countryside, attacking so called ‘kulaks’ (wealthy peasants) and encouraging internal migration to new urban projects like the construction of the city and kombinat of Nowa Huta:


In the villages, where the entire former pattern of custom is to be abolished through the transformation of peasants into agricultural workers, there still remains survivals of the individual peasant cultures which slowly stratified over the centuries. Still, let us speak frankly, the main support of this culture were usually the wealthier peasants. The battle against them, and their subsequent need to hide, must lead to the atrophy of peasant dress, decoration of huts, cultivation of private gardens, etc. There is a definite contradiction between the official protection of folklore (as a harmless form of national culture designed to satisfy patriotic tendencies) and the necessities of the new economic structure.[4]


For those who could not make a permanent move to Warsaw or Nowa Huta, tourism offered an alternative. Day trips and tours to Warsaw were organised for Poles from across the country to witness the miracle of reconstruction. To serve these national pilgrims, plans were put in place for new hotel and cultural centre in the heart of the city, Dom Chłopa (House of the Peasant). architektra002-kopia-kopia-2First conceived in 1946 (though plans for similar structures can be traced back to the First World War [5]), Dom Chłopa was conceived as a place not only of rest but of improvement. The building was to contain not only bedrooms and a restaurant for 500 guests, but also a library, a świetlica (political education room) and a cinema/theatre as well as a medical centre, a photographer’s studio and a hairdressers. Long delayed, the competition to design the building on a plot on Plac Powstanców Warszawy was not announced until May 1957. The winning scheme was designed by the most successful architect of the Stalin years, Bohdan Pniewski, and Małgorzata Handzelewicz-Wacławek. Organised around a quadrangle, their scheme provided accommodation under a rippling roof line (that earned it the nickname ‘the house of the camels’) and a glass-walled lobby from which all Dom Chłopa’s services could be accessed. Constructed after the so called ‘Thaw’, the architects could now take advantage of the ‘contemporary style’.

screen-shot-2016-12-30-at-17-36-34The open lobby was decorated with brightly coloured furnishings and largely abstract decorative schemes by artists Władysław Zych, and husband and wife team of Hanna and Gabriel Rechowicz. Attempting to produce a thoroughly modern interior, Hanna Rechowicz admits to making some compromises: ‘There were strange birds and other pretty funny unknown animals and plants … Because it is a hotel in which peasants stay, they asked for some that could be read as fragments of reality’.[6] Nevertheless, the Dom Chlopa’s presented its guests with a vision of the bright future in social, political and aesthetic terms.

Dom Chłopa was an exceptional institution but perhaps one that had been prefigured in the writing of the Stefan Żeromski. In his last novel, Przedwiośne (The Coming Spring, 1924), the writer tells the story of a father and son returning home from Baku after the First World War and the revolutionary events in Russia and elsewhere. It is a political bildungsroman. One of the magnetic images which pulls them home to Poland is the father’s descriptions of a liberated country enjoying the benefits of modern technology. Peasant homes are now, he tells his son, made with glass walls – bright, transparent, warm and above all hygienic: ‘water cools the walls; as a result, even in the greatest swelter it’s as cool there as in our cellar in Baku, but without the damp and the bad smell. The very same water constantly washes the glass floors, walls, and ceilings, bringing cool and cleanliness. (…) there is nothing that could rot or go moldy or smell from visible or invisible dirt, since all the utensils, all the furniture and fittings – everything is made of glass.’[7] Żeromski’s vision was fashioned not only from one of the clichés of progress – glass architecture, but also from one of the deep rooted prejudices of modern life – the dirtiness of the peasant. Similarly, the Dom Chłopa had been shaped by the conviction that the peasant needed to be improved to truly engage with the city. When not decorating the city in her gala dress, she appears to have been viewed as detritus (lit. matter out of place). Varsovian Anna Mańkowska passed her opinion of country tourists when interviewed in an article in Stolica (Capital City) in 1958: ‘I see countless tours through the windows of my apartment in the Old Market Square in Warsaw. Unwashed and rumpled and carrying their cases and bundles all day and foraging for orangeade at a kiosk, I wish for the simple device of day hotels, conceived for ordinary people.’[8]

This trope of dirtiness was evident in other campaigns to improve peasant life. Writing in Stolica Stanislaw Komornicki accused new-comers of reproducing the social spaces of the rural home in their new city apartments. The small, often meanly proportioned, kitchen was, he observed, sometimes used like the traditional czarna izba (black chamber) in the peasant home, a multi-functional room organized around the fireplace where household labour was conducted and meals consumed. In transposition, this ‘disposition’ in the new Warsaw apartment left the much-trumpeted collective services like the communal laundry unused. The other, biała izba (white chamber) – which had been used as a site of display and for the reception of guests – was preserved as a space of display rather than self-education or other virtuous hobbies. The small, new flat, which typically accommodated a family in two or three multi-purpose rooms, was designed according to principles of utility. In effect, the design of the apartment was disregarded by its inhabitants. In the view of this apologist for the new Warsaw, this trace of the peasant disposition in new socialist spaces ‘was an unfortunate memory of long-past, unhappy times’.[9] What Komornicki had in mind was not the ‘private’ time of biography but the epochal conception of Marxism in which life was regulated by the metre of progress: in this teleology, peasant life was destined for extinction. Ideologically correct, his article sought to raise a consciousness that would speed its disappearance.

