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Art and Culture

Poland, a nation at the crossroads of East and West, has evolved over its ­history into a unique and distinctive culture. Polish nationality has maintained its unity and strength through art rather than politics, since the country was twice erased from the map of Europe. Many authors and artists in exile were steadfast in keeping the country alive through their works. After the 1918 reunification, nationalist cultural movements gave way to the exuberanceof the avant-garde. Artistic expression was then plunged deep into one of history’s darkest moments; the trauma of the Holocaust and the censure of Soviet rule.


Many civilisations passed through the vast plains of Poland, leaving traces found in archaeological excavations. Prominent among them were the ­ Scythians with their animal-style decor and the ­ Sarmatians (4C) with their strongly geometric art from the steppes.

Romanesque to Baroque

Romanesque Art

After the conversion of Prince Mieszko I to Christianism in 966, Poland entered the sphere of western art. Religious stone architecture was introduced. Pre-Romanesque forms of architecture, drawing their inspiration from Bohemia, can be seen in the Church of SS Felix and Adauctus on Wawel, in Poznań Cathedral and in the Piasts’ castles in Ostrów Lednicki, Giecz and Premyśl.

There are few traces left of the first churches, which were small rotundas (Cieszyn) and of the first 10C and 11C cathedrals, except for the second crypt (St Leonard) of Wawel Cathedral and St Andrew’s Church in Kraków, which looks like a fortress-church with its complex combination of towers and galleries ( Westwerk ). This tendancy to fortification is evident in the churches of Opatów, Płock and Tum.

From the mid-12C, Romanesque architecture flourished in the ornamentation of doorways (Tum, St Mary Magdalene of Wrocław), of façades (the Church of the Hospitallers in Zagość) and rare carved pillars in Strzelno.

The remarquable mid-12C bronze doors intended for Płock Cathedral (today in Novgorod) as well as those in Gniezno are inspired from Mosan art.

Also dating from this period are a few miniatures and some extraordinary items of silver and goldwork.

The Cistercian Transition

During the years when the Cistercian Order was extending its zone of influence, between 1140 and 1300, 25 monasteries of various origins were created. Mainly established in Little Poland between the Oder and the Wisła (Jędrzejów, Sulejów, Wąchock, abbey of Mogiła near Kraków), and in Silesia (in Trzebnica, the introduction of openwork windows heralds the late-Gothic style), Cistercian architecture is better preserved there than in Greater Poland where, being rarer, it disappeared or was considerably remodelled during the Baroque period. The Cistercians, initiating the transition from the Romanesque to the Gothic styles, introduced elements of Gothic architecture with semi-circular arches and ribbed vaulting at the beginning of the 13C. In Pomerania, Cistercians who were dependent on German and Danish communities (Kołbacz, Oliwa), adapted the Gothic style of Western Europe to a brick-based architecture, followed in this way by the Franciscan and Dominican mendicant orders who also built brick monasteries such as the Dominican church in Sandomierz (1226), considered to be Poland’s first brick-built church.

Gothic Art

Setting itself apart, Silesia developed its own regional school of Gothic architecture best represented by the basilicas of Strzegom and Wrocław (St Elizabeth’s and St Mary Magdalene’s churches) before coming under the influence of the Parler, a family of architects from Prague.

Gothic Art in the North

The North of the country saw a flourishing of “ Backsteingotik ”, a German expression used to refer to brick-built Gothic edifices, characteristic of Poland and Northern Germany. The Teutonic Order erected vast castles on a square plan, the most important of which, situated in Malbork , was like a fortress-monastery, similar to the strongholds of Syria and Palestine. This northern Gothic featured massive walls and elaborately decorated gables as illustrated by Frombork Cathedral, Orneta Church, Toruń Cathedral and Lidzbark Warmiński Castle as well as by churches boasting naves of equal height such as the Basilica of Our Lady in Gdańsk. Pelplin Cathedral offered the first example of English-style star vaulting.

Gothic Art in Towns

In the mid-14C, the influence of the monasteries was gradually replaced by that of the Crown, represented by the builder-king, Kazimierz the Great , who is said to “have found Poland built of wood and left it built of stone”. New powers granted to towns based on urban charters ( prawo miejskie ) promoted a new kind of layout featuring a vast central market square (rynek) dominated by a town hall (ratusz) and a parish church ( kościół farny ); the finest example of this town planning is undeniably Kraków, which symbolizes the power of the local middle class. Throughout the kingdom of Poland, large basilicas such as the cathedrals in Kraków, Gniezno, Poznań and Wrocław were erected on the foundations of existing buildings, some fifty castles (Ojców, Będzin, Olsztyn, Ogrodzieniec) were built and almost as many churches including, in particular, the three-naved collegiate church in Sandomierz, boasting fan and star vaulting, and the twin-naved Wiślica Church. The Church of the Holy Cross in Kraków spreads its star vaulting over a single central pillar with a palm-like capital. In the 14C, at the time of the accession to the throne of the Jagellons, the Flamboyant Gothic style, with its ribbed vaulting and elongated pointed arches, its profusion of windows and of decoration and the emphasis on vertical lines met with a growing success which spread throughout the provinces.

Gothic Sculpture

The oldest wooden sculptures date from the 12C and 13C and, at the beginning of the 15C, the Virgin and Child became one of the favourite themes of Polish sculpture, under Italian influence. The Krużlowa Madonna, attributed to an artist from Little Poland, is the most famous and characteristic example of the “delicate style”. It was also during this period that Gothic altarpieces acquired their definitive shape, featuring a vertical triptych with moving panels surrounding a carved centrepiece. With Veit Stoss , who worked in Kraków during the last quarter of the 15C, Polish sculpture found a new lease of life. His altarpiece of the Dormition of the Virgin in St Mary’s Church in Kraków and the tomb of King Kazimierz Jagiello in Wawel Cathedral inspired artists until the middle of the 16C even though new trends born of the Italian Renaissance were already spreading.

At the same time, Poland was exposed to the influence of masters from Russia, as attested by the Byzantine-style frescoes decorating the Collegiate Cathedral of Sandormierz and those adorning the Holy Trinity Chapel in Lublin, dating from 1418.

The Renaissance

Sigismund I (married to an Italian) invited Italian artists to Wawel thus bringing to Poland the more decorative art of the Renaissance. Between 1507 and 1532, while Germany, Bohemia, Masovia and Podlasie remained loyal to the late-Gothic style, the royal castle on Wawel Hill was transformed under the influence of Florentine architecture, as shown by the fine main courtyard surrounded by three superposed arcaded galleries, and the coffered ceiling of the Audience Hall, otherwise still basically Gothic. Supervised in turn by Francesco from Florence, Bartolommeo Berecci and then Benedykt from Sandomierz, these remodellings prompted the kingdom’s wealthy magnates to want to compete, which is what they did in Little Poland in the middle of the 16C in the palaces of Krzyżtopór, Krasiczyn or even Baranów, near Sandomierz, known as the little Wawel.

Although it only borrowed a few decorative elements from the Renaissance style, religious architecture owed to Bartolommeo Berecci one of the masterpieces of the Polish golden age ( Złoty Wiek ): the famous Sigismund Chapel added onto the side of Wawel Cathedral, on which many constructions were modelled.

The most flourishing towns at the height of their power built sumptuous town halls (ratusz) often surmounted by a crenellated tower, such as the Poznań town hall erected by Giovanni Battista Quadro. The lower part of the roofs of many buildings were enhanced by decorated attics. Threatened by a Turkish invasion, towns surrounded themselves with brick-and-earth fortifications such as the extremely well-preserved Barbican in Kraków, dating from the 15C. A whole city, Zamość, built from 1579 onwards, was designed by one single Italian architect, Bernardo Morando , along the lines of a Renaissance-style town-planning project, although Eastern influences appeared in the middle of the 17C with a group of Armenian houses.

Most prominent in Gdańsk and in the Hanseatic cities, the Dutch ­Mannerist style was promoted by Anton van Opbergen, the architect of the Old Town Hall, by Abraham and Wilhem van den Blocke, and by the painter Hans Vredemann de Vries.

The sculptors Santi Gucci , Gian Maria Padovano and Jan Michałowicz , who worked on magnificent funerary monuments, intended for the royal family and the nobility, and on the decoration of many other monuments, rank among the most talented artists of their time. Finally, the painter-monk Stanisław Samostrzelnik from Mogiła Monastery produced important mural paintings.

