A Foreigner's Guide to Polish Folk Art
To some, Poland is a country of grey apartment blocks, endless winter and even… polar bears. Well, it might be for those who have never heard about Poland and its rich culture. But if you saw Eurovision 2014 or if you’ve already visited Poland and managed to stop by a souvenir shop, you probably know that there’s a lot of colour and beauty to our traditional crafts!
Poland is (fortunately) not only about attractive women wearing surprisingly short folk skirts. The good news is that you can buy many things decorated with traditional Polish ornamentation, from post cards and mugs to folk skirts, as traditional decorative arts are currently experiencing a revival.
Now, you may wonder what exactly they look like.
We assume that by now you’ve googled Polish culture and you saw dancers, kiełbasa and freaky folk dolls. You might have also wondered what those coloured eggs are all about – and hey – you’re in the right place to find out. Choose the idea that appeals to you the most and discover your inner Pole!
The tradition of eggs painting goes back to ancient Mesopotamia, from where it spread to the region of the Mediterranean sea. The oldest painted eggs are of Sumerian origin and are about 5000 years old. The oldest Polish pisanki (traditional name for painted eggs, singular: pisanka) date back to the end of the 10th century.
In Slavic beliefs, eggs were associated with the cult of the sun god, and they symbolised new life and birth. Each spring, when life awakened from its winter slumber, Poles presented each other with eggs. At Easter the eggs were given to family members and, about a week later, to dear friends as well.
In the past only women were allowed to decorate the eggs – if a man walked into the room where eggs were being adorned, women had to remove the spell that the intruder might have cast on the eggs.
There are different ways to decorate eggs: kraszanki (also called malowanki) are a type of pisanki coloured with natural dyes obtained from onion peel, walnut shells, beet juice and various flower petals, cooked until they give up their colours. An egg is then cooked in the resulting dye. Nowadays, artificial food dyes are also used. People would often scratch the egg to reveal the colour of the shell and thus make a pattern on a pisanka. These are called drapanki.
Sometimes people would “draw” on the eggs with melted wax or cover the eggs with a layer of molten wax in which a pattern is scratched before the eggs are dyed. Needles, awls, straws and twigs all came in handy to inscribe and striate on the egg shells.
In some regions people make oklejanki by sticking yarn, elderberry petals, bulrush, scraps of colourful paper or patches of cloth to the egg shells. Similar form of oklejanki called nalepianki, where cut-outs of coloured paper are used, are more popular in the former Kraków voivodeship and the region of the town of Łowicz.
Some eggs are turned into wydmuszki (singular: wydmuszka). To prepare a wydmuszka, one needs to pierce two holes in an egg and then blow out the egg white and yolk.
A particularly eye-catching type of Easter eggs are ażurki – open-work pisanki. This is when wydmuszki become handy – the egg shells are drilled with tiny drills, polishing machines, dental drills or CNC milling machines. A wydmuszka with drilled patterns is then painted, most often with acrylic paint.
And these eggs are only a part of the Polish Easter extravaganza!
Niedziela Palmowa / Palm Sunday is a Catholic celebration commemorating the triumphant arrival of Jesus Christ in Jerusalem. In Poland, Niedziela Palmowa has been celebrated since the Middle Ages. The feast takes place a week before Easter and thereby commences the Holy Week.
Although nowadays palms can be bought in many shops around Easter time, in the past people would make them on their own. Traditionally palms were made of willow branches, which symbolise the Resurrection and the immortality of the soul. In the region of Wielkopolska, willow branches were cut on Ash Wednesday and then stored in water to keep them green until Palm Sunday.
In Wielkopolska as well as in the other parts of the country, cut branches were often decorated with boxwood, yew, periwinkle, blueberry, staghorn, dried flowers and grass, often dyed, sometimes with colourful ribbons or crepe paper decorations. The tradition of making palms for Palm Sunday is still particularly popular in the regions of Kurpie and Małopolska. Depending on the region, the technique of palm making and its appearance differs.
Palma góralska (made by the Polish highlanders) is composed of a bunch of willow, wicker or hazel grove branches. Its top is crowned with catkins, fir, ribbons and colourful paper flowers.
Palma kurpiowska (from the Kurpie region) constitutes a cut trunk of a spruce or fir tree, entwined with staghorn, heather and blueberry. It’s further decorated with paper flowers and ribbons, but the top is supposed to remain green.
However it is palma wileńska (a type of an Eastern palm which originated in Vilnius) that seems to be the most popular in recent years. It’s relatively short, plaited with dried flowers, mosses and grasses.
The Easter palms would be taken to a church, where they would be consecrated. Besides having its sacral meaning, the blessed palms were to protect from harm and sickness, to bring joy to one’s home and to provide abundant crops. Some believed that when eaten, catkins from a consecrated palm had healing powers. Others believed that the height mattered – the taller the palm, the longer and the happier the life of its owner would be. The prettier the palm – the more beautiful the progeny.