Komornicki’s criticism tapped into deep-seated town/country antipathies in Polish culture. It also anticipated a good number of sociological and anthropological studies made in the decades that followed which sought to understand why newcomers to the city did not avail themselves of the cultural resources to which they now had access, or seem to have been improved by their new surroundings. negatywyAssessing the situation in Nowa Huta in the 1960s, one academic wrote ‘Where the new blocks were inhabited by the families of rural origins, there were frequent problems due to incompetent use of a contemporary flat by the immigrants. It was often the case that the fittings in a flat were devastated (such as water supply and drainage, or gas heaters in bathrooms) due to incorrect use of the equipment (such as drawing water from the radiator), or using bathroom as a place to keep animals’.[10] Internalising the ‘progressive’ policies of the state, much of this sociology eschewed observation in favour of judgment (‘incompetent use’).

Other portraits of the persistence of rural habitus in the city were more sympathetic. They include the social documentaries produced in the second half of the mid 1950s. During the Thaw, film-makers freed themselves from the task of producing propaganda and began to explore the impoverished conditions of everyday life. Known as the Czarna Seria (Black Series), their short films – sometimes involving actors and re-enactments but mostly assuming an observational style – took their viewers to the building sites and workers’ dormitories of Nowa Huta to witness the hooliganism and alcoholism there (‘Miejsce zamieszkania’, dir. Maksymilian Wrocławski, 1957), and the depopulated towns and villages in the Polish countryside (‘Miasteczko’, dir. Krystyna Gryczełowska, 1956). Another significant theme was the on-going housing crisis in Poland where many still lived in ruins ten years after the Second World War had ended. Made in the second wave of these social portraits, ‘Miasto na wyspach’ (‘City of Islands’, dir. Jerzy Dmowski and Bohdan Kosiński, 1958), a 8-minute film made for Wytwórnia Filmów Dokumentalnych, features one of the new clichés of the era, the image of the city as the countryside. New buildings were being constructed in Warsaw in small clusters with vast dusty plains in between. The clearance of the ruins had allowed nature and even small-holdings to occupy the city. Sometimes in Dmowski and Kosiński’s film, this lends itself to picturesque contrasts: a tram crosses a grassy meadow and a tethered cow appears with building site in the background. Other shots are more desperate, showing dilapidated shacks and their inhabitants scratching a meagre living by recycling the debris of the pre-war city. (And Dmowski and Kosiński intercut stills from the crowded streets of the pre-war city, decorated with advertising, to emphasise the contrast between urbanity and rurality). Despite the rhetoric of turning peasants into proletarians, it looked as if the village had come to occupy the city. This was not the romantic image of the village populated with happy peasants but a landscape of desperation. These scenes might also have come from the pages of Żeromski’s The Coming Spring. When the son arrives in Poland – still carrying his now late father’s images of peasant modernity in his mind – his disappointment is palpable: ‘Cezary gazed with cheerless eyes at the miry streets pocked with bottomless potholes; at the houses of all different, heights and colours and degrees outward filthiness; at the pigsties and the puddles, the outbuildings and the charred ruins.’[11]

screen-shot-2016-12-30-at-17-33-22Dmowski and Kosiński were making a point, demanding that the post-stalinist state to make good on its promises of improved housing and welfare for all. This argument was taken further in Architektura, the mouthpiece of the professional association of architects in Poland. In 1963 Jan Minorski published an article entitled which interpreted data about life on the fringes of the city generated by Ekonom. Techn. Rady Naukowej przy PRN. Entitled ‘Architektura samorzutna’ (Spontaneous Architecture), it explored the ways in which improvised homes were made from cheap and often scavenged materials on narrow plots of land overlooked by the planners. Minorski’s portrait of such unsupported and largely illegal attempts to ‘meet the needs of human life’ was surprisingly sympathetic.[12] He had been a loyal champion of socialist realism and then, after 1956, of the modernist revival in Polish architecture. Often represented as antinomies, both shared a confident belief in the civilising mission of architecture. Yet, in this article, he expressed a genuine interest in what Bernard Rudolfsky called ‘architecture without architects’.[13] Minorski provided detailed maps of social relations in these households; sympathetic photographic portraits of the inhabitants of these shacks; and positive descriptions of the the resourcefulness and creativity involved in making their homes and running small business in the suburbs. Perhaps to offset the doubts of his readers, he asserted:

‘This architecture is:

  • spontaneous, the result of lively activities,
  • concrete, arising without a blueprint, variable, ‘tachiste’, according to one’s wishes’

Some of these homes and workshops were the product of urban expansion, sweeping former villages into the orbit of the city. Others were the product of tragedy: Minorski, outlining the lives of these householders, points to the dark catalogue of war and destruction that had necessitated this kind of domestic creativity. Moreover, it is clear – from the descriptions of their households – that they are predominately populated with women (or as Minorski puts it, ‘the grandmother reigns over the hierarchy here’[14]). The gendering of the peasant is, in this case, less a matter of ideology than of tragic fate. But his point is that these homes might also contain lessons for architects and urban planners too: they ‘are subject to constant change. Their spatial development is dynamic.’ ‘In spontaneous construction,’ he continues, ‘you can see that what is good comes from heroic efforts to provide a roof over one’s head. What is evil has its roots in the lack of financial, technical, legal, organisational support by the state.’[15] Perhaps little more than a footnote in the history of Polish architecture and urbanism, Minorski’s article did more than any other representation in the period to fill in the details of the figure of the peasant in the city, albeit on its very fringes. Her appearance here was not a fantasy in gala dress or a crumpled figure in need of improvement but was an attempt to understand her concrete existence.