The Baroque Style

The Renaissance period undeniably bore the imprint of the Jagiellonian royal dynasty, but from the beginning of the Baroque period, the dominant influence was that of the Vasa royal dynasty, ­ Sigismund III (1597-1632) who transferred the capital from Kraków to Warsaw in 1596 and his son Ladisław IV (1632-1648). Coinciding with the arrival of the Jesuits in Poland, the Baroque style became the official style of the Counter Reformation, which made its first appearance in the Church of SS Peter and Paul in Kraków. Designed as a scaled-down version of the Roman church of Il Gesu de Vignola, without aisles, designed on the Latin Cross plan, with a dome soaring above the crossing, it was the work of the Italian architect Giovanni Trevano , whereas the interior decoration (intended to hide the brickwork) was made by the stucco artist Baltazar Fontana . Having arrived in Poland around 1665, the Dutch architect Tylman Van Gameren , who designed the Krasiński Palace in Warsaw and St Anne’s Church in Kraków, softened with a touch of Classicism the exuberance of the initial Italian style. Other fine examples of pure Baroque style are to be found in the Jesuit Church in Poznań and in the Church of the Nuns of the Holy Sacrament in Warsaw, boasting elegant façades; on the other hand, the town of Gdańsk was not particularly marked, apart from the Royal Chapel, by the architectural style of the Counter Reformation. At the time, architects generally tended to remodel old edifices in the Baroque style. Indeed, the Gothic interior of many a church was enhanced by Baroque decorative elements and enriched with marbles and stuccos.

Built at the beginning of the 18C, the Rococo bishop’s palace in Kielce, decorated by Antoni Frączkiewicz , showed a French influence which, strengthened by the bonds uniting the Polish and French courts, became more and more prominent. At the same time, following the victory against the Turks in 1683, the Eastern influence could be seen in the minor decorative arts. It was the period when “ Sarmatism ” ( Sarmatyzm ) was fashionable; this concept of another age, returning to a strange “East/West” blend, was favoured by Polish aristocrats who wished to rediscover, through the splendour of ceremonies and the magnificence of costumes, decor and weapons, the virtues and military glory of their Sarmatian ancestors. Associated with costume, the so-called Sarmatian portrait, introduced at the end of the 16C, remained fashionable until the 18C. Another type of typically Polish production also fashionable at that time were the portraits used to decorate coffins ( portret trumienny ).

This was also the period when important royal art collections were assembled and interest for the arts resulted in the acquisition of works by Rubens in particular (he made portraits of the first two Vasa kings) or by masters of Dutch painting. Daniel Schultz from Gdańsk, trained in Holland, was then the official painter of the royal family, whereas the Venetian Tommaso Dolabella adapted Italian Mannerism to religious and historical subjects.

Enlightenment to the 20C

Royal Patron of the Arts

The Age of the Enlightenment brought with it a more international artistic period than Sarmatism had been, with its specifically Polish character in spite of the Oriental influence. King Stanisław August Poniatowski, a dedicated patron of the arts, great connoisseur of French culture and enthusiastic art collector, attracted to his court a number of foreign artists, in particular from Italy and France. In charge of the remodelling and furnishing of the interior of the royal castle in early classicist style were the French architect Victor Louis (1731-1800) and the Italian Dominico Merlini (1731-1797), who became the king’s first architect after Jacob Fontana.

The Italian painter, Marcello Bacciarelli (1731-1818), the king’s main artistic adviser, settled in Warsaw in 1766 to take charge of the artists working at the Royal Castle. His task was, more specifically, to decorate the ceilings of the rooms of the new Łazienki summer royal residence, built jointly by the architect from Dresden Jan Chrystian Kamsetzer and by Merlini, and modelled on the Petit Trianon in Versailles. Another eminent artist staying at the Polish court was Bernardo Bellotto known as Canaletto the Younger (1720-80), who painted renowned vedute (townscapes with characters), just like his famous uncle. French artist André Le Brun (1737-1811), a disciple of Pigalle, was in charge of the royal sculpture studio while the painter Jean-Pierre Norblin de la Gourdaine (1745-1830), a protégé of Prince Czartoryski, introduced Poland to genre painting and battle scenes, a theme later developed by his pupil ­ Aleksander Or ł owski (1777-1832).

With the 1795 Partition and the end of the monarchy, the “styl Stanisławowski” was taken up by the Polish nobility who commissioned many palaces to be built or rebuilt in Palladian, neo-Classical style by master builders such as Stanisław Zawadzki and Szymon Bogumił Zug or in neo-Gothic style by Piotr Aigner. During the 19C, the division of the country between the three great neighbouring powers strengthened Austro-Hungarian, Prussian and Russian architectural influences, for instance in Warsaw where late neo-classicism recalls St Petersburg.

Painting and Nationalism

Antoni Brodowski (1784-1832), who studied in Paris, was Poland’s most outstanding neo-classicist painter whereas Piotr Micha ł owski (1800-1855) is considered as the country’s greatest Romantic painter. Often compared to Géricault, this famous artist, who specialised in painting horses, also admired the Napoleonic period which he illustrated through many paintings. Inspired by Cervantes’s Don Quixote, he made many portraits of working-class people in the vein of Daumier.

Sharing his time between Vienna and Paris, Henryk Rodakowski (1823-1894) was a great society portrait painter, an exponent of the realist style, admired in particular by Eugène Delacroix and Théophile Gautier.

Since the court no longer governed public and artistic life, the second half of the 19C saw many artists go into exile. While Prussian Poland went through an enforced Germanization process and, following the 1863 insurrection, tsarist repression became fierce (Austro-Hungarian Galicia enjoyed relative freedom after 1861), some Polish artists turned to subjects and symbols of a national nature, art thus becoming a substitute for politics.

A great master of Polish historical painting, Jan Matejko (1838-93), founder of the “Kraków School”, had many pupils (the most talented later rejected his style), and devoted his entire output to the “awakening of his enslaved nation’s conscience”. His huge compositions, overcrowded with characters, illustrate the great periods of Polish history. Deeply concerned with the preservation of his native Kraków’s artistic heritage, he took part in the interior decoration of St Mary’s Church. The lithographs of young Artur Grottger (1837-67) are inspired by the same themes.

The main exponent of realism in landscape painting, Józef Chełmoński (1846-1914), left contemplative works illustrating peasant or daily-life scenes. On the other hand, his contemporary, Witold Pruszkowski (1846-1896), was a precursor of symbolism.

Particularly concerned with light, Aleksander Gierymski (1850-1901) produced genre scenes which can be classified as pre-Impressionist painting. Fascinated by Paul Gauguin, Władysław Ślewiński (1854-1918), who spent a major part of his life in Britanny, had strong links with the Pont-Aven School and influenced Wyspiański and Mehoffer.

Characterized by a blend of symbolism and realism, the work of Jacek ­Malczewski (1854-1929), a pupil of Matejko, stands apart. Painted in ever brighter colours, his eccentric self-portraits (featuring some surrealist elements) magnify the personality of an artist who is also affected by the thwarted destiny of his country. The National Museum in Poznań houses the major part of his work.

Another pupil of Matejko, Maurycy Gottlieb (1856-79), of Jewish origin, tried during his brief life to reconcile the Jewish and Christian traditions in an original way.

At first close to Impressionism which he discovered in Paris, Władysław Podkowiński (1866-95) left few works, yet his Madness , exhibited in 1894, influenced by the emerging symbolist movement, was the talk of artistic circles. His friend Józef Pankiewicz (1866-1940), always open to French influences which he promoted among young Polish artists, was the main exponent of Impressionism in Poland before adhering to symbolism.

The excellent portrait-painter Olga Boznańska (1865-1907), known for her subtle range of colours, settled in Paris in 1894 and became one of the main exponents of post-Impressionism. In a more sombre vein, Witold Wojtkiewicz (1879-1909), who died prematurely, left a few most original Expressionist works, often featuring morbid and grotesque imaginary elements.

