Avant-Garde, Swing & Film Premieres: A Map of Warsaw's Cultural Life during the Interwar Period
#photography & visual arts
#language & literature
small, Avant-Garde, Swing & Film Premieres: A Map of Poland's Cultural Life during the Interwar Period, Wierzbowa Street in Warsaw, as seen from Teatralny Square, showing the restaurants Adria, Ziemiańska and Oaza, photo: Ilustrowany Kurier Codzienny Gro, center, nocne_zycie_warszawa_nac_1_0.jpg
‘We welcomed peace and independence with gestures of delirious joy: in the cafés, in the dance halls, and at balls,’ the painter Konrad Winkler recalled. In the interwar period (between WWI and WWII), the artistic milieu of Poland’s capital city bustled with unprecedented activity. Here we offer an overview of some of the places that encapsulated the spirit of the era. The interwar press warned:
We invent thousands of reasons, we concoct thousands of pretexts not to sit at home, not to admit that we are overwhelmed by an 'epidemic of lunacy' that makes us waste our time, money, health, and strength.
After so many years of living under foreign occupation, people in the newly emerged Poland wanted to live modern and normal lives. In the 1920s and 1930s, they started to participate in cultural and entertainment activities on a mass scale, a situation that was favored by such technological advances as cinema and radio. As Warsaw transitioned from a provincial city in the Russian Empire into the proud capital of a large country, it began to amass various institutions, the editorial offices of the most widely-read magazines, and attract in creators of culture from other parts of the country.
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Amid an unprecedented boom in the visual arts and literature, new publications and theatrical premières were the subject of heated discussions at café tables. Back then, culture generated a great deal of emotion, as illustrated by a certain anecdote about the artist Mieczysław Szczuka: he defended the good name of the avant-garde by challenging the writer Antoni Słonimski to a duel, when the latter wrote a scathing review of an exhibition put on by his colleague, Henryk Berlewi.
Nevertheless, taking such a nostalgic view of the epoch may easily lead to its mythologisation. ‘The Poland of those days was by no means consistent with the idealistic picture that the new generation may be creating,’ Czeslaw Miłosz wrote in Wyprawa w Dwudziestolecie (editor’s translation: An Excursion Through the Twenties and Thirties).
Likewise, the Warsaw of that period did not fit into the ideal picture created by the popular culture of the modern era: a neon-lit ‘city of a thousand and one nights’ in which chic ladies and dapper gentlemen spent their time in dance halls and cabarets. Such a description held true merely for a very narrow fragment of the Śródmieście district. The division into the centre vs. the peripheries was more visible than it is today. Warsaw’s cultural life was concentrated between the streets of Marszałkowska and Nowy Świat.
According to a still popular slogan, the Warsaw of the prewar period was the ‘Paris of the North.’ In turn, the writer Ferdynand Goetel used to say: ‘Warsaw is no Paris, but Paris is no Warsaw either!’ Warsaw was surely a city of contrasts, which manifested itself also in its cultural life. Cabarets for high society neighbored with illegal working-class stages with subversive repertoires, and both often used pieces written by the same authors (for example Julian Tuwim). Luxury cinemas with marble-lined interiors were located just a few tram stops away from small, smoke-filled rooms in which bed sheets doubled as screens and the repertoire depended solely on whether the local riff-raff found a certain film to their liking.
A History of Warsaw's Neons
qui pro quo
polish art of the 1920s
polish art of the interwar period
polish artists of the 1930s
We therefore invite you on a journey through the places that best encapsulate the diversity of the artistic phenomena of interwar Warsaw and its distinctive atmosphere. For that reason, the list includes none of the places that were back then described as passéist or the places that flourished in the interwar period (such as the Zachęta National Gallery of Art and the Warsaw Philharmonic), yet were established earlier.
Originally written in Polish, Feb 2017, translated by DS, July 2018