[1] Włodzimierz Sokorski, ‘O sztukę realizmu socjalistycznego’ in Sztuka w walce o socjalizm (PIW: Warsaw, 1950) 150.

[2] Włodzimierz Sokorski, ‘O własciwy stosunek do sztuki ludowej’ in Polska Sztuka Ludowa (May 1949) 131.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Czesław Miłosz, The Captive Mind (Harmondsworth: Penguin 1985) 67.

[5] Bohdan Rostropowicz, ‘Chłopi będą mieli swoj dom w Warszawie’ in Stolica (?) 15.

[6] Hanna Rechowicz cited by Max Cegielski, Mozaika śladami Rechowiczów (Warsaw: W.A.B., 2011), 164-5.

[7] Stefan Żeromski, The Coming Spring, trans. B. Johnston (Budapest: Central European Press, 2007) 85-88.

[8] Cited in Stolica 45, (1958)

[9] St. Komornicki, ‘Jak urządzić nowe mieszkanie’ in Stolica (1 March 1953) 11.

[10] S. Panek, E. Piasecki, ‘Nowa Huta. Integracja ludności w świetle badań antropologicznych’ in Materiały i prace antropologiczne, 80 (1971) 30 – cited by Ewelina Szpak, ‘’Between Farm and Factory. Peasants in Urban Space in Communist Poland’ in Lud’a Klusáková and Laure Teulières, Frontiers and Identities: Cities in Regions and Nations (Pisa: Pisa University Press, 2008) 248.

[11] Żeromski, Coming Spring, 126.

[12] Jan Minorski ‘Architektura samorzutna’ in Architektura, 4 (1963) 133.

[13] This was a title of an exhibition curated at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1964-5 which surveyed the diverse faces of vernacular building traditions around the world.

[14] Minorski ‘Architektura samorzutna’, 118.

[15] Minorski ‘Architektura samorzutna’ 115.

Notes from the Underground

Cold War, Eastern Europe, Music, Uncategorized

In September, Daniel Muzyczuk and I curated a show entitled ‘Notes from the Underground’ for the Muzeum Sztuki in Lodz which explores the intersection of art and music in Eastern Europe under communist rule. Rock, punk and new wave were not only embraced by young musicians in the 1970s and 1980s, they shaped the visual arts too. Fashion, graphic design and video were animated by these new sensibilities throughout the so called Eastern Bloc and former Yugoslavia. Of course the idea of the underground was a kind of myth but one which, nevertheless, had tangible effects – and often quite brilliant ones too. Take a look at this video by the East German absurdists, AG Geige.

Between the official sphere and dissident culture, this zone has been somewhat overlooked and so the show in Lodz is an attempt to provide some kind of map to this phenomenon. In fact, the show covers a lot of ground from Prague to Moscow and from Vilnius to Belgrade.

The exhibition closes on 15 January 2017 but we hope that it will travel to other venues in Europe in 2017-18. A 450 pp book published by MSL / Walter Koenig accompanies the show.

Press shots of the show can be seen here.

Karol Sienkiewicz wrote a thoughtful review here and there is a good overview text from Odra by Monika Pasiecznik here. Stach Szablowski’s Dwutygodnik piece reflects on the place of the avant-garde in the museum. He asks what happened to the underground after 1989 – perhaps a task for another curator .. And Waldemar Kuligowski is far less happy with the show in Czas Kultury.

Hannelore Fobo has made a short film, focusing on the works of E-E Kozlov in the show here.

There is an interview with Daniel and myself here.

Hasior’s Dreck

Eastern Europe, Modernism, Uncategorized


This essay is a transcript of a talk given in Zakopane in late 2014. It will appear in a book edited by Kola Sliwińska.


Władysław Hasior, ‘Yma Súmac’ (1961) Coll: Muzeum Śląski (Katowice)

Władysław Hasior, ‘Yma Súmac’ (1961) Coll: Muzeum Śląski (Katowice)

Junk and trash seemed to rise to the surface of Polish culture in the mid 1950s. Of course, in the aftermath of the catastrophe of the Second World War, the country itself was full of debris. Ruins and bombsites still considerably outnumbered new buildings in Warsaw and elsewhere; and because the Stalinist economy did little to provide new clothes and furnishings for a needy population, the Poles had become adept at the arts of repair and bricolage. Nevertheless, a new kind of trash that one might even be called modern appeared in the People’s Republic of Poland (PRL) during the so called Thaw, the turbulent period of reforms which followed Stalin’s death in 1953. New trash is, of course, close to being an oxymoron. But this trash was new in one important sense: it was the chosen medium of a number of young modernist film makers and artists. After the Stalin years (1949-53) – during which culture had been required to deliver ringing messages of progress to society – artists embraced the opportunity to explore hitherto closed-off zones including those filled with junk.

