Dropouts: Polish Artists Who Didn’t Finish School
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default, Pictured: Karol Kranc, Kazimierz Kranc, Karol Uniłowski, Maria Uniłowska, Stefania Tuwimowa, Julian Tuwim, USA, c. 1942, photo: Museum of Literature a, center, Na zdjęciu: Karol Kranc, Kazimierz Kranc, Karol Uniłowski, Maria Uniłowska, Stefania Tuwimowa, Julian Tuwim, USA, ok. 1942, fot. Zbiory Muzeum Literatury/East News
Some could simply not afford a full education, some found it useless, while others were expelled from each and every school they attended. Culture.pl presents a list of absolutely outstanding Polish artists who rejected formal education at some point in their lives… and ended up winning Nobel prizes and Oscars!
Cyprian Kamil Norwid
The young Cyprian Kamil Norwid left his childhood village and arrived in Warsaw in the months preceding the November Uprising. There, he entered the second grade of the Practical & Pedagogical Middle School (Gimnazjum Praktyczno-Pedagogiczne). In the forthcoming years, he continued his studies with numerous breaks, but he ultimately finished his middle school experience in the fifth grade. This, however, was not the end of his educational path, as later on, Norwid enrolled in drawing classes in Warsaw. Soon, he moved to Florence to begin his studies at the Academy of Fine Arts in Florence (Accademia di Belle Arti di Firenze).
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Stefan Żeromski in his den in his house in Nałęczów, 1906, photo: National Library Digital Archive / Polona.pl
Although Stefan Żeromski came from a noble family, his relatives were far from well off. During his childhood, he lived on a farm leased by his father, where he his family lived in harsh conditions and where his lifelong battle with tuberculosis began.
He studied at a public middle school in Kielce. There, he met an individual who would later help shape his creative work and worldview – Antoni Gustaw Bem, an historian and culture critic, a declared positivist. Years later, Żeromski included Bem in his Syzyfowe Prace (‘Labors of Sisyphus’) and portrayed him as Professor Sztetter. At school, he failed three years in a row and didn’t pass his matura (matriculation) exam in Mathematics.
He struggled to afford his education – he worked as a tutor, but he did not earn enough. He was forced to quit his studies and move to Warsaw. There, he decided to continued his education at a veterinary school, which didn't require the matura exam. Unfortunately, history repeated itself again – Żeromski could not afford to stay in school. He dropped out and became a private tutor.
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Just like Żeromski, Henryk Sienkiewicz was a private tutor from a noble yet impoverished family. His educational adventure lasted a bit longer, although it was a tiresome quest. He attended several middle schools in Warsaw, his grades were mostly average. It shows in his matura diploma – he is excellent at Polish, world history, Polish and Russian history, and geography, but his remaining marks left a lot to be desired. Following his parent’s wishes, he went to the Main School of Warsaw (Szkoła Główna Warszawska), but was not a very good student. Sienkiewicz wasn’t there for long; he switched to studying law, and then to philology and history. He undeniably got the most out of this last course of studies, but ended up never graduating – not even trying to, in fact. In the words of Aleksander Świętochowski:
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Frail, sickly, rarely seen in the auditorium, not engaged in student activities, perplexed before exams, keeping to himself. Such little was the attention given to Sienkiewicz by fellow students that when Kotarbiński praised Sienkiewicz for writing a magnificent novel ‘Na Marne’ (‘In Vain’), we laughed cordially and put this news down to their common place of origin – Podlasie.
Juliusz Osterwa (born Julian Andrzej Maluszek) grew up in a part of Kraków called Podgórze. He was the son of a janitor and a midwife. His performance at school was questionable, he failed to begin his final year and dropped out of school to make his theatrical debut at the age of nineteen. His friendship with Leon Schiller, the legend of the interwar Polish theatre, was his most rewarding experience at school. It was Schiller who came up with Osterwa’s stage name, under which the creator of Rampa Theatre, actor, director, and theorist made his mark on Polish culture.