Synthesis of the Arts : Young Poland

Founded in Kraków in 1898, the Young Poland movement ( Młoda Polska ) was a blend of several pre-existing artistic trends (Impressionism, naturalism, symbolism, Expressionism) which gathered multifaceted talents. Marked by a return to Romanticism, repressed by the positivist period, and tinged with new-found spirituality, it was one of the expressions of decorative Art Nouveau ( Secesja ).

A versatile creator, Stanisław Wyspiański (1869-1907), born in a family of artists from Kraków, was considered as the father of modernism. Before he devoted the last ten years of his life to the theatre, he produced graphic works, mainly pastels, including intimist canvases such as portraits or landscapes as well as monumental projects such as the polychromes decorating Kraków’s Franciscan Church and above all the magnificent stained-glass windows he made for the same church. Although he was a pupil of Matejko and later worked with him, his works betray the influence of the Viennese Secession, of French Art Nouveau (through a stylised rendering of plants) and even of Japanese art. His friend, the artist Józef Mehoffer (1869-1946), excelled in the decorative arts and became famous for the stained-glass windows which he made for the collegiate church in Fribourg (Switzerland) and which bear the mark of Art Nouveau. His painting is imbued with a unique feeling of intense delight and happiness.

Having also studied in Kraków, Włodzimierz Tetmajer (1862-1923) devoted his expressive, colourful art to the peasantry. Wojcieh Weiss (1875-1950), highly influenced by Przybyszewski’s writings, produced amazing Expressionist paintings at the turn of the 20C, before returning to a more traditional style.

Having the same name as his famour son, Stanisław Witkiewicz (1851-1915) is essentially known as an art critic and theorist through his anthology Our Art and Criticism (1871) which influenced many a young artist. He also invented the so-called Zakopane architectural style inspired by popular art from mountainous areas.

Strongly influenced by Rodin during his stay in Paris between 1914 and 1922, Xavery Dunikowski (1875-1964) was THE great Polish sculptor whose style incorporated Cubist fragmentation and considerably evolved subsequently. Also worth mentioning is Bolesław Biegas (1877-1954), who settled in Paris in 1902 and whose sculptures (also influenced by Rodin) and paintings are essentially symbolist.

The precursors of Modern Art

After Poland recovered its independence in 1918, defending the national culture became a secondary issue and there was a blossoming of more radical artistic movements comparable to those of Western Europe. Led by a few exceptional figureheads, the Polish avant-garde showed a desire to experiment in the midst of a riot of artistic expression. The art magazine Zwrotnica founded by Tadeusz Peiper (1891-1961) was used as a forum for theoretical debate by the Polish avant-garde in the 1920s.

Exiled in Paris, Tadeusz Makowski (1882-1932), who was mainly influenced by Gauguin and Polish popular art, was probably the first to take into consideration the advent of Cubism, but it was above all in the work of ­ Zbigniew ­Pronaszko (1885-1958) that the first Cubist elements were to be found. Combining Futurism and Cubism, Tytus Czyżewski (1880-1945) initiated a trend in Kraków in 1915, which was at first described as Polish Expressionism but soon evolved towards a more formal radicalism whose exponents adopted in 1918 the name of Formists ( Formiści ), while a dissident group from Warsaw, founded by painter Eugene Zak, took in 1922 the name of “ Rytm” . Prolonging this trend, the eminent logician Léon Chwistek (1884-1944) devised a theory, known as “Zonism” ( Stresfizm ), about unity of form and colour.

More or less connected with this movement are the graphic works of the multidisciplinary artist Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz (1885-1939) known as Witkacy , initiator of naturalism and founder of the “Pure Form” theory. In addition to complex theoretical essays about art, he created in 1924 his “Firma Portretowa” of which he was the only member and for which he portrayed his contemporaries in a twisted and psychologically arbitrary way. He ranks among the best-known 20C Polish painters and his contribution in the field of photography was also substantial. The graphic works produced by Bruno Schulz as an illustrator, consisting of strange drawings, can be associated with this Expressionist trend.

More inclined towards internationalism than the Formists who aim to define a national art, are the founders of the Expressionist group Bunt (Revolt), centred round the magazine Zdrój published in Poznań and including Stanisław Kubicki (1899-1934) who later drew nearer to German activism. Close to the Bunt group, the group of Jewish artists Jung Idysz , including Jankel Adler, was based in Łódź.

Colorists of the “Paris Committee”

Art became diversified during the interwar period which gave rise to many schools and different trends sometimes radically opposed. For many Polish artists, Paris represented, during the first decades of the 20C, the hub of modernism in art. In order to quench their “thirst for modernity”, which drove them to reject academicism still in force in Poland, a handful of young Polish artists arrived in Paris in 1924 and settled there for six years, founding the “ Paris ­Committee ” ( Komitet Paryski ). Subscribing to a post-Impressionist and fauvist line advocating the dominance of colour, these pupils of Pankiewicz called themselves “kapists” or “KP” from the name of their leader Józef Czapski (1896-1993), a symbolic figure of contemporary Polish history who settled permanently in France after the war. One of the rare officers to have survived the Katyń massacre, he repeatedly denounced, in several works, the crimes perpetrated by the Soviets. Another two founders of the Paris Committee were Zygmunt Waliszewski (1897-1936) and Jan Cybis (1897-1972). A prize named after the latter is now awarded in Poland to a work in the artistic field. The influence of the colorists, who were of no interest to the avant-garde, in Polish art teaching during the postwar period was important and long-lasting.

Constructivist Influence

From 1924 onwards, a new trend which had already appeared in Moscow and Berlin, Constructivism, entered Warsaw’s artistic scene. Castigating the academic colorist trend of the kapists, the exponents of Constructivism advocated a radical break in order to retain pure form only, without any content whatsoever. Inspired by Soviet art and the Suprematism of Malevitch whom they welcomed in Warsaw in 1927, they rejected all nationalist elements.

The father of Polish abstraction, Henryk Stażewski (1894-1988) ranks among the pioneers of the avant-garde of the 1920s and 1930s. He was the main exponent of Constructivism and, from the 1960s onwards, he devoted himself to the rigour of geometric abstraction. Co-founder of the communist group Blok in 1924, then a member of Praesens (founded by the architect S. Syrkus) from 1926 on, he later joined the a r ( artyści rewolucyjni ) and, during the 1930s, he exhibited as part of the Parisian groups Cercle and Carré, and Abstraction-Création. Linked to the latter, Maria Nicz-Borowiak (1896-1944) was also a major exponent of Polish Constructivism, as was Mieczysław Szczuka (1898-1927), theoretician and editor of the magazine Blok, close to the sculptress ­ Teresa Żarnower (1895-1950). Founder in 1929 of the avant-garde group “ a r ” (revolutionary artists), Władysław Strzemiński (1893-1952) initiated the first modern-art gallery inaugurated in February 1931 in the industrial city of Łódź which aimed to mount one of the first permanent art exhibitions showing works by the world’s avant-garde. He distanced himself from Malevitch and Tatlin by developing his theory of “Unizm” from 1927 onwards and applied to his own painting the principles of “space-and-time rhythms”. His wife Katarzyna Kobro (1898-1951), a sculptor formed in Moscow as he was, adapted the simple juxtaposition of area to spatial works. Connected with the Praesens Group, Kazimir Podsadecki (1904-1970) distinguished himself in the use of the “Functionalist” photomontage technique. Theoretician of “mecanofacture” then initiator of the Blok Group before going to France in 1928, Henryk Berlewi (1894-1967) is considered as one of the precursors of Op Art or Optical Art.

Before he perfected his “factorealism”, the painter Marek Włodarski (1903-60) joined the Artes Group, created in Lvov in 1929, who later moved on to the committed realist trend of Socialist-realism.