Władysław Hasior was one of these junk artists. His earliest works embraced the particular kind of primitivism which is offered by the decrepit. Works like his portrait of the Peruvian singer, ‘Yma Súmac’ (1961) and ‘Srebrna maska’ (Silver Mask, 1961) were assembled from broken and exhausted material which would otherwise have been thrown away as trash. Writing in Ty i Ja in 1966, Hanna Kirchner pointed out the value that Hasior found in waste:


Hasior is a poet and philosopher of things, exploring the dialectic of their existence in the human world. He forms altars, statues, monuments and shrines with objects that seem to coexist with man, forming his natural surroundings because they are worn and poor. They provide [Hasior’s] masks, and allusions. His compositions are most often anthropomorphic figures wound from wire, moulded with soap, arranged from panes of various kinds of glass. Sometimes a great body is suggested by bread, an anachronistic machine or a cast-iron stove …[1]


Others interested in animating trash at the time included the young filmmaker Roman Polański. Before the director achieved international success with his feature films, he made a number of shorts including ‘Gdy spadają anioły’ (When Angels Fall, 1959) and ‘Lampa’ (Lamp, 1959). ‘When Angels Fall’ begins with the journey of an old woman to work along the streets of an empty city, populated with little more than dustbins. She is an attendant in a public toilet, one which is highly ornamented in the Victorian manner. Her clients – drunks and workers – seem to trigger thoughts of her life and loves, presented in flashback. Memory, the anticipation of death, human waste and other themes beloved by Samuel Beckett run through this 21 minute film. In ‘Lampa’, a single scene movie by Polański, a man repairs dolls in his workshop. The camera records his crafts, panning over the china faces and limbs of the figures in his care – all bathed in the warm light of oil lamps. Then time seems to jump forward: the man is older and the workshop is lit by electric light. When the workshop is shuttered at the end of the day, it catches alight (or perhaps is incinerated by the menacing anthropomorphised electrical meter). The dolls are destroyed. Polański’s film seems particularly bleak: there is no catharsis, no redemption.

Z. Beksiński, Dno, photocollage, c. 1958/9 - coll: National Museum in Wroclaw

Z. Beksiński, Dno, photocollage, c. 1958/9 – coll: National Museum in Wroclaw

Artist Zdzisław Beksiński’s early photographs seem to share much in common with Hasior’s art and Polański’s early films. His portraits and nude studies appear distorted or torn, as if the negative has been through some kind of trauma or the portrait has offended its owner. Pathological and even misogynistic images, Beksiński’s subjects in these early works appear defaced as if by some violent act. Other works were organised in sets with three parts, often featuring amateur photographs, reproductions from magazines and text books, damaged negatives and pages from entries into dictionaries. ‘Dno’ (‘Bottom’, 1958/59) for instance, features a nineteenth century studio portrait of young girls and close-up of a tombstone: in between, a column from the page of a dictionary are reproduced marking a descent from ślub (wedding) to śmierć (death).

Trash found its way into Polish theatre at around the same time. Poet Miron Białoszewski established Teatr na Tarczyńskiej (Tarczyński Street Theatre) in his apartment in Warsaw in 1955. Drawing upon a circle of friends in the artistic avant-garde, Białoszewski with Ludmiła Murawska, painter and actress, and Ludwik Hering formed a small company, ‘Teatr Osobny Trzech Osób’ (The Individual Theatre of Three Individuals). They performed fragments from the classical cannon including works by Cyprian Norwid, Juliusz Słowacki, Adam Mickiewicz and William Shakespeare as well as Białoszewski’s own plays. Finding a grotesque character in everyday life, his works drew upon the language and experience of Warsaw’s streets finding absurd proportions in the most ordinary things. What is significant, for this talk at least, is the way in which he dressed his dilapidated flat, with Białoszewski and Murawska producing crude costumes and backdrops by painting cardboard. It also furnished the props. If the drama called for a door or a dog, one was ‘on hand’. A chair could be a character.

Miron Białoszewski and Ludmiła Murawska in Songs for Chair and Voice, Osobny Theatre, Warsaw 1958 (Photo: Marek Piasecki, 1957 in the collection of Muzeum Sztuki Nowoczesnej)

Miron Białoszewski and Ludmiła Murawska in Songs for Chair and Voice, Osobny Theatre, Warsaw 1958 (Photo: Marek Piasecki, 1957 in the collection of Muzeum Sztuki Nowoczesnej)

This sensibility also shadows artist, dramatist and writer Tadeusz Kantor’s 1961 concept of ‘realność najniższej rangi’ (‘the reality of the lowest rank’), a term which he used to describe the power of lowly objects to stimulate the imagination: ‘being, death, love … exist somewhere in a poor corner, a parcel, a stick, a bicycle wheel … bereft of pathos or illusion.’ In his words, ‘refuse, cast-off ends and odds’ were conscripted throughout his career into productions, performances and happenings.[2]

Cover of April 1963 issue of Ty i Ja magazine designed by Roman Cieślewicz

Cover of April 1963 issue of Ty i Ja magazine designed by Roman Cieślewicz

The taste for junk seemed to spread widely in the early 1960s, even becoming something like a popular fashion. This is evident on the pages of Ty i Ja (You and I), a popular magazine launched in 1959 by the Ligia Kobiet (Women’s League), an offshoot of the official Polish United Worker’s Party. Early on, however, its editorship was taken over a group of young writers and designers who shared a taste for the démodé. Printers’ devices, illustrations from nineteenth century school books and studies of natural history were used to ornament the pages of the magazine. In appearance, the magazine was a kind of printed collage in which out-of-date images were folded into the present – interviews with film stars and directors, short stories and reports of new fashions in London and Paris. Its covers – often created by Franciszek Starowieyski and Roman Cieślewicz – were a play on the romantic possibilities of the magazine’s title, but often tended to the eccentric and even absurd.  This graphic style found its way into numerous publications in the period, not least Andrzej Banach’s 1964 monograph on Hasior.[3]



