Wednesday, 21 September 2011

We Want to Be Modern - Polish design exhibition

[unedited version of an article that appeared in ICON 094 April 2011here]

more photos

“We are aiming at a beautiful future, but we cannot see its shape yet, we cannot imagine the form and the scope of the life we are aspiring to. Which is why we want and we demand that visual arts show us this good, just and happy future life” – so said Jerzy Hryniewiecki, designer and theorist in the 1st issue of the “Projekt” magazine from 1956, heralding the new commandments of life after the 'Thaw' in People’s Poland. Modernity became a fetish for the society. The exhibition We Want To be Modern. Polish Design 1955-1968 from the Collection of the National Museum in Warsaw shows a flamboyant, glamorous and complicated face to the oft cited, but frequently misunderstood socialist-era Polish design. This period proved to be the most interesting in the vast collection of the Museum, which still has no permanent exhibiting space and seeks for a new one to store over 24,000 objects, now hidden in magazines. This show seeks to change it.

In post-war Poland there was a general necessity of restoration. It was not only a dream, but rather a dramatic necessity in a country left in total destruction after the war. The break was Warsaw's World Festival of Youth in 1955, a mass event typical of the People's Republics. Carnivalesque street decorations were designed by the students from the city’s Fine Arts Academy. Before the 'Thaw' Polish designers couldn’t refer to the 20s and 30s avant-garde, because Socialist Realism did not permit any steps outside its canon. The liberation from sotsrealism brought enormous hunger for everything new. That included also not purely decorative arts: literature, theatre, music. This time saw the formation of the Polish schools of poster design (Tomaszewski, Cieślewicz, Młodożeniec) and cinema (Wajda, Polański, Munk). In other words, it was the most original culture Poland had in the 20th century. Lots of formerly forbidden experimental art from the West was available, the new generation of artists, who started their education after the war left the academies, and there was a chance that the promises of the failed avant-garde projects of the interwar period could be introduced into life.

Many Polish artists of the period were devoted socialists, believing they were building the new Poland, but designers were apparently less subjugated to the power apparatus and much less controlled. It seems that decorative arts were freer than so-called pure art. Their call was to make the life under socialism finally beautiful, and polymaths, like architect Oskar Hansen, author of the famous “open form” theory with wife Zofia, film-maker Jan Lenica, Jerzy Sołtan, Wojciech Fangor, Wojciech Zamecznik, were designing everything from film posters or book covers, to cars, a pioneer shawl or a lipstick advertisement, at the same time being painters and sculptors. There were no barriers between artistic/commercial.

Among the most popular features of the new aesthetics were soft lines, vivid colors, natural, light materials, asymmetrical, slanted forms taken from biology or science, made possible by the use of plywood, fiberglass, or textile printing techniques. Art was supposed to parallel the exploration of the world on a micro as well as a macro scale. Hence Polish designers were taking from such giants as Alvar Aalto, Charles and Ray Eames, Eero Saarinen or abstract high art as well: there’s an influence from Henry Moore, Picasso, Matisse, but also Klee, Arp, Brancusi, Pollock or Informel painting. The Warsaw’s Institute of Industrial Design was the queen bee’s cell of the Polish design of that era - there the artists were preparing the prototypes, which were then presented on exhibitions and sold to factories. This way an average Polish family could afford a fragment of the futuristic dream of luxury in their houses. The then very popular and now rare and sought after Ćmielów ceramic figures are a perfect example of the more mass produced but stylistically unique design of the time.

The question lurking in the exhibition space is whether it was possible to develop a specter of a luxurious consumption when there was no real possibility of consumption. Many of the projects were never actually introduced into life, unacceptable to government officials. But the main elements of the style remained in every Polish house and they were truly showing the nation the importance of material culture again after the war.

We Want To be Modern. Polish Design 1955-1968 from the Collection of the National Museum in Warsaw February 4th – April 17th 2011


  1. The three photographs you have posted seem, to me, to have a strong Scandinavian influence in their aesthetics. I wonder whether there was an element of Scandinavian styles being seen as more in line with socialist ideals than other Western Modernist styles (it having emerged some years ago, for example, that the CIA was covertly funding modern art exhibitions in Europe, to reclaim modernism from the Marxist left in the public forum), and whether Scandinavia, with its welfare state and Jante-based collectivist culture, could be seen as a model for squaring socialism with humanism and individual liberty.

  2. thanks for this comment - it's true, that Polish designers were taking from the Scandinavians (who were universally regarded as pioneers of "ergonomics" etc), but they were in general leaders of good design these days. also, Poles weren't limiting themselves only to that - see more examples on photos I attached. one can understand though why Scandinavia was a safer choice than the West.. It's an interesting remark you make on CIA supporting Westernization of the Eastern bloc culture: I know of a great support CIA did with Abstract Expressionists in US, which is well documented by now, but must find out more on their infiltrating EEuropean art. do you have any links to pages you take your knowledge from?