Postwar Contemporary Art

With the establishment of communism, artists became employees of the State and closely dependent on the Ministry of Culture’s sponsorship, a situation which continued into the 1980s. The painter of the Autodidacte Group Andrzej Wróblewski (1927-1957) used his method “ neo barbaryczna” to further the edification of Socialism. The same applies to Maria Jarema (1908-58), co-founder of the Kraków Group with Henryk Wiciński (1908-43), who later moved on to abstraction before collaborating with Kantor. A member of the communist group “Phrygian Cap”, Bronisław Wojciech Linke (1906-62) combined satire and surrealism. The ZPAP, Union of Polish Artists, decided in June 1949 in Katowice to adopt Social Realism which ended in 1955. The end of the Soviet internationalist style gave rise to many new trends such as the 55 Group exhibiting their “visual metaphors” in the Krzywe Koło (Twisted Circle) Gallery in Warsaw or the Grupa Krakowska II of Tadeusz Brzozowski (1918-1988), hostile to any form of esthetism. The 1960s inaugurated a period of diversity featuring all the western trends of Modernism. A “total artist” according to his own definition, Tadeusz Kantor (1915-90), who belonged to the Grupa Krakowska, began his informal period in 1948 by organising an avant-garde art exhibition around his Metamorphoses . His first medium, painting, gave him a decisive experience which led him to object to human representation and to adhere to the idea of the Fine Arts borrowing forms of action, of “performance art” and happenings, the first of which took place in 1965 in the Foksal Gallery in Warsaw, founded by artist Włodzimierz Borowski (1930).

A remarkable creator of modern tapestry when she started out, Magdalena Abakanowicz (1930), became one of the artists best represented in the world’s main museums with her outdoor monumental sculptures.

Noteworthy artists also include Jonasz Stern (1904-88), who devoted himself to “painting matter” and incorporated in his paintings organic waste,and Władisław Hasior ( 1928-2000), who studied in Zakopane and produced amazingly poetic assemblages. Also worth mentioning are the technical experiments around the human body of Alina ­Szapocznikow (1926-73) or the church polychromes of Orthodox artist Jerzy Nowosielski (1923), as well as the “wild expression” canvases of Leon Tarasewicz (1957), not forgetting the works of conceptualist artists Ryszard Winiarski (1936-2006) or Roman Opałka (1931). Zdzisław Beksiński, Józef Szajna, Edward Dwurnik, Kazimierz Mikulski, Jerzy Beres, Jan Lebestein,Zbigniew Makowski, Krzysztof Wodiczko, Jarosław Kozłowski, are also important figures on the 20C Polish artistic scene and there are always many artists ready to take over from their predecessors.

Finally, one should not omit, in the field of popular art, the painters Eugeniusz Mucha (1927) and Nikifor (1895-1968), a self-taught artist who has been compared to Henri Rousseau, known as “le Douanier” (toll-inspector).

Polish Posters

Being the preferred support of political and cultural life (theatre, cinema, opera, jazz, circus), poster painting , which evolved from graphic art of the Art Nouveau and Constructivist periods, flourished in Poland towards the end of the 1950s. Propaganda posters, marked by Soviet realism, were closely subjected to controls and censorship, but cultural posters, although also commissioned by the state, enjoyed the relative cultural liberation which followed the events of October 1956. Free from advertising constraints, “outside commercialisation”, the popular art of poster painting was represented by talented graphic artists who managed to maintain a certain level of independence and artistic integrity, rejecting the esthetic dogmas of Socialist realism. The production, which attests a real avant-garde creativity, rapidly led critics and art historians to speak of a Polish school of poster painting whose main exponents, acknowledged abroad, were in the 1960s Jan Lenica (1928-2001), also a cartoon film maker, Roman Cieślewicz (1930-1996), Tadeusz Trepkowski, Henryk Tomaszewski, Waldemar Świerzy, Jan Młodożeniec, Franciszek Starowiejski. The new generation includes Maciej Buszewicz, Jacek Staniszewski and Michał Batory who has lived in France since 1987 and now works on posters for such theatres as the Théâtre de la Colline and the Théâtre de Chaillot.

In 1966, the first Biennial International Poster Festival took place in Warsaw and, in 1968, an annex of the National Museum dedicated to this “street art” was created within the Wilanów Palace, near Warsaw.

Also worth mentioning is the Triennial International Engraving Festival which has, since 1966, been exhibiting the work of “Kraków’s famous school of engraving.

Literature and Drama

Inspired Literature

It appears that the oldest known sentence expressed in Polish came from a chronicle from the Henryków monastery in Silesia some time after AD 1270. Insignificant and spoken by a Polish peasant, it was taken down by a German Cistercian monk. In fact, until the 16C, Polish literature – owing to the importance assumed by the Church – was in Latin and reserved for the elite, as attested by the Annales Poloniae, historical chronicles by the Jesuit Jan Długosz (1415-1480). The first book in Polish was printed in 1513 and, although the Protestant Mikołaj Rej (1509-69) is usually seen as the father of Polish literature, it is considered that popular language first flourished with the poet Jan Kochanowsk i (1532-1586) and that the national language established its pedigree with the Jesuit preacher Piotr Skarga (1536-1612).

Associated with the Counter Reformation are the works of Wacław Potocki (1621-96) and Samuel Twardowski (1600-61), an exponent of the elegiac form, who drew his inspiration from Spanish sources. Jan Chryzostom Pasek (1636-1701), who wrote famous Memoirs sitll appreciated today, comes through his incredible war adventures as an extraordinary storyteller and swashbuckler, prefiguring the Polish historical novel. King Jan III Sobieski (1674-96), another battlefield regular, leaves a first-class account in the form of correspondence addressed to his French-born wife Mariette. 18C Polish literature generally drew its inspiration from 17C French authors as illustrated in the moralizing drama of Franciszek Bohomolec (1720-84). The Age of Enlightenment produced the “prince of poets” and archibishop of Warmia, Ignacy Krasicki (1735-1801), a talented moralist and satirist, author of famous fables.

A Country Torn Apart… Exiled Poets

Following the partitions of Poland in 1795 and then again in 1815, the tsarist oppression, imposed by the absolute ruler Nicholas I, supplied Polish Romanticism with an exceptionally fertile compost for its development. The “Great Emigration”, which followed the repressed insurrection of November 1830, gave a voice to the conscience of three great poets for whom literature, intended to convey patriotic feelings, became the only means of expression capable of safeguarding the national identity.

Adam Mickiewicz (1798-1855) is the most famous national bard of that period. Born in Lithuania, he was forced into a triumphant exile as early as 1823. and never saw his beloved country again. An idealist both in morals and in politics, he left a vast epic poem Pan Tadeusz and one of the sacred plays of the Polish drama repertoire, Ancestors .

Juliusz Słowacki (1809-1849), the archetypal Romantic melancholiac, left a varied production marked by the mystical impulses of a man who saw himself as a spiritual guide. In response to Ancestors , he also wrote a Romantic drama on the theme of the insurrection, Kordian . His patriotic poetry, becoming more and more exuberant, drifted, at the end of his life, towards Messianic symbolism. Buried in Montmorency’s Polish cemetery, his remains were transferred in 1927 to Wawel Cathedral, as those of Mickiewicz had been in 1890.

Zygmunt Krasiński (1812-1859) was born in France and wrote in both languages. He is essentially known as the author of a social drama, The Non-Divine Comedy , on the theme of the silk-workers’ uprising in Lyons, which ranked him as the most universal writer of the Romantic generation. He also left a colossal amount of correspondence.

Positivist Literature

The failure of the January 1863 insurrection resulted in the emergence of the positivist period, marked by realist trends as well as social and political transformations, which led to the ultimate consecration of prose.

Representative of the historical novel, the works of prolific writer Józef Ignacy Kraszewski (1812-87), strongly inspired by French authors, find a perfect equivalent in Marejko’s paintings. Although Józef Korzeniowski (1797-1863) was probably the best exponent of the realist novel, it is the name of Henryk Sienkiewicz (1846-1916) that is still remembered today. Famous author of the best-seller Quo Vadis , an epic novel about the beginnings of Christianism in ancient Rome, translated into 100 languages, this workaholic is mainly known in Poland for his historical Trilogy , for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1905. Another positivist figure is Bolesław Prus (1845-1912) who, under the pen name of Aleksander Głowaski, wrote The Doll , one of the most famous Polish social novels. The first great female literary figure, Eliza Orzeszkowa (1841-1910) depicted with benevolence, in a populist vein, the world of ordinary people in the Polish provinces. Adam Asnyk (1838-1897) and Maria Konopnicka (1842-1910) rank among the best poets of this generation.

“Young Poland” Renewal

In reaction to the realist trend came the modernist Young Poland ( Młoda Polska ) movement which is today considered as a period of the national history in its own right. The expression, which first came about in 1898, refers to the neo-Romantic movement which maintained that art as a creator of worth was an object of veneration and creators alone were capable of achieving national renewal. The advent of this movement caused a change in sensitivity and style which affected all the arts.