What significance might we attach to this taste for broken and out-of-date images and things? And what lay behind their appeal? One fact is evident: these things originated in another time. Not antiques or saintly relics, these out-of-date things might be best described by the Polish word ‘starocie’ (lit. ‘old things’). Their primary value lay in the very fact of their survival. This was as much the product of rhetoric as it was a matter of fact: the party-state had gone to great lengths to announce that the Poles were now living in a new epoch. In this way, many of the objects which feature in Hasior’s art were doubly lost.

Home of Hanna and Gabriel Rechowicz from Ty i Ja, Feb. 1963

Home of Hanna and Gabriel Rechowicz from Ty i Ja, Feb. 1963

During the 1960s starocie in PRL was domesticated, literally. There was a marked fashion amongst poets and painters, film makers and academics – the intelligentsia – to furnish their homes with scuffed Biedermeier chairs, collections of vernacular spoons, earthenware jars, dingy seventeenth century portraits and other minor survivors from the past. We know this because each month in the 1960s Ty i Ja featured their homes in a regularly feature called ‘My Home is My Hobby’. Other regular features guiding this taste for the old included the series ‘Kolekcja nie śmietnik’ (‘Collection Not Trash Can’). The aesthetic was so consistent that it is barely worth singling out examples. But perhaps the home of artists Gabriel and Hanna Rechowicz – best known for their contemporary style murals in socmodernist shops and other public buildings – warrants special mention. Their ‘Anty-mieszkanie’ (Anti-apartment) on Lekarska Street in Warsaw, organized around an enormous decorated sleigh from the late nineteenth century, traded the entire apparatus of conventional domestic living for the aestheticism of starocie.[4]

Homes filled with starocie might be what Russian philosopher Mikhail Epshtein, writing in the 1980s, called ‘lyric museums’:


What kind of museum is it where ordinary Things are on display, and what right does it have to draw attention to them? … every Thing, no matter how insignificant, can possess a private or lyrical value. The latter value depends on the degree to which a given Thing has been lived and thought through … The purpose of this museum is expose the endlessly diverse and profound significance of Things in human life, their rich figurative and conceptual meaning which is not at all reducible to the utilitarian function.[5]


This order of home is a place for the care of things in the final stages of their lives before they are cast into the dump (recall ‘Kolekcja nie śmietnik’). Writing in the Soviet Union in its last years, Epshtein identified curatorial attitudes in the making of these homes. The significance of this care for venerable things is all the more pronounced because the USSR had announced a preference for the future over the past. In fact, this was one of the major ideological planks of the Thaw throughout the Eastern Bloc. One of the signs of destalinisation was the pronounced and loudly-voiced avowal of science and technology. The ‘Leninist way’ – which Stalin, according to Khrushchev and his followers, had abandoned – meant reengaging with the rational and international values of science, technology and engineering. New prospects for Soviet-style socialism were being opened up by computing, abstract art and modern movement architecture. Yet inside intelligentsia homes – quite literally – one might enter into a world fashioned with the material remnants of the past. Like Walter Benjamin’s interpretation of Paul Klee’s figure of Angelus Novus, these citizens of the PRL surely looked on these fragments of history as the remains after an explosion.

There is perhaps little new in this taste (and that is perhaps the point). Nationalist intellectuals had turned their homes into collections of mementoes of the nation in the nineteenth century when the Poles lived as unwilling subjects of foreign empires.[6] But the dominant mood of intellectual life in Poland in the 1950s and 1960s was not national romanticism or even decisive anti-communism. Perhaps if we look for one common thread, we will discover it in the low-key but pervasive existentialism of the age. This was found, for instance, in a marked preference for things as found rather than as they might or even ought to be according to the certitudes of Marxism-Leninism; and in attention to social realities, even when irrational and absurd. It is hardly surprising that the plays of Samuel Beckett and Eugène Ionesco were performed on Polish stages during the Thaw to enthusiastic audiences. Beckett’s ‘Fin de partie’ – a play in which two characters live in dustbins – was staged in Kraków’s Theatre 38 in November 1957, just six months after its premier in London and then on Polish television in Stanislaw Hebanowski’s production in 1958.

Ionesco’s ‘Les Chaises’ was performed at the Teatr Dramatyczny in Warsaw in August 1957; a play which ends with an invisible crowd or audience on stage. This is Ionesco’s direction:


For the first time human noises seem to be coming from the invisible crowd: snatches of laughter, whisperings, a ‘Ssh!’ or two, little sarcastic coughs; these noises grow louder and louder, only to start fading away again. All this should last just long enough for the real and visible public to go away with this ending firmly fixed in their minds. The curtain falls very slowly.[7]


The theatre audience watches and listens mutely to an absent presence, the other audience ‘on’ the stage. Things – the chairs – mark both presence and absence. They are starocie. As such, they need to be seen in terms which had been set by Hannah Arendt in her 1958 book The Human Condition. Of things like starocie, she wrote: ‘it is this durability which gives the things of the world their relative independence from men who produced and use them, their “objectivity” which makes them withstand, “stand against,” and endure, at least for a time, the voracious needs and wants of their living makers and users. From this viewpoint, the things of the world have the function of stabilizing human life, and their objectivity lies in the fact that…men, their ever-changing nature notwithstanding, can retrieve their sameness, that is, their identity, by being related to the same chair and the same table.’[8] Viewed in this way things, starocie marked continuity after catastrophe (of war and of Stalinism) and, conversely, the lack of such ordinary things was the cause of disconnection.



