Beneath the Surface: The Occult Inspirations of Poland’s Legendary Naive Artist Coal Miners
#photography & visual arts
default, Beneath the Surface:
The Occult Inspirations of
Naive Artist Coal Miners, Erwin Sówka, 'Raj' (Paradise), 1975, oil, 50x60 cm, photo: Muzeum Śląskie w Katowicach, center, raj-1975_erwin_sowka_50x60cm_farba_olejna_muzeum_slaskie.jpg
At a time when art was expected to serve the cause of promoting the communist ideology, a group of miners managed to receive extensive official support not only as amateur painters, but as artists using their works to promote their occult and unorthodox spiritual beliefs. Culture.pl presents the fascinating story of Grupa Janowska.
Ask most people how they imagine everyday life during the communist era in Poland and their answers will often, unsurprisingly, reference factories, industrialisation and labour. What many people do not realise, however, is that art was perhaps just as important for communist authorities, and not only for its propaganda value.
In an ideal communist society, people would no longer be forced to work in the dehumanising conditions of capitalist factories, but would supposedly instead feel empowered in their labour, contributing to the common goals of society, and freeing up creative capacities previously repressed by the alienating nature of the capitalist system.
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Simply put, if communism worked out, people’s lifes would be comfortable and worry-free enough to allow them to spontaneously pursue things they always wanted to do: paint, write poetry or make music. As a result, different communist regimes outdid themselves in trying to convince the working masses to join local artistic groups and create masterpieces that were supposedly evidence of how great a society dominated by political decisions could be.
As Seweryn Wisłocki, an expert on so-called ‘naive art’, put it:
The authorities organised a series of courses during which professional artists taught how to paint. The ‘graduates’ of such classes were later employed by workplaces in special visual propaganda teams. Additionally, local community centres created groups of amateur painters. The themes were imposed upon the artists. They received canvases, paints and paintbrushes and were instructed to depict the ‘construction of socialism’ (…). They were not allowed to paint chapels, roadside crosses and churches. Any religious themes meant relegation, a reduction in salary, and political repressions.
The meaning, both literal and symbolic, of such amateur art, was often quite trivial. The paintings usually depicted a struggle between Good and Evil in which revolutionaries, party activists and hard-working ordinary people bravely fought against the reactionary and deceitful forces of capitalists and Western imperialists. Or at least that is what they were supposed to represent according to the authorities. As the example of Grupa Janowska shows, the reality was a lot more complicated.
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At first glance, Grupa Janowska was an embodiment of the communist dream. This group of miners employed in the Wieczorek mine in the town of Janów (today part of the city of Katowice) spent their free time in the mine’s community centre, creating paintings guided by professional artists. Although they never exhibited as a group, many of them, including Teofil Ociepka, Erwin Sówka, Ewald Gawlik, Paweł Wróbel, Leopold Wróbel, Paweł Stolorz and others, received individual recognition both in Poland and abroad. Consisting of numerous masters of naive art, Grupa Janowska was eagerly promoted by communist authorities as the perfect example of workers whom the new system allowed to thrive as artists.
Except, in reality, this group never cared too deeply about socialist ideals and did not subscribe to the official materialist ideology. The best word to describe the character and the influences of Grupa Janowska’s unique art is ‘occult’.
Turning coal into gold
Many readers’ first association with occultism might be the alarmist reports of 1990s media, warning about the danger of heavy metal music, but actual occultists believe that the key to understanding the universe lies beneath the surface of things and that true knowledge can only be grasped by extrasensory experience. Occultism, especially the kind practiced in Janów, deals less with Satanic rituals and more with careful contemplation of the Bible and reading mediaeval alchemical treaties in order to better commune with the spiritual dimension of life.
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The highly industrialised region of Silesia, full of coal mines and ironworks, does not seem like the best place to study astrology, meditate and uncover secrets hidden in old books. Perhaps this is why many critics ignored the occult elements of the paintings created in Janów, but in truth, Silesia is just as good a background for alchemy as run-down mediaeval castles.