An advocator of bohemian life and of Satanic literature, for ever in search of the “bare soul”, Stanisław Przybyszewski (1868-1927) is considered as a precursor of that movement. Following a long stay in Berlin where he met Strindberg and Munch, he settled in Kraków and gathered the new trends under the banner of Moderna , centred on the magazine Życie ( Life ). An independent and original artist, he durably influenced a good deal of writers and artists.

Stanisław Wyspiański (1869-1907) stands as a significant figure of the movement,not only in the field of pictorial art, but also drama, with his famous play The Wedding , a tragi-comic parable about the fate of Poland, which renewed drama and revolution.

The main prose writers include Wacłav Berent (1873-1940), Stefan Żeromski (1864-1925), described as the “conscience of Polish literature”, and above all Władysław Reymont (1867-1925), whose huge four-volume epic novel entitled Peasants is considered as a national saga, for which its author was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1924.

“Three Musketeers”: Gombrowicz, Schulz and Witkacy

The interwar period saw the emergence of three exceptional literary figures whose talents have now been recognised. In a country henceforth liberated from the patriotic ideal necessary to form a nation, their intellectual quest turned to new paths. Self-appointed by Gombrowicz himself, these “three musketeers” were three marginal artists who, each in his own way, furthered the cause of the Polish literary avant-garde.

Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz known as Witkacy (1885-1939), a fascinating figure of modern literature, was first and foremost an artist with many talents.The son of an interesting painter, art critic and theoretician, this indomitable individualist, based in Zakopane, initiated a theory of art reflecting a metaphysical obsession for “pure form”. His parodic dramas (difficult to translate and incomprehensible to many), which illustrate the search for pure drama, made him a precursor of the 1950s’ theatre of the absurd. His doomwatch theory, his anxiety about the future of our European civilisation and his prophecy of the loss of the individual, led him to commit suicide in September 1939, when Poland was invaded by the Nazis.

Bruno Schulz (1892-1942), whose talent is gradually being recognised, was a Jewish writer (and illustrator) born in Galicia (now Ukraine) whose exuberant style and sensual sensitivity were unequalled. His unusual literary output included two sets of short stories, Street of Crocodiles and Under the Sign of the Hourglass , in which he evokes his childhood in an enigmatic style. He died tragically, shot down in the street by a bullet in the head fired by an SS officer.

Wishing to distance himself from the vicissitudes of History, Witold ­Gombrowicz (1904-1969) left Poland for good in 1939 and settled first in Argentina, then in France. His corrosive and deeply pessimistic works include his audacious first novel, Ferdydurk e, which depicts a man shaped from the outside, unauthentic, caught in a vice-like conflict between maturity and immaturity and condemned to “never be himself”. His other famous novel Pornography , which places eroticism at the centre of his work, expresses the paradoxical immature liking of humanity for imperfection and youth.

Literature in the Postwar Years

The worldwide catastrophy, which had been forecast by many intellectuals, left Poland – with the German occupation and the extermination of the Jews – deplete of her intellectual elite. Yet from this chaos emerged the amazingly mature verse of the young poet Krzysztof Kamil Baczyński (1921-44), killed in action during the Warsaw Uprising.

During the immediate postwar period, writers pledged themselves to the new régime and placed their hatred of Nazism at the service of the new government. Under the influence of Stalinism, the country’s cultural policy adopted a harder line and some writers (Władysław Broniewski) became fully implicated. Faced with such a dilemma, Tadeusz Borowski committed suicide in 1951 and Czesław Miłosz fled and went on to analyse in The Captive Mind the process of collective paranoia which threatened intellectuals at that time. Several important texts by exiled writers, gathered round the periodical Kultura, were published at the Paris Literary Institute by Jerzy Giedroyć, an important intellectual figure of the Polish emigration. Yet Polish writers were among the first within the Communist block to stand up against ideological conformism and to reject the dogma of Socialist Realism, starting with two novels by Leon Kruczkowski: Revenge and The Germans .

Using the theme of war, Jerzy Andrzejewski (1909-1983) was one of the first to free himself from the communist power. Less of a protester, Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz (1894-1980) left a rich and varied production. Tadeusz Konwicki (1926), also a film maker, was at first in favour of the communist power but in two of his novels he recalls how he progressively distanced himself. Before settling in Paris in 1972, Adolf Rudnicki (1912-1990) witnessed the tragedy that Poland’s Jewish population lived through.

A Polish School of Poetry

A major figure of postwar Polish literature, the poet and essayist Czesław Miłosz (1911-2004), awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1980, had a long literary career that began before he went into exile in France and later in the US. His works include in particular a History of Polish Literature. Poland’s latest Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded in 1996 to the poet from Kraków Wisława Szymborska (1923), who writes in a pithy, pared down style. Other important poets include Tadeusz Różewicz (1921) and Zbigniew Herbert (1924-1998) with his Mr Cogito , the Polish double of Paul Valéry’s Monsieur Teste. The playwright and novelist Sławomir Mrożek (1930), who emigrated to France in 1963, writes satirical, burlesque stories and mocking plays inspired by the theatre of the absurd. The field of science fiction boasts the most translated of Polish writers, Stanisław Lem (1921-2006), whose novel Solaris (1961) was successively adapted for the screen by Andreï Tarkowski then Steven Soderbergh. More recently, international critics have welcomed the work of two reporters, Hanna Krall and Ryszard Kapuściński , who wrote the remarkable “Ebony” about Africa.

Polish Theatre

Traditionally dominated by the experimental National Theatre in Warsaw and the more conservative Old Theatre in Kraków, drama is a living art in Poland. The term theatre may seem too narrow to describe the work of the independent and permanently avant-garde artist that Tadeusz Kantor (1915-90) was. In 1955, he founded Kraków’s Cricot 2 Theatre, named after the pre-war literary café mainly popular with painters, where he imposed his own vision of the world, away from officially approved ideologies, through an informal but brutally radical theatre, aiming to destroy all form. In 1963, he imposed his “zero theatre”, which conveyed the absolute discrepancy between text and dramatic art. After his show The Dead Class in 1975, he developed his “Theatre of Death”. Anecdote, plot and action were reduced to nothing; there was no more performance, no illustration of the play, no expression from the actors who were neutralised, just Kantor, ever present on stage, like a conductor, surrounded by objects, machines, packaging and dummies.

Another important figure of Polish drama was Jerzy Grotowski (1933-1999), with his Laboratory Theatre in Wrocław, extended by the Garzienice Centre of Theatrical Research where Włodzimierz Staniewski developed his “theatre ecology”.

Wojtek Pszoniak, Jerzy Radziwiłowicz, Jerzy Stuhr, Andrzej Seweryn are world-famous Polish actors.

Polish Cinema

Polish Cinematograph Pioneers

The first Polish cinematographic show took place on 14 November 1895 in Kraków but it was only in 1908 that a French film maker from the Pathé Frères company, Joseph-Louis Mundviller, made – under the pseudonym Jerzy Meyer – the first Polish fiction film: Anthony, for the First Time in Warsaw. Yet, as early as 1894, Kazimierz Prózyński tested a camera called “pleograph”, and in 1898, Bolesław Matuszewski published the first Polish theory of the cinema in his brochure entitled A New Source of History . Instantly popular, the cinema developed steadily until the country became independent in 1918, with a production of about 30 films a year, During the following decade, which witnessed the début of one of Poland’s first great academic film directors, Aleksander Ford, the national output slackened in favour of foreign productions, in particular French films, before being obliterated by the great world conflict which caused many actors and technicians to leave the country.

From State Cinema to Emancipation

After the war, three films contributed to the renewal of Polish cinema now under State control. In 1947, Forbidden Songs by Leonard Buczkowski (one of Poland’s greatest box-office successes) then in 1948, Truth has no Frontiers by A Ford and The Last Stage by Wanda Jakubowska, depict war and its consequences without any pretence, just before the brutal Stalinization that took place between 1949 and 1953 and the generalization of a clearly propagandist cinema. In the mid-1950s, as the Socialist Realist trend led to an artistic deadlock, it was severely questioned by a new generation of film makers, mostly trained at the cinema school created in 1948 in Łodź, who more or less succeeded in avoiding ideological demands and making it increasingly difficult for the communist power to appropriate them politically. The double success of Andrzej Wajda’s film Kanał (they loved life) at the 1957 Cannes Festival, then of Mother Joan of the Angels by Jerzy Kawalerowicz (1922) at the 1961 Festival, both films winning the Jury’s Special Prize, confirmed the existence of this original Polish New Wave which some saw as the precursors of other European new waves.