Władysław Hasior, The Widow, 1957

Władysław Hasior, The Widow, 1957

Despite its existential appeal, starocie does not adequately describe either the form or the distressed condition of many of the works by Hasior, Beksiński and other junk artists of the late 1950s. Marked by abjection and destruction as well as the uncanny effects of animism and anthropomorphism, they offered little solace. A work like Hasior’s ‘The Widow’ (1957), a figure whose roughly-hewn face might well have been fashioned from the butcher’s cleaver which forms her torso, suggests anguish in both theme and appearance.

Władysław Hasior, Grandmother, sculpture, 1960 Muzeum sztuki, Lodz.

Władysław Hasior, Grandmother, 1960 Muzeum sztuki, Lodz.

His ‘Prababka’ (Grandmother’, 1960) has the appearance of a human body which has turned into fat or even shit. Perhaps ‘dreck’ – a word which I have adopted from the writings of Tomasz Kitlinski – might be a better term than starocie to describe the turn to junk.[9] A Yiddish / German word meaning filth or crap, dreck can signify rotting matter but also kitsch. Products can be dreck, as for Berthold Brecht, for instance, were American theatre.[10] And for Hasior and other Polish artists in the Thaw who sculpted or filmed garbage, wounded and broken bodies too could be dreck. Here was an an aesthetic which testified to the dark subject of unheroic and brutal death.

There may be a generational perspective at work here. These artists were teenagers during the Second World War. Hasior was born in 1928; Beksiński in 1929; Polański in 1933; and Cieślewicz in 1930. (That this was – seemingly without exception – a male aesthetic might also give pause for thought too). Whilst Polański’s biography – as a Jewish child in the Kraków Ghetto and then in hiding – is exceptional, the experience of witnessing human corpses and dead animals in the streets during the war was not. Violence constituted a material fact of this generation’s youthful existence. Polański’s film ‘Lampa’ in which dolls are caught in a total inflagration is evidently an allegory for the Second World War and perhaps even the ovens in which the bodies of so many victims of the extermination camps were tossed. This said, I don’t think that it is appropriate to use art to diagnose individual traumas. Art is not a symptom. But it may be productive to reflect on the ways in which the dreck aesthetic of the late 1950s and 1960s might constitute a ‘return of the repressed’ within the public realm of Polish culture.

During the Stalin years, there had been a knot of factors which had restrained clear recall of the traumas of the Second World War. For instance, Socialist Realism – a Soviet import to Poland in the late 1940s – put a tight representational frame around the representation of violent death. In the Soviet Union – where the rules and rituals of the cult had already been drawn up – death had been attached to utopia. Literary scholar Katerina Clark writes ‘In the Stalinist novel, death and token mutilation have a predominately mythic function. When the hero sheds his individualistic self at the moment of passage, he dies an individual and is reborn as a function of the collective.’[11] Numerous canvases in which Soviet heroes die on Nazi gallows or fighting on the battlefield played their part in embroidering the myth of the Great Patriotic War. In the PRL, however, the representation of death was treated rather more coyly. There are relatively few images of violent death during these years, perhaps because the new regime put such a premium on the joyful project of constructing socialism.[12]

At the same time, political imperatives put the representation of the recent past under considerable ideological pressure. Events and even individual memories were reframed to match a historical script that had been written in the Kremlin. Individuals were forced – with threats or coercion – to retract testimonies which they had already given. Eyewitnesses – like the members of Polish Red Cross who had examined the corpses of Polish offices murdered at Katyn – had to retract their wartime affidavits; and violence against the Jews by Poles was placed sous rature by an ideology which trumpeted brotherhood. But things were different in 1956. During the waves of destalinisation which rocked the Bloc in this year, the representation of the recent past was one of the fields in which the party-state offered concessions in order to hold onto power. For example, during the Stalin years the authorities kept a firm grip on the representation of the Warsaw Uprising. The Home Army soldiers who had risen against the German occupation of the city in the summer of 1944 were described as fascists and reactionaries in official accounts of the conflict. But after 1956, films, new books, monuments and memorials marked changed attitudes to what was now called the ‘heroes of the Warsaw’.[13] In fact, the new regime led by Władysław Gomułka sought to tap popular feeling by announcing – also in 1956 – a competition for a new public memorial dedicated to all those who fought for the city including the Home Army. This announcement was amplified by great swells of public opinion. Hundreds of letters were sent to newspapers suggesting not only the ideal form of the memorial (often a triumphal arch or a funeral barrow) and the most suitable site (usually one connected with fighting in the city), but offering reflection about what should be remembered – the outbreak of the war in 1939, the Ghetto uprising of 1943 as well as the events of the summer of 1944. In April 1958 nearly 200 remarkably diverse designs were exhibited to 100,000 visitors in the Zachęta Gallery. Art critic Aleksander Wojciechowski said this ‘is not an “artistic” competition but a national plebiscite’. So great was public interest that discussion of the competition threaten to spin out of Party control. And so, as Olga Grzesiuk Olszewska has shown, a smaller closed competition was announced in 1959, which specifying that the monument be sited in Plac Teatralny.[14] The winning design was a massive figure of a sword-wielding siren, the traditional emblem of the city, sculpted by Marian Konieczny, a young artist from Cracow who had studied at the Repin Institute in Leningrad.