The difficult history of this region, beautifully presented in movies directed by Kazimierz Kutz, fostered and helped preserve an elaborate folk culture that blends elements of Christianity and pagan influences. Before the Silesian uprisings of 1919-1921, the coal-rich region belonged to Germany and the native Silesians, serving as a cheap labour force, were not given many opportunities for social advancement. Contrary to the mines’ German owners, the Silesians were mostly poor and uneducated, and even though Poland introduced state schools on its newly acquired lands, the situation of Silesians did not change quickly enough and was further complicated by the outbreak of World War II.
Many miners, including the painters belonging to Grupa Janowska, only finished at most several years of elementary education. This was perhaps one of the reasons why people living in Silesia did not turn to scientific explanations when trying to understand the world, but preferred popular beliefs, magical thinking and the folk legends circulating in the region. The dangerous life of miners was full of surprising and mysterious phenomena, which were most easily described as machinations of mysterious creatures living underground and manifestations of incomprehensible, unnatural forces. Silesian miners would say they were killed by evil demons, not methane or cave-ins, and they were saved from danger by St. Barbara, their patron saint, or by Skarbnik, a benevolent spirit protecting underground treasures.
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The elaborate mythology of Silesia made the region a fertile ground for occult ideas. A leading promoter of them was Teofil Ociepka, who was first exposed to spiritual truths while serving in the Prussian army during World War I. When he returned home, he managed to get in touch with Philip Hohmann, an occultist living in Wittenberg, who mailed him arcane books and spiritual guidance in exchange for monthly payments. Following Hohmann’s advice, Ociepka started an occultist community in Janów and advertised his services as a spiritual teacher in national journals. Although he did not garner much interest outside of Silesia, Ociepka managed to convince many of his neighbours and co-workers (he was an electrician in the Kaiser mine, which was later renamed to Wieczorek) that there was something true in Hohmann’s teachings. He set up an occult library and convinced his closest followers to join the Rosicrucian lodge of which he was a member.
Ociepka and other members of the occultist community in Janów were avid alchemists, but their understanding of alchemy was far removed from the popular ideas of the discipline. Their main goal was the creation of the philosopher’s stone, but although some of them were interested in the material aspects of arcane arts and tried to turn lead into gold (harming themselves in spectacular failures), ‘real’ alchemy was a spiritual pursuit. Hohmann’s teachings promised them that through careful contemplation of the Bible and moral perfection, they would create the stone within themselves by the time they turned 60, allowing them to live forever in perfect health. This exciting prospect convinced Ociepka and his followers to look for new ways of communing with higher powers and, apparently, painting was among the best.
God speaks in mysterious ways
In the middle of the 1920s, Hohmann informed Ociepka that he would soon be visited by a spirit that would inspire him to paint. For some time nothing happened, but in 1927, as Ociepka contemplated writing back to his master to complain that no spirit was to be seen, he felt an urge to paint and created his first artwork. As it turned out, more than divine inspiration is needed to create masterpieces and after criticism from Tadeusz Dobrowolski, an art historian from Kraków, Ociepka decided in 1930 to give up painting. He resumed his attempts during World War II and in 1949 he turned to the Wieczorek mine’s recently established community centre, which was headed by cultural activist and local organiser Otton Klimczok.
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The community centre opened itself to amateur painters in 1946 and recruited talented but untrained artists among the miners. This was not that difficult thanks to Ociepka, who tried to convince everybody in his surroundings that painting was a mission from God which allowed artists to understand the struggle between good and evil forces in the universe and achieve moral perfection. Ociepka’s paintings are a direct extension of his thought, with specific objects and colours always representing concrete meanings. As a result, Ociepka used colour and pattern combinations that are not seen anywhere else. He wanted to convey his message, rather than create appealing pictures.