Polish School of Cinema

A symbolic figure of this nowa fala , Jerzy Skolimowski (1936) began his career by making very personal films, including Distinguishing Features, none (1964), Walk-over (1965) and The Barrier (1966), before embarking, under pressure from the censorship, on a more chaotic and not always convincing international career, which however includes the noteworthy Deep End (1970) and The Shout (1978).

Andrzej Munk (1921-1961), undoubtedly one of the most talented film makers, made Eroïca in 1957 and Luck to Spare in 1960, two films in a short career of just four films, marked by scepticism and above all irony and featuring characters engulfed by the great flood of History.

Walerian Borowczyk (1923), who started out as a master of cartoons, was the first film maker to emigrate to France in 1959 (thus setting an example); he later specialised in erotic films from the ambitious Immoral Tales to the more commercial and depressing Emmanuelle 5 .

Andrzej Wajda (1926), noticed in the 1960s for his stylistic hesitations and questionable themes, convincingly came back in 1977 with the highly political The Marble Man and again in 1981 with The Iron Man , awarded the Palme d’Or in Cannes. The following year, he made, in France, a memorable Danton with G Depardieu and W. Pszoniak in the key roles. With over 30 films to his credit (he is preparing a new film about Katyń), the so-called father of Polish cinema receives award after award, including an Oscar for the whole of his work. He had the honour of becoming a member of the Institut de France and to assume political responsibilities in Poland at the time of Lech Wałęsa’s Presidency.

Other noteworthy figures of Polish cinema include Wojciech Has (1925-2000) who made Farewell in 1958 then Clepsydre in 1972 and Kazimierz Kutz (1929) author in 1960 of Nobody Calls , followed a year later by Panic in a train .

Cinema of Moral Anxiety

Belonging to a generation of film makers anxious to free themselves from the traumas of the war, or at least decided to deal with them less directly, Krzysztof Zanussi (1939) made his mark in 1969 with his very first film, The Crystal Structure , as the leader of a new trend in which one can detect the social criticism of a political system relying on corruption. Consistently producing from abroad films in the same stylistic vein known as “moral anxiety”, this film maker, often accused of being too intellectuel, questions us about faith in his last film Life as a Sexually Transmissible Terminal I llness (2000). Undermined by the emigration of its main protagonists, Polish cinema made in Poland, which hardly existed in the mid-1980s, showed signs of dying until Krzysztof Kieslowski (1941-1996) gave it a creative impulse and a new lease of life. He became famous through his cycle entitled Decalogue (1988-89), a remarkable series of ten films of about an hour each, produced for television and illustrating a modern application of the Ten Commandments. His last films The Double Life of Veronique (1991) and the trilogy Three Colours (1993-94), both French co-productions, met with significant success, no doubt amplified by the participation of French actresses Irène Jacob, Julie Delpy and Juliette Binoche.

Filip Bajon (1947) with Aria for an Athlete (1979), Agnieszka Holland (1948) with Provincial Actors (1979) and Europa, Europa (1990), Wojciech Marczewski with Escape of the Freedom Cinema (1990) and more recently Krzysztof Krauze (1953) and Robert Gliński (1952) today share and prolong the same creative vein.

The unclassifiable film maker Andrzej Żuławski (1940) only made two films in Poland Third Part of the Night in 1970 and, two years later, The Devil , banned by the board of censors; he then went on to make films in France and produced tormented, even hysterical films rarely acclaimed by critics and often unintelligible to the public. His last film Szamanka , made in Poland in 1996, was no exception to the rule.

Cinema of new-found Freedom

After the collapse of Communism and the progression towards a market economy, the very nature of film producing changed and forced most film makers to look for financing outside Poland, even if the State continued to invest in some presti- gious projects such as the Polish-American co-production Schindler’s List (1993) by Steven Spielberg, filmed in Kazimierz, Kraków’s former Jewish district. The new generation also called on their illustrious elders for epic films inspired by the classics of Polish literature: Wajda, for instance, adapted in 1999 the famous poem by Adam Mickiewicz, Pan Tadeusz , and Kawalerowicz undertook in 2001 to adapt for the screen the no less famous novel Quo Vadis ? New directors confirmed during the 1990s include Andrzej Kondratiuk (1936), Janusz Kijowski (1939), the actor Jerzy Stuhr (1947) who turned director and Jan Jakub Kolski (1956), whose adaptation of Gombrowicz’s famous novel, Pornography, came out in a few French cinemas in March 2005.

Finally, it is worth mentioning the excellent production, during the period 1957-70, of Polish cartoons by film makers like Jan Lenica, Walerian Borowczyk, Witold Giersz who enjoyed a worldwide reputation, as well as the still strong Polish tradition of documentary film-making, illustrated by Marcel Łoziński, following in the steps of Kazimierz Karabasz, author of the famous Musicians (1960).


A highly musical nation, Poland can be proud to be the native country of a genius: Chopin, an eminently national yet at the same time universal composer. A ”tree” to be reckoned with, that hides a precious “wood” of contemporary music.

From the Origins to Romanticism

The first music pieces, kept in the national archives, date from the 11C, but the Polish school of Gregorian then polyphonic chant developed under the Piasts and later under the Jagiellonians with, in particular, Nicolaus of Radom in the 15C and, in the 16C, Nicolaus Gomólka who marked the climax of Renaissance music. They were not followed by any original first-class composer and one can safely say that Polish classical music was born during the Romantic period.

An endearing figure of Romantic music, Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849), born to a Polish mother and a French father, both of them musicians, arrived in Paris in 1831. Apart from a few orchestral and chamber-music compositions, he wrote essentially for solo piano, having since childhood been a virtuoso of that instrument. He composed in an inexhaustible variety of styles (preludes, nocturnes, waltzes, polonaises, mazurkas). Drawing his inspiration from the depth of human feelings and from Polish folklore, he produced, from his close collaboration with his piano, some of the finest pages of Western music. As an ultimate symbol for this composer whose soul was both exalted and tormented and whom Georges Sand called “this dear corpse”, his body is buried in the Père Lachaise cemetery while his heart lies in the Church of the Holy Cross in Warsaw.

Eclipsed by Chopin’s creative shadow, his near contemporary Stanisław Moniuszko (1819-1872 ), who composed cantatas and lieder (based on texts from the great national poets), is considered, on account of his Halka and The Enchanted Manor as the true father of Poland’s modern national opera, even though the first Polish operas (Italian opera was introduced in Warsaw in 1628) were written by Maciej Kamieński (1734-1821) and Jan Stefani (1746-1826). A childhood friend of Chopin, Oskar Kolberg (1814-1890), who studied Poland’s musical folklore, is considered as a pioneer in the field of Polish ethnomusicology. The virtuoso violinist Henryk Wieniawski (1835-1880) gave his name (as Chopin did for the piano in Warsaw) to a famous Polish festival which takes place every five years in Poznań.

the Neglected 20C “Chopin”

Comparable to Bartok in Hungary or Janaček in Czechoslovakia, Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937) was the main architect of the renewal of 20C Polish music. Co-founder with Karłowicz, Fitelberg, Różycki and Szeluto of the neo-Romantic group “Young Poland” which tried to imitate the progressive trends of Western Europe, he initiated in 1927 the creation of the Association of young Polish musicians, who flocked to be trained in France, in particular by Nadia Boulanger. His whole work, deeply rooted in various fields of culture and nourished by a rich travel experience, can be divided into three periods: romantic, impressionist (with a touch of orientalism for instance in Myths op.30) and Polish. For the last one, he searched for the national musical roots which were secondary in his previous works but now formed the base of his musical structure. His ballet Harnasie (The Bandits), influenced by folk music from the Tatras, was created in Paris in 1936. His last compositions, which were essentially vocal, include masterpieces like his opera King Roger (1926), based on a libretto by Iwaszkiewicz and his Stabat Mater (1929). Although his works are still rarely recorded and need to be discovered, there is no doubt that he opened the way for a whole generation of musicians and established the trends of contemporary Polish music.