Marian Konieczny, Memorial to the Heroes of Warsaw, installed in Plac Teatralny Warsaw in 1961. Collection: NAC

Marian Konieczny, Memorial to the Heroes of Warsaw, installed in Plac Teatralny Warsaw in 1961. Collection: NAC

Monumental and symbolic, this design was insensitive to the acute historical injuries that the ‘Memorial to the Heroes of Warsaw’ had been originally proposed to heal.

Perhaps the broken bodies, filth and decay of the dreck aesthetic needs to be seen in the context of the short-lived freedoms of the Thaw. Death, carefully managed and allegorized during the Stalin years, was rehabilitated and it could now be represented in its most abject forms, in the decay of the flesh and irrational violence. Artworks which looked on this order of death were created, or in some cases brought out of hiding. The Ogólnopolska Wystawa Młodej Plastyki (The All Poland Exhibition of Young Artists), known to art historians as the Arsenal Exhibition in Warsaw in 1955 is usually understood as a return of modernism in Polish art: it was also an opportunity to explore prohibited themes, not least death. For instance, Waldemar Cwenarski’s canvas ‘Pożoga’ (Conflagration, 1951) – which depicts a horse stamping people beneath its flailing hooves – was exhibited there for the first time; as was Izaak Celnikier, ‘Getta’ (Ghetto, 1949), a Jewish pietà.[15]

Izaak Celnikier, ‘Getta’ (Ghetto, 1949)

Izaak Celnikier, ‘Getta’ (Ghetto, 1949)

When six years later Hasior had his first one man show in the Salon Współczesności in the Foyer of the Jewish Theatre in Warsaw, one critic called found ‘distant echoes of the Arsenal exhumations’ there.[16]

There were many representations of dreck deaths in this period. Perhaps the most emphatic, insistent example was to be found in the cinema the final scene of Wajda’s ‘Ashes and Diamonds’ (1958). Dramatising the final hours and acts of a doomed former Home Army soldier, now in the anti-communist underground, the film is ideologically compliant. But it contains a kind of excessive image of his death. After carrying out his assassination mission despite increasing doubts, Maciek – the Home Army fighter – or as the Stalinists might have put it a ‘fascist assassin’ – is shot and dies slowly alone, digging himself into a rubbish heap. Even in the Thaw, he remains an enemy, but now a pitiable one as a young adherent to the old and doomed ideology of capitalism. But Wajda’s treatment goes far beyond what required politically, even in the turbulent years of the Thaw: this pointlessness of this death is emphasized by the setting, the trash heap.

Viewed in terms of dreck aesthetics, Hasior’s early works seem to take on far darker associations than the later characterization of his work as a kind of PRL pop artist might suggest. Typically, his works combine broken and discarded materials to form bodies which, missing limbs or lacking faces, remain marked by their incompleteness. They seem to give human form to the words of Bruno Schulz, the Jewish novelist who was murdered by a Nazi officer in Drohobycz in 1942. In his 1934 ‘Traktat o manekinach (‘Treatise on TailorsDummies’), the arrogant father of the narrator sets out a vision for ‘a second generation of creatures who stand in open opposition to the present era’: ‘… we shall not demand on either durability or solidity of workmanship: our creations will be temporary, to serve a single occasion. If they are are human beings, we shall give them only one profile, one hand, one leg, the one limb needed to perform their role.’[17] After the Second World War and Stalinism, Hasior’s generation – avid readers (and sometimes illustrators[18]) of Schulz’s works when they were republished in 1957 – perhaps felt as if they were living with the consequences of this vision.[19] Providing none of the solace of starocie, Schulz’s writing also provided uncanny images of matter: ‘There is no dead matter …’ says the father. ‘Its lifelessness is merely an outward show, behind which, unknown forms of life lie hidden’.[20] This was not a claim about the soul but a perspective on the most abject forms of bare life. Some of Hasior’s early works seem approach this condition in which humanity itself is on the edge of slipping into matter. Hasior’s ‘Prababka’ (Grandmother, 1960), a figure slumped in a broken wheelchair, seems more like excreta than a woman. [see figure 7]

Władysław Hasior, ‘Fragment bohatera’ (‘Fragment of a Hero, 1963). Muzeum Narodowe Poznan

Władysław Hasior, ‘Fragment bohatera’ (‘Fragment of a Hero, 1963). Muzeum Narodowe Poznan