Traditionally, the palms are burnt on Holy Saturday and the resulting ash is kept until the following year, to be used during the Ash Wednesday ceremony.
Palm Sunday is still celebrated across the country; communities of many Polish towns and regions organise Easter palm competitions. The tallest palms reach over 30 metres tall.
The Zakopane Style was the first Polish national style that went beyond the framework of theoretical postulates and could be carried out in practice, not only in Zakopane – the capital of Polish Tatra mountains – but also in many other places in Poland, particularly in the Austrian and Russian partition zones. Stanisław Witkiewicz, a painter, writer, and architect, and the father of the probably more famous Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz (Witkacy), came across this idea in 1898. As he wrote: “…the highlander hut is a higher sort of construction in which the practical features are decorated in an expression of certain aesthetic needs. This is less a raw material than a fairly developed style from which one might evolve a new and independent type of building.”
Imagine how even now it would hurt us Poles to have our whole Zakopane style country destroyed by wars. And topped off with a Palace of Culture. Witkiewicz designed 8 homes and 3 shrines that still stand in Zakopane.
But the southernmost region of Poland, Podhale (which translates into "under the Mountain meadows"), is more than that. Podhale's inhabitants – Górale – have customs and traditions dating further back than Zakopane style. Górale have developed distinct cultural elements that are still apparent in their craft (architecture, milk, wool and leather processing, woodcarving, metalwork, embroidery, glass painting, sculpture), customs (strong kin relations, common law) and spiritual culture (dancing, music, dialect).
So what does oscypek and ciupaga have to do with Polish craft? What are they, even? Oscypek is a traditional smoked cheese made of goats milk. Not only is it tasty, it’s utterly adorable too! Each oscypek is decorated by being moulded in a special form that imprints various designs onto them. Some say that oscypki look like little sculptures. The so-called “oscypek’s younger sister” redykołka even comes in shapes of “folk” animals, like roosters or sheep.
A ciupaga (also called rombanica), unlike goat cheese, is something that you probably haven’t come across much – it’s a Polish version of a shepherd’s axe and is probably the most recognisable item of a Góral’s outfit. You can use it for support, for climbing, chopping wood, as a weapon against wild animals, and… for dancing. Ciupagi are almost always decorated in some way. The wooden elements – often both the head and the handle (traditionally the head is made of iron, brass or wood – the ones sold as souvenirs are often gold or silver) – are carved and then painted, while the metal elements are usually engraved.
Górale also make their own smoking utensils – fajki (pipes), przekolace (a tool used to clean a pipe) and miechórki (used for tobacco storage). Przekolace are often decorated with an ornament engraved on one of its sides, while miechórki are usually adorned with braided straps. Tobacco pipes made by Polish highlanders are very distinct from any other types – they’re heavily carved, with tin chains and a tiny tin cockerel on their lids. And the musical instruments… deserve a separate article. Just take a look what Jan Karpiel-Bułecka, a famous highlander musician, is playing.
Wood carving is the highlanders’ defining characteristic. It’s not only about sculptures and ciupagi; furniture, house elevations, walls – you name it – are all perfect material for wood carving. The incisions make up distinct patterns and recognisable ornaments, which you can also spot on Górale’s clothes – belts and trousers in particular. Parzenica is a heart-shaped pattern adorning the highlanders’ traditional trousers, but not simply to decorate them, but also to strengthen the fabric in areas prone to fraying. Nowadays, parzenica is also imprinted on different types of souvenirs: its embroidered on pillows, hoodies and t-shirts, printed on notebooks, engraved on cufflinks, there are even parzenica-shaped earrings and pendants. It has also become a popular motif for the tattoos of modern Tatry lovers.
If you ask a random Pole about the origins of papercutting, they would say either Łowicz, Kurpie or Poland, in general. The truth is that first cut-outs were made in ancient China, around 200 BC. In Poland wycinanki (Polish for ‘cut-outs’) weren’t popular until the mid-19th century and, most likely, were incorporated into national tradition from Jewish culture.
The first record about the origin of wycinanki mentions the area of Warsaw’s surroundings, yet the first collections organised in between 1901 and 1905 are dominated by wycinanki from the towns of the Łowicz, Kurpie and Kołbiel regions. This discrepancy is caused by the initial lack of regional differentiation which was established later. What links all of them together is the technique of making and… purpose.
Traditionally wycinanki were made with large scissors, made by smiths, initially designed for sheep shearing. It’s difficult to imagine how one managed to use those to produce a highly detailed piece of art. What’s even more fascinating is that no stencil nor pencil sketch was used.