The Ways of the Contemporary Avant-Garde

From the 1960s, Poland was undoubtedly held as an avant-garde country in the field of contemporary music. Yet one could not speak of a Polish national school, because composers came from very varied backgrounds and worked from different angles.

After strictly academic beginnings, Witold Lutosławski (1913-1994) drew his inspiration from folk music before approaching dodecaphonism and experimenting with random devices as in his Venitian Games and his 2nd Symphony, probably his best composition. in 1970, his cello concerto was created in London by Mstislav Rostropowitch. Less well known, Tadeusz Baird (1928-1981), Kazimierz Serocki (1922) and Jan Krenz (1926) formed the 49 Group with the intention of composing serial music of a high artistic standard but more accessible to the listener. The first two co-founded the Warsaw Autumn Festival of contemporary music still acclaimed today. The name of Andrej Panufnik (1914) is rather more associated with sound experiments.

Krzysztof Penderecki (1933) is the most famous contemporary Polish composer . His complex musical language is mainly based on musical colour. A master of choral music, he excels in religious compositions. His Dies Irae and his Passion According to St Luke rank among his most famous works. He also composed a mystical opera, The Devils of Loudun (1967), but came back in the 1980s to more traditional, neo-classical forms.

His exact contemporary, also inclined towards spiritual quests, Henrik Mikołaj Gorecki (1933) composes deeply mystical music such as the famous and peaceful 3rd symphony known as the “symphony of plaintive songs”. His two quartets, composed for the Kronos Quartet, are equally remarkable.

Other Musics

An exponent of minimalist music, Wojciech Kilar (1932) is also a great composer of film music, in particular for Polanski for whom he wrote the sound track of The Pianist . Other noteworthy composers include Jan A. P. Kaczmarek and Zbigniew Preisner , official and much appreciated composer of the sound tracks of Kieślowski’s last films.

Poland also boasts great virtuosi in the field of classical music, such as the tenor Jan Kiepura (1902-1966), the pianist Arthur Rubinstein (1886-1982), a great friend of Szymanowski, the harpsichord player Wanda Landowska (1879-1959) and Witold Malcuzynski. Ignacy Jan Paderewski (1860-1941) should be added to the list: the virtuoso pianist and politician became Prime Minister of the first independent government of the new Poland in 1919.

Internationally known Polish jazz musicians include the trumpet player Tomasz Stańko, the saxophonist Zbigniew Namysłowski, the singer Urszula Dudziak and the now legendary pianist Krzystof Komeda (1931-69), who wrote the sound tracks of Polanski’s first films.

Folk Arts and Traditions

Pictures circulated by the media between the postwar period and the 1980s gave a grey and dull account of Polish society. Although the political context was bound to lead to this kind of conclusion, greyness and dullness are not among the original values of Polish culture. Popular arts and folklore, which have come back into the limelight since the opening-up of the country to the world, are full of colour and life. A yearning for bygone days, imagined as better than the present, which often shows through festivals and costumes, is not a Polish specificity. It is common to many countries deeply attached to their cultural and religious roots!

In Spite of History

Anybody visiting Poland will be surprised by the diversity and endurance of traditions. Whether pagan, religious or, by some mystery, a blend of both, regional cultural features are countless. The Poles’ attachment to their roots is all the more intense since the 20C tried its best to destroy them. Marxism never approved of what could involve spirituality and recall the memory of Poland before the Communist era. And yet, as soon as the régime collapsed, stables and barns released the memories and rituals of former times. The Polish diaspora, spread throughout the world, contributes to maintain the country’s cultural identity by financing all kinds of associations. Those who emigrated always made a point of organising nostalgic reunions, thus keeping alive regional customs and rites. Aware of the attraction this wealth of traditional folklore has on foreigners, each region tries to regulate the succession of events.

Handicraft, traditional music festivals, folk dancing and religious celebrations actively contribute to perfect the colourful festive image that the country wishes to promote. The Festival of Baltic Fishermen, the Festival of Silesian miners, the Beskid Transhumance Festival, the great Easter pilgrimages and the historic reconstructions are excellent resources for discovering some of Poland’s traditions.

Traditional Architecture


Like many central European countries, Poland boasts numerous skansens.Skansen, a word of Scandinavian origin, refers to an outdoor ethnographic museum gathering together buildings illustrating a region’s architectural traditions. Skansens are often laid out in vast parks and include churches, farms, mills, manor houses or simple apiaries. Most of the buildings date from the 17C to the 19C. They are not replicas but authentic dwellings or places of worship carefully taken apart and moved from their original site then re-assembled by master craftsmen. Visitors can walk into the dark rooms of farmhouses and look at farming implements or objects of daily life. They can see how the most modest rural homes were suitably equipped to be self-sufficient. Churches, often consecrated, where religious services are still held, are often richer than in towns, for they are looked after by the curators and watched, mostly by elderly people who earn an additional income by working for a few hours in the skansen. One can easily get the impression of walking through a village of the past. Farm animals roam around, adding to the convivial atmosphere. Organisers of festivals or traditional feasts regularly stage these events in skansens.

Traditional Housing, between Wood and Brick

It is no accident that skansens first appeared in the cold regions of Sweden and now flourish in central European countries such as Poland. They offer the best solution (apart from books) for preserving a nation’s rural heritage. It is a fact that traditional materials used by people living along the Baltic coast, in the plains of Masovia or in the Tatras mountains did not withstand the test of time. Wood, which always formed the basis of constructions, could, unfortunately, stand up neither to snow and variations in temperature between winter and summer, nor to assorted invaders who over-ran the country with torch in hand. It is in the southern and eastern parts of Poland that the tradition of wooden architecture remains the strongest. From the Opole region to Podlasie via the Podhale and Little Poland, there are many wooden farms, villas and churches. In the Zakopane area, wooden constructions are still being built according to aesthetic criteria dating from the end of the 19C. In the heart of Little Poland, wooden houses are often whitewashed then painted in bright colours, in particular blue. In all these regions, roofs are covered with shingles or sometimes thatched. Further north, in Greater Poland or in Pomerania, and east, in Silesia and in the Łódź area, brick replaced wood with the advent of Gothic architecture. Castles, churches and large monuments in towns were often only built during the brick period. As for stone-building which reached its peak all over Europe during the Romanesque period, there are practically no trace of it left since Poland did not really exist then and therefore few architectural ensembles were built at the end of the Middle Ages. Stone only came back in fashion during the Renaissance. It was thanks to the Italian, French or Northern European architects, who were invited by Polish sovereigns to design their castles or their cities, that it became again a sought-after building material.

There are a few regional specificities such as granite houses in the villages of the Biebrza Valley or half-timbered buildings, dating from the 16C to the 20C, in the vicinity of Swołowo or Kluli on the Baltic coast.

Traditional Crafts

In Poland, as in many other countries, it is often difficult to tell the difference between regional handicraft, illustrating a tradition, and a simple souvenir. Anachronic “Russian dolls” are on offer next to jewellery made with amber from the Baltic or Podhale glass icons. There is an impressive amount of handicraft on offer in markets, galleries and on the parking areas of major tourist sites. And yet, during the long Communist period, popular artistic expression, often connected with religious beliefs, was not encouraged. One must conclude that handicraft, like folk dancing and regional costumes was so dear to the heart of the Poles that they could not do without them. The growing tourist industry will certainly not stop the expansion of these crafts. Raw materials such as wood, wool or leather form the basis of traditional crafts. In all the markets one finds legions of wooden boxes carved with geometric or floral motifs. Clothes made from wool dyed with natural colouring agents are a reminder that Polish climate can be harsh. Even though tobacco pouches and pottery are closely linked with Kashubia, lace with Little Poland, straw mats and furniture with Podlasie, the expanding tourist trade places less importance on regional product differences. Fortunately, a few crafts have retained their specific niche.

Wycinanki or Paper Cut-Outs

In the 19C, peasant women made decorative paper cut-outs using knives and scissors intended for shearing sheep. The technique later improved until the Wycinanki became real paper lace decorations adorning walls and windows; they illustrate symbolic shapes such as moons, stars, arabesques or flowers. Offered to friends, the Wycinanow are also essential elements of religious festivals. The Kurpie region, between Masovia and Podlasie, the Łowicz area and Masovia as a whole are traditionally strongly attached to the Wycinanki tradition.