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Similarly to his fellow writers, the young Julian Tuwim had difficulties with science lessons. He struggled so much, that he had to repeat sixth grade of primary school. The horrors of school are immortalised in a fragment of his famous poem Kwiaty Polskie:
Getting in the hammock – with this hateful
A book, probably damned to hell,
With an abracadabra of Greek letters,
Satanic codes, treacherous cuts:
With a trigonometric cabal.
He then moved to Warsaw and applied to university to study philosophy. He also began studying law, following the wishes of his parents. He got into both faculties, and then promptly quit them both after one semester.
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The Polish director was neither a mediocre student, nor a rebel. He grew up during the war, which drastically complicated his educational path. Andrzej Wajda studied painting at the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków and directing at the Film School in Łódź. He finished both… without actually passing the national matura exam. He reminisced:
I only have what you call ‘a small matura’, which I passed during the occupation. In Radom, I finished only four grades of middle school, of course during clandestine classes. After the war, I tried to bear with the last year, but I was already drawn to Kraków. I promised I would make up for it and pass the regular matura exam.
He never did.
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Mam tylko tak zwaną małą maturę, okupacyjną. W Radomiu zrobiłem tylko cztery klasy gimnazjum, oczywiście na tajnych kompletach. Po wojnie byłem jeszcze w ostatniej klasie, ale już ciągnęło mnie do Krakowa. Obiecałem, że to nadrobię i zdam normalną maturę.
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Marek Hłasko and Krzysztof Komeda at Marek Niziński's apartment, Beverly Hills, 1968, photo: Marek Niziński / IWL
Marek Hłasko wasn’t particularly eager to learn. He might have had this trait in his blood, as his mother, Maria Łucja Hłasko, never finished any of her studies (Polish, French and law). Right after the war, they often moved, and Hłasko barely even finished primary school in Wrocław. He continued his studies in the Technical and Theatrical Public High School, from which he was expelled due to his poor grades, his disregard of rules, general misconduct and the demoralising influence on his friends. He was sixteen, and would never return to school again. He did, however, get his driver’s licence. From then, he worked as a driver, gathering material for a couple of literary works along the way.
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Hłasko’s infamous achievements were definitely surpassed by the exploits of a younger fellow writer. Andrzej Stasiuk only completed elementary school and was expelled from every other educational institution he began. He even managed to be thrown out of prison. A biographic entry in bruLion neatly summarises these accomplishments of the future writer.
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He finished elementary school. He was thrown out of high school, technical school, and vocational school. After spending half a year in the army, he made Corporal and received a pass which he never returned from. He was sentenced for desertion and sent to military prison in Płoty. He got thrown out again for disrupting army discipline. He spent the rest of his sentence in a civil penitentiary.
In the late 1970s, Zbigniew Libera began his studies in the Pedagogy Department at the Nicolaus Copernicus University in Toruń. He quit at the very beginning of the 1980s and distributed posters and pamphlets during the period of the ‘Carnival of Solidarity’. He was a self-taught artist, his creativity wasn’t shaped by academia, but by the community of Kultura Zrzuta collective, focussed around the ‘Strych’ (The Attic) on Piotrkowska Street in Łódź. There, he organised his first exhibition, shortly after which he was arrested for printing materials for the opposition. He spent a year and a half in prison. He ended up in Hrubieszów with other political prisoners, where, among many others, he met people connected to KOR (the Workers' Defence Committee). There, he also used his artistic skills, creating portraits, tattoos, and paintings on bedsheets.
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The creator of movies analysing life from a distant and scientific perspective has the same approach to the educational system. Norman Leto never finished high school, as he simply didn’t see the point, and he never intended to go to an arts school. Years later, he sees both the advantages and disadvantages of his life choices. As he once said in an interview:
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I don’t fit into the system, that we deal with during our process of our education, at all. I stopped studying in fourth grade of high school. I decided not to take the matura exam, in fact I quit everything and I concentrated on dealing with my own stuff. From the creative point of view, not studying at the Academy of Fine Arts helped me. From the social point of view – not necessarily.
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Originally written in Polish, translated by AJ, Jan 2019