Wycinanki can take on various shapes: stars, circles, trees, rosettes, leluje (highlanders name for lilies), dolls, kogutki (‘cockerels’) – basically, the name comes from whatever a wycinanka is depicting. Nature and beliefs were the major sources of inspiration. In the past people often chose to cut flowering trees, as they symbolised a bond between heaven and earth, cockerels, which symbolised fertility, and woman silhouettes, which symbolised mother earth.
But the shape isn’t all – the vast majority of Polish wycinanki are very colourful. To create a fancy wycinanka people use various coloured papers – this is also the main reason why this type of decoration wasn’t widely spread before the 19th century – coloured paper wasn’t yet widely available. The colours that dominate in Polish wycinanki are shades of red, green, yellow, blue and gold.
Completed wycinanki were hung in windows, on walls and from ceiling joists. Nowadays they are often found as decorations in heritage parks, museums, and cultural centres, but wycinanki have become so well-known around the world that many souvenirs and objects are decorated with a wycinanka motif.
Łowicz region developed three types of wycinanki: kodry, tasiemki and gwiozdy. Typically, gwiozdy are symmetrical and shaped like animals, flowers or any other geometric figure. The first two types are a bit more complex. Kodry are made up of numerous smaller wycinanki glued to a rectangular piece of white paper. Tasiemki are also many-hued, but they comprise of two identical paper bands with small wycinanki glued to them. The two bands are also glued to each other by top corners, and the bottom of the bands, completed with row of notches, slightly part from each other. The area where the two bands meet are covered with a smaller wycinanka, usually in the shape of a flower or a star.
Wycinanki from the Lubelskie region are particularly different from other Polish wycinanki, since they are always monotone, flat and cut from a single piece of paper. As opposed to other regions, the shape of Lubelskie wycinanki is always abstract – they don’t depict animals or flowers, but combinations of squares, circles, whorls, lozenges and triangles. Wycinanki of a single colour are also common in the region of Kołbiel, but in this area a squat woman holding cockerels above her head is the predominant shape.
The masters of wycinanki from the Kurpie region also portray equestrians and hunters, however, don’t avoid the popular stars, trees and cockerels.
What perhaps isn’t surprising is that wycinanki made in the time of communism depict tillage, harvest and… heaving potatoes.
The origins of what is the oldest fabric known to man are shrouded in legend. Yet all trails seem to lead towards Turkey. It was there that, from 6500 BC to date, carpets were made from felt, as well as hats and the sikke head-caps of the dervishes. In Poland, as in the rest of Europe, felt became popular in the Middle Ages, and was used to make blankets, shoes, hats and other garments.
But what is exciting is the fact that felt is experiencing a comeback! It’s probably not common to wear felt shoes any more, but items like bags, gloves and phone cases, with folk art ornaments embroidered on them, felt necklaces, earrings, hair accessories and toys can be found in the majority of souvenirs shops.
Felt art is relatively simple and cheap – anyone can try it, and, a lot of you will love it. In recent years the Polish-speaking part of the internet has been flooded with blogs written by felt hobbyists. But Poland has some famous felt designers as well. One of Polish brands specialising in felt handbags design – Goshico – won an audience award at a Brussels exhibition of Polish industrial design.
Ceramics is a craft widespread across Poland, however there is a particular leading manufacturer in this field: Ceramika Bolesławiec. It’s probably Poland’s best known producer of hand-formed and hand-decorated tableware, which uses a world-unique stamp decoration technique. Once you see them, you’ll be able to recognise Bolesławiec products any time, anywhere.
Bolesławiec's portfolio includes numerous tableware sets but also singular elements, such as plates, cups, platters, bowls, butter dishes, vases, salt and pepper shakers and many others. One can also find solely decorative elements, such as ceramic figurines and Christmas baubles.
Bolesławiec products are made of natural clay, which is widely spread in the grounds of Bolesławiec city and its surroundings. Archaeological examination of ceramic products found in the area indicates that the pottery tradition dates back to the Middle Ages.
Products by Bolesławiec are manually decorated with the use of coloured underglazes, stamps and brushes. Multicoloured floral elements and various geometrical shapes dominate. Each piece of tableware is also labelled with one of the two Bolesławiec registered trademarks.
After being painted, the products are being submerged in enamel, thus making them durable and resistant to abrasion. The last stage of the tableware making process is baking in a temperature exceeding 1200 degree Celsius for over 15 hours.
The establishment of a ceramics trade school in the area in 1897 was an important stimulus to the development of ceramics’ production and design. Notable artists and technological specialists contributed to the formation of innovative production techniques, spread avant-garde pottery shapes and decorations, and educated numerous generations of potters.
Sources: Panorama Kultur, pisanki.pl, Culture.pl, naludowo.pl, Ceramika Bolesławiec, ugbukowinatatrzanska.pl
Author: Agata Dudek, 02/04/15.