Pisanka or Decorated Egg

Another tradition requiring know-how and precision is that of the Pisanka or decorated egg. Once a pagan tradition, it became an Easter symbol celebrating the Resurrection of Christ just like the awakening of nature. These eggs can be found in many shops all over the country, but the tradition originates from the Carpathian regions. The Łemko populations from Ukraine or Slovakia, the Hutsul from the Romanian Carpathians and the Poles close to Belarusian culture are the initiators of this technique. Eggs are decorated with drawings made with beeswax, and dipped in several coloured liquids. Strong heat then eliminates the coats of wax, revealing 3 or 4 colour motifs which draw their inspiration from various sources, including religious symbols, geometric shapes and, only rarely, human figures. The eggs are sometimes made of wood and decorated with rough floral motifs.

Glass Painting

Extremely popular since the 18C, paintings on glass were, owing to their low cost, intended for a rural or mountain clientele. Many can still be found today in Little Poland. Themes used are sacred or profane. Glass icons can be seen in many houses, churches and even cemeteries, as in Zakopane’s old cemetery. Representations of Mary and Jesus are probably the most frequent. The technique has hardly changed. The support is a piece of window glass on which the artist paints a mirror image of his subject. He first draws the outline in gouache then fills in the motifs with colours.

Amber From the Baltic

Although amber is sold all over the country, it remains the symbol of the Baltic. This resin, fossilized some 40 million years ago, offered by the sea, is the raw material that contemporary designers continue to cut. Workshops in Gdańsk, Warsaw and large towns turn this “gold of the North” into jewellery, lamps, medals or clocks.

Festivals and Feasts

Dancing, Costumes and Festivals

Polish folk-dancing troupes go all over the world to present shows organized like military parades. The warm colours and the dynamism of the young artists charm their audiences. If they have so much success on the international stage, it is because Polish folklore is so rich and varied. In the 19C, Oskar Kolberg, a learned man, drew up a repertoire of the country’s music, songs and dances, taking care to note regional differences. His study is still used as reference.

The Mazurka , a dance in triple time, of which Chopin was the main exponent with a contribution of some fifty piano pieces, is one of the most popular dances in Poland and one of the best known throughout the world. It has emigrated to Russia, the US, Sweden and France. Composers as different as Ravel, Debussy or Tchaikowski have drawn their inspiration from it.

A few other dances, either in their classical or folk version, belong to the country’s cultural heritage, including the Polonaise , the Kujawiak or the Krakowiak. As its name implies, the latter is one of the leading folk dances of Little Poland. All of them liven up summer festivals and family banquets in traditional inns.

Most Poles find it quite natural to belong to a folk group or to attend the numerous festivals dedicated to regional songs and dances. Caring deeply for one’s roots and showing it openly is common in all age groups. The impressive quantity of summer events, during which all the generations celebrate their cultural background together, therefore comes as no surprise. Women wearing headscarfs, yellow, blue or green silk blouses and full skirts walk onto the stage, eager to dance. They are accompanied by men wearing sleeveless jackets and peacock feathers on their hats. If you do not have the opportunity to attend one of these festivals, just switch the television on. Many of the regional networks enjoy broadcasting such events.

Religious Festivals

The conviction and faith of Polish Catholics, although shaken by the postwar Communist régimes, continue to influence the life of the country. The consumer society which has been pouring in since the 1990s and the spiritual disengagement which affects many European countries do not seem to make an impression on the devout. In addition to Sunday Mass, religious feasts are fervently celebrated.

Christmas Celebrations

As in many countries, Christmas in Poland brings families together, whatever their religious convictions. A visit from Father Christmas or St Nicholas is perfectly compatible with the celebration of the birth of Christ. The most fervent observe a short period of fasting before giving in to the temptation from the twelve ritual dishes on the evening of 24 December (Wigilia). Strict observance of the tradition requires abstaining from meat, but carp and pike are on the menu in many homes in addition to mushroom soup, pierogis or stuffed cabbage. For dessert, there are pastries made with white cheese and dried fruit (sernik), and cakes with poppy seeds (makowiec). Then at last it is time for presents! Later on the guests go to church to hear the midnight Mass (Pasterka). The congregation sing Christmas carols and assert their faith while marvelling in front of the crib bathed in light and colour and full of characters.

The Kraków Cribs

Even though all churches in Poland have cribs (szopki), in Kraków, a real event is organised around the “manger in Bethlehem”. Every year at the beginning of December, artists exhibit their cribs at the foot of Adam Mickiewicz’s statue. For over 60 years now, this competition has gathered together between 130 and 150 cribs, sometimes as tall as a man. They must all draw their inspiration from Kraków’s architecture and include some of the town’s legendary figures. Jesus can therefore be next to the dragon or the trumpet player playing the Hejnał. After celebrating the winner, the Historical Museum takes charge of the works.

Puppets and Winter Disguise

At Christmas time in the regions of the Beskid, Kraków, Lublin and Rzeszów, some villages uphold the tradition of the collection. Children carrying a star and a crib go from house to house, wishing people happiness in exchange for sweets; they are accompanied by a puppet depicting a Tzigane, a devil, death or a bison. If handled well, the latter can have....chattering teeth! The Museum of Lublin Castle exhibits puppets of that kind. The origin of this parade is the story of King Herod ordering the “Massacre of the Innocents”.

New Year and Carnival

The New-Year and Carnival celebrations also offer the opportunity of parading in the company of puppets and masks. Tziganes, Jews, bears, devils or beggars are the characters most often represented. Today these popular events have almost disappeared.


This is the second most important celebration. On Palm Sunday, homes are decorated with willow branches covered with white catkins while most Poles paint very elaborate decorative motifs on eggs which are then blessed in church on Holy Saturday with other food stuff (including a small lamb made of cake or sugar) which will be eaten the next day after Mass. Easter Monday (Smigus-Dyngus) is marked by massive spraying of water in the streets for good luck.

All Saints’ Day

On this family occasion and National Holiday, Polish cemeteries are lit with thousands of candles and gravestones are cleaned and visited. Flower stalls do a brisk business.

Military legends

The Lajkonik

The richly clothed Tatar chief (the khan) parading on his horse is known by all visitors to Kraków’s Market Square. The legend goes back to 1287, when the Tatars invaded the town. One night, the inhabitants of the village of Zwierzyniec summoned up their courage and attacked the Tatar camp, killing the khan. This brave deed continues to be celebrated in Kraków. An actor, disguised as the Khan, walks around the Cloth Hall, thus perpetuating the tradition. In addition, every year in June, on the last day of the Corpus Christi week, a grand costumed procession makes its way from Zwierzyniec to the Market Square. The Lajkonik walks along the streets in search of a few złotys, gently beating those who contribute; according to the modern legend, fortune will smile on them later. As for the mayor of the town, it costs him a few glasses of wine!

The Broherhood of the Rooster

The Brotherhood of the Rooster is 700 years old. Archers, crossbowmen and arquebusiers used their skills to protect their villages and strongholds. These occasional warriors were not soldiers but tradesmen, bourgeois or craftsmen and they belonged to a Brotherhood which adopted the rooster, symbolizing night watching, as its emblem. Kraków ­continues to celebrate the descendants of these brave marksmen. On the first Monday after the eight days of the Corpus Christi Feast, the members of the present-day Brotherhood of the Rooster parade in medieval costume and challenge each other in friendly fashion during great competitions...by aiming at wooden roosters.

Kulig, a Winter Game

The kulig in its original form has ceased. Although some people are trying to make it fashionable again, it is impossible to imagine that it could regain its former craze. The kulig was a game reserved for wealthy aristocrats wishing to relax and amuse themselves during the Christmas festivities or around Ash Wednesday. It consisted of a cavalcade of horse-drawn carts filled with jolly fellows who went across the countryside from manor to manor. They danced, ate and drank a lot until they didn’t feel the cold anymore. Some were disguised as priests, others as Tziganes or Jews. The 20C put a stop to this somewhat excessive amusement, but the principle seems to be coming back with the help of tourists and the advent of a well-off young generation.

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