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Erwin Sówka, 'Medytacje' (Meditations), 1986, photo: Muzeum Śląskie w Katowicach
Bolesław Skulik, one of Ociepka’s most active followers (Skulik later became Ociepka’s sworn enemy and denounced him as a fraud), also contributed greatly to the development of the group. His forays into parapsychology convinced him that portrait painting could serve as a means of studying the physical, astral and spiritual bodies of the models who sat for him. He influenced many members of the group to take up portraiture – which further contributed to the uniqueness of Grupa Janowska, since naive painters from other parts of the world rarely paint portraits – and served as a spiritual teacher for many of the group’s members, most notably Erwin Sówka.
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The first years of the group’s activity were not easy. Despite spiritual longings, they had to at least pretend to believe in the official materialist ideology and, as they put it, every one of them was required to paint their fair share of ‘Stalins and Lenins’. Paintings that did not conform to the party line faced severe criticism during exhibitions, and the artists often destroyed them in anger. They also did so following criticism from other members of the group, who jumped at every opportunity to ridicule the work of their friends during meetings, which were often just an excuse for drinking. Members of the group only increased their occult and spiritual explorations during and after the war – some of them established intensive contacts with the Rosicrucian headquarters in California, while Ociepka was widely, but most likely falsely, believed to be in touch with Rabindranath Tagore and Mahatma Gandhi – so not much of their art was actually up to official standards. It is likely that the group would have faced serious political repressions, if not for the unlikeliest of patrons: Captain Izabela Czajka-Stachowicz of the secret police.
Protected by a higher power
Czajka, as she was commonly called, was not always a secret police officer. She gained some prominence in pre-war artistic circles as a muse to many artists and maintained her interest in the arts even after the war. After she saw Ociepka’s paintings, she decided to protect Grupa Janowska from repressions and even promoted them outside of Silesia. She even convinced the renowned poet Julian Tuwim to buy some of Ociepka’s paintings, and the jungle motifs present in the painter’s work are believed to have been suggested by her. According to the wife of Paweł Wróbel, Elżbieta, Czajka was at first more impressed by Wróbel than Ociepka, but Elżbieta mistook artistic admiration for romantic interest and told her to go to the unmarried Ociepka.
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Regardless of her motivations, Czajka’s patronage was fundamental to the success of Grupa Janowska. It allowed the painters to survive the difficult Stalinist times, turned Ociepka into an artistic celebrity often compared with Douanier Rousseau, and made it easier for the painters to thrive in the 15 years following the political thaw. But even though the death of Stalin in 1953 gave artists more artistic freedom (the socialist realist style became more of a recommendation than a requirement, and the painters received lessons from a talented student from Kraków called Zygmunt Lis), life was not always easy for the occultists from Janów.
The painters were certainly no strangers with hardship. The general poverty and their lack of education limited their life chances, and the war only mounted up difficulties. Most notably, Paweł Wróbel, sometimes called the Polish Hieronim Bosch thanks to his unique style, was sent to Siberia and survived only because he painted Western scenes for entertainment-starved guards. Ewald Gawlik was stopped by the war from pursuing academic studies in painting twice (once in Kraków when he was sent to Germany as a physical labourer, and once in Dresden when he was forced to join the Wehrmacht) only to find himself banned from fulfilling his dreams back in Poland for being ‘politically suspect’.
In fact, the group endured so many misfortunes, that they even developed a curious superstition: they believed that there could be only twelve of them, because as soon as a thirteenth painter joined the group, one of them always quit after a series of conflicts or died. The most notable of the painters to leave the group was Ociepka, who got tired of fighting with Skulik over their differing interpretations of occultism and decided to move to Bydgoszcz in 1959 (Skulik later started many other conflicts, which led to scholars calling him the group’s ‘dissident’). But the most tragic story, and the one that influenced the group’s fate, was that of Otton Klimczok.
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As mentioned above, Klimczok was the man who put Grupa Janowska together and he later became one of its painters. His early successes at animating the cultural life of the mining town of Janów were not met with much interest, but as the Wieczorek mine community centre grew from a single room to an entire building, many opportunistic activists became jealous of Klimczok’s position. They argued that he was not educated and not engaged politically enough to head such an important institution, now world-famous thanks to the painters’ solo exhibitions. They slandered him both in private and in the press and ultimately removed him from his position. Klimczok took his life on New Year’s Eve 1971, a day before his birthday.