In the early 1960s many of Hasior’s works – made with Dreck and representing broken or incomplete bodies – were given themes and titles which suggest lofty themes of transcendence and sacrifice such as ‘Anioł Stróż’ (‘Guardian Angel’, 1964) and ‘Fragment bohatera’ (‘Fragment of a Hero, 1963). Moreover, he increasingly turned to Christian archetypes to lend meaning to his assemblies of junk. Do these titles dip his art in irony? Maybe not. It is probably more accurate to suggest that they pointed to his ambition. Here, perhaps, Hasior departed from his dreck colleagues. So many of the Thaw works which have been discussed in this talk were marked by a disavowal of monumentalism, whether in terms of scale and setting, or the pathos which public art of this kind was and often still is required to deliver. Monuments – as the Heroes of Warsaw competition made clear – had to promise some kind of redemption (just as Socialist Realist representations of death were required to infer rebirth). It seems clear that after the brutality of the Second World War and the hollow triumphalism of the Stalin years, dreck aesthetics provided the means for some kind of reflection on experience without making an accommodation with any kind of historical (or even eschatological) script. However, with such titles, these works point out the direction in which Hasior was to travel as a monument maker after the Thaw. His public monuments from Pomnika Rozstrzelanym Partyzantom (Monument to the Shot Partisans, 1964) at Kuźnice to the Rzeźba Płonące Ptaki (‘Flaming Birds Sculptures’, 1978-80) were created as part of the larger project of managing history in the PRL.[21] Dedicated ‘To those, who fought for the Polishness and freedom of the Pomeranian lands’, Hasior’s roughly-cast birds mounted on rickety cannon carriages at Koszalin was an attempt to monumentalise dreck.


[1] Hanna Kirchner, Hasior’ in Ty i Ja (January 1966), p. 10.

[2] Tadeusz Kantor, ‘Reality of the Lowest Rank’ in A Journey Through Other Spaces. Essays and Manifestos, 1944–1990, ed. Michal Kobialka (Berkeley, CA.: University of California Press, 1993) 30.

[3] Andrzej Banach, Hasior (Cracow: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1964).

[4] Felicja Unichowska, ‘Moje hobby to mieszkanie’ in Ty i Ja (February 1963) 15-18. On Gabriel and Hanna Rechowicz see Klara Czerniewska, Gaber i Pani Fantazja. Surrealizm Stosowany (Warsaw: 40,000 Malarzy, 2014).

[5] Mikhail Epshtein, ‘Things and Words: Towards a Lyrical Museum’ (1988) in Alla Efimova, Lev Manovich, eds., Tekstura: Russian Essays on Visual Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993) 153.

[6] See Beth Holmgren, Rewriting Capitalism. Literature and the Market in Late Tsarist Russia and the Kingdom of Poland (Pittsburg, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1998) 167-77.

[7] Eugène Ionesco, Plays: The lesson. The chairs. The bald prima donna. Jacques; or, Obedience (London: Calder, 1958) 84.

[8] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958) 137.

[9] See Tomasz Kitliński, ‘A Brief History of Cleanliness and Abjection in Poland’ in Dream? Democracy! A Philosophy of Horror, Hope & Hospitality in Art & Action (Lublin: Maria Curie-Sklodowska Press, 2014) 189-195.

[10] Cited in Anthony Heilbut, Exiled in paradise: German refugee artists and intellectuals in America, from the 1930s to the present (New York: Viking Press, 1983) 161.

[11] Katerina Clark, The Soviet Novel: History as Ritual (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000) 178.

[12] German corpses appear casually and cruelly accompanied by a dog in Wojciech Fangor’s ‘Wyzwolenie’ (Liberation, 1950) or as cold war martyrs in his ‘Matka Koreanka (‘Korean Mother’, 1951). But these are rare appearances.

[13] Made before the Thaw and released in 1956, Andrzej Wajda’s film ‘Kanal’ depicts the final hours of insurgents in the ruins of the city. The first illustrated popular book on the theme – Jan Grużewski and Stanisław Kopf’s Dni Powstania. Kronika Fotograficzna Walczącej Warszawy (Days of the Uprising. A Photographic Chronicle of Warsaw in Arms) was published by PAX in 1957.

[14] Irena Grzesiuk-Olszewska Polska Rzezba Pomnikowa w Latach 1945-1995 (Warsaw: Neriton, 1995).

[15] Celnikier’s painting raises the question of how and when the Shoah was distinguished as a distinct historical phenomenon within the culture of Polish remembrance – a question which Hasior does not help us answer.

[16] S. Ledochowski, ‘Malarstwo, rzezba, grafika. Rzezba sie nazywa’ in Nowa Kultura, nr. 12 (1961) pp.6-7 cited in Wladyslaw Hasior. Europiejski Rauschenberg? (Kraków: MOCAK, 2014) 198.

[17] Bruno Schulz, Sklepy cynamonowe / Sanatorium pod klepsydrą (Cracow: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1985) 61-2.

[18] In 1963 Roman Cieślewicz produced collages for a new edition of Schulz’s Sklepy Cynamonowe employing illustrations from zoological studies and illustrated newspapers reporting war.

[19] In 1957 the Kraków publisher Wydawnictwo Literackie, published an anthology of Schulz’s writings with the title Sklepy cynamonowe. Sanatorium pod Klepsydrą. Kometa with an introduction by Artur Sandauer.

[20] Bruno Schulz, Sklepy cynamonowe / Sanatorium pod klepsydrą (Cracow: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1985) 60.

[21] See Marcin Zaremba, Komunizm, legitymizacja, nacjonalizm: nacjonalistyczna legitymizacja władzy komunistycznej w Polsce (Warsaw: Trio 2001).