It began in early 1919. By then, the belle époque had perished in the trenches of the Great War. The political map of Europe was constantly being reshaped. Both literature and art had already experienced genuine revolution, with the spectres of ‘isms’ haunting the continent: cubism, expressionism, suprematism, dadaism, futurism (and not only). Meanwhile, in Warsaw, two youngsters Anatol Stern (aged 19) and Aleksander Wat (aged 18) were holding their first poetry event: ‘Subtropical evening hosted by white Negros’. The agenda included poems characterised by ‘outrageous syntax, porographic, Rabelaisian content’. For example, Spalenie Figowego Listka by Stern (editor’s translation: The Burning of The Fig Leaf), read out by a man clad solely in a gauze loincloth. Wat would reminisce later:
After the event, much was written and said about us. It was not flattery…
Thus, Polish futurism had begun.
‘The moment called for radical acts’
The very same year in Kraków, two Polish literature students, Bruno Jasieński and Stanisław Młodożeniec, made contact with Tytus Czyżewski, an already well-known avant-garde painter with literary talent. Together, the trio would soon cause an artistic stir in Kraków. They established the futurist club Katarynka, thanks to which they set about to ‘take to the streets, reach the human herds and mass’.
In his article U Narodzin Krakowskiej Awangardy (At The Birth of Polish Avant-garde), Młodożeniec described the overall ambiance prevailing at that time in Poland and its impact on their work.
(…) Next to Poland, empires and regimes crushed while, in Poland itself, new city or county republics ‘exploded’ one by one. Political parties and personas foraged, social antagonisms manifested themselves with a thud. (...) We thought that there ensued times of impetus, storm, manifests, and that art should reflect their speedy pulse in more a direct, open and manifested form.
In February 1921, the avant-gardists set on the conquest of the capital, where they held a cycle of poezowieczory or poetry readings in the dignified Philharmonics. This is when they made peace with the Warsaw group, which had before then been seen asa rival circle. Together, they established the ‘united front’ of the avant-garde. Soon they wrote:
Stabbed with a nayfe in the abdomen, the sluggish bullock of Polish art let out a bellow, lava of futurism oozt thru the whol.
Civilisation, culture – into the junkpile!
The avant-garde movement reached Poland despite a nearly decade-long delay. In Poland under the partitions, such artistic drive could not find the means to exist: literature was subjugated to serve the independence cause, and so patriotism prevailed. As Stefan Żeromski put it during his paper on Poland’s literature in 1916, poets assumed the same function as ministers did in the West.
But the freshly regained independence meant the situation could alter. Słonimski ‘cast off the coat of Konrad’ (Wallenrod, the tormented protagonist of Mickiewicz’s eponymous lyric poem) while Lechoń demanded to see spring, not Poland. The futurists took it one step further. As Aleksander Wat told Czesław Miłosz in My Century:
(…) We might have been kids, but for us the fact of Poland’s rebirth was not more than an incident. It was way less important than the general disaster of our era, the unknown, that had set before us. And because we were young and bold, it seemed highly promising.
The beginning of futurism, just like the beginning of Dada, to use Tristan Tzar’s quote, were not the beginnings of an art, but of a disgust. A disgust with existing literature and bourgeois norms.
As Wat would put it years later, the Futurists’ oeuvre exuded:
‘pure joy that something so substantially crumbles, that there’s room for everything, that basically anything is allowed’.
Catching that zeitgeist, they wanted to destroy and then build again. In their manifesto Primitivists to The Nations of The World And to Poland, they claimed audaciously:
Civilisation, culture, with their diseases – into the junkpile!
In another piece, they pledged immediate futurisation of life:
We’re going to trundle wheelbarrows full of day-old mummies of Mickiewiczs and Słowackis from squares, plazas and streets. It’s time (...) to make space for those who are coming.
They encouraged the readership not to look back:
If you are truly a nation of the future, not a nation of bygones, come with us.
Artists to the streets!
So what did they pledge? What did the futurists offer instead? They went on to brutally disavow the past because they believed that Polish literature needed to recover from the trauma of partitions and standards of literature that had been imposed. While respecting the classics’ historical role, they reckoned that the new era set new challenges for art. The futurists rejected the figure of a sage poet, a genius looking down on society. They opposed what they called a ‘nag of metaphysics’ exhausted by romantics and symbolists to fascination with the city, its rhythm and modern technics. They sought inspiration in forms hitherto considered to be non-artistic, like publicity signs and accident chronicles in tabloids or pop culture. They meant to create easily accessible art for the masses.
(…) We underscore three essential moments of modern life: machine, democracy and crowd (…) The modern man has not got time to go to concerts or exhibitions. Three quarters of us hold no such possibility. That is why they need to be able to find art everywhere: flying poetryconcerts in trains, trams, diners, factories, cafés, on the squares, train stations (...).
‘We want a new Poland – not a new corner shop!’
In 1923, Tadeusz Peiper wrote in the avant-garde monthly Zwrotnica:
Futurism contains a tremendous power of revival. It holds the makings of total life alteration, of bringing into existence a new subway of morality and culture. This is precisely the role of the futuristic idea in Poland, regardless of what our futurists preach or will preach. (...) Thus, it would not be to my surprise if the idea of futurism governmentisation had long ago already emerged in our governmental circles. Italian futurism – as we have seen – is not afraid of nationalism, fascism, imperialism, while the Russian one – as we know – conjured up bolshevik poetry on the basis of Marinetti’s principles. So why would Polish futurism not be engaged. If that had been grasped earlier, perhaps it would have been Stern who penned the most touching ode for Piłsudski while Młodożeniec would have been Korfanty’s poet adjutant during the Upper-Silesian uprising.
Evidently, this was not possible. Futurism’s inherent anarchism and social contestation brought about a troublesome relationship with the country’s censorship. Instead of state dinners, there were frequent police raids during their poetry readings. It was the moderately modern Skamander group which took on the role of government mouthpiece. The futurists were excluded from the literary mainstream: the conventionalists ignored them while the conservative little bourgeoisie were outraged by their scandalous aesthetics.
Admittedly, they were given attention. However, it was not always because of their work, but rather due to the sensational halo surrounding them. They came to be a sort of celebrity of that time. As Marek Zaleski describes it:
Thanks to their artistic and moral provocation, a very pronounced element of ludicity and puckish use of mass culture clichés, their publications were also read as sensation, entertainment or better yet – pornography.
Such a formula was readily exhaustive. In 1924, Jasieński and Stern inked their introduction to Earth Leftwards, identifying as ‘former futurists’. Henceforth, they would continue their artistic production individually. Bruno Jasieński in an article entitled Futuryzm Polski (Bilans) (Polish Futurism (A Summary)) summed up those few heroic years:
There was a city of Polish consciousness and a handful of partisans striving to conquer it. They were like those people who gather at the city square to assess their forces, arm up and come up with a plan. And they called the square ‘Polish futurism’. Now they disperse, each one walking down a different street.
Originally written in Polish, February 2017; translated by MS, Jun 2018
Sources: Antologia polskiego futuryzmu i Nowej Sztuki, Warszawa 1978; Krzysztof Jaworski, Kronika polskiego futuryzmu, Kielce 2015