This suicide was a shock to the group’s artists and their tutor, Zygmunt Lis, even resigned after 15 years of work. Even though Grupa Janowska officially continued its meetings and was given institutional support, critics agree that it never regained the artistic level it had in the years 1956 to 1971. A Grupa Janowska still exists today, but its name is the last remaining trace of its past greatness. Erwin Sówka is the last living member of the core group, but he himself officially left it in the 1980s.
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But the creativity and passion the painters exhibited in the group’s golden age make Grupa Janowska a phenomenon unlike any other in the world. The extremely unlikely circumstance of so many talented amateur artists working in the same mine coupled with occult and folk inspirations gave the group an almost legendary status. Especially since so many stories surrounding Grupa Janowska appear fantastical in nature.
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For example, Sówka, whose paintings usually present inspirations from the Bible, mythology and Eastern philosophy (usually in the form of naked women whom Sówka believes to be gifted by and linked with God) against the backdrop of Nikiszowiec, a famed highly industrialised district of Katowice, is believed to be a strong medium, capable of influencing others’ choices using telepathy. There are reports of people spontaneously praying in front of his works and some of his paintings are said to often disappear after exhibitions only to be found when all hope of locating them is lost. Such anecdotes contribute to Sówka’s esoteric reputation and attract more and more admirers of his work – people organise group trips to Nikiszowiec from all over Europe for a chance to purchase the retired miner’s newest paintings.
Leopold Wróbel gained much prominence, especially abroad, as a victim of an elaborate art theft racket. His paintings were purchased for modest prices through official channels, but were later stolen by art vendors and sold for hundreds of dollars in Vienna, netting the thieves a couple hundred times more money than they paid Wróbel. When the painter learned about it from the police, he was not angry or devastated: he felt fulfilled as an artist, because his amateur work was valuable enough to be stolen.
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But even though Leopold attracted the attention of criminals, it was his cousin Paweł Wróbel who gained more prominence in Poland. Despite unfavourable reviews from critics and professional artists (one of them told Wróbel that he would need to eat a lot of paint until he became a good painter, which the miner promptly started to do after a drinking session with Ewald Gawlik, only to be saved by his wife), his unique style brought him to the attention of people making important decisions. The Minister of Culture, Włodzimierz Sokorski, was so impressed by Wróbel’s paintings that he even proposed he take up studies at Kraków’s Academy of Fine Arts. Even though the minister promised that Wróbel’s lack of education could be fixed, the painter refused, saying that he would rather paint like a worker. But in truth, he was ashamed to admit that he had only finished three years of elementary school and not seven as the minister had read in a biography touched up by Silesian political activists.
Gawlik was also given a chance to become a professional painter by joining the official painter’s union, but he refused, fearing that his local community (which was the main theme of his paintings) would reject him. He decided to continue his career as an amateur, but even that was not easy. He was routinely banned from taking part in painting contests, because his work was judged as too good for an amateur.
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There are more surprising anecdotes about the group, but in the end, the most striking testimony to Grupa Janowska’s greatness are their fascinating esoteric paintings and the otherworldly characteristic they often feature. In a way, they truly are something out of this world – officially, there was no room for spirituality, occultism and the fantastical in the socialist-materialist reality of post-war Poland. But at the same time, this reality, hostile to any deviations from the approved standards, was the perfect place for Janów’s ideological misfits to thrive. Starved for any manifestations of great unprofessional and worker-created art, communist authorities were willing to take and promote whatever they had. Luckily for us, what they had was extraordinary.
Written by Michał Wieczorek, July 2019
Sources: 'Myth, Magic, Manipulation and Orbis Interior: Silesian Non-Elite Art' by Seweryn Wisłocki, 2004; 'Janowscy Kapłani Wiedzy Tajemnej: Okultyści, Wizjonerzy i Mistrzowie Małej Ojczyzny' (Janów Priests of Arcane Arts: Occultists, Visionaries and Masters of the Little Motherland) by Seweryn Wisłocki