Poland's 11 Most Intriguing Outdoor Sculptures
small, pawel_althamer_raj.jpg, Raj (Paradise) by Paweł Althamer, 2009, photo: Jan Smaga / courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw
#photography & visual arts
Poland's commitment to erecting new monuments in public spaces makes it difficult to survive a month without any controversies surrounding yet another idea for a memorial. However, a sculpture doesn’t have to be a hot potato – here are 11 examples proving that the job, in fact, can be done perfectly.
Organs – Władysław Hasior
Organy (Organs), or in other words ‘a monument commemorating those who perished in the fight to consolidate the people's government in the region of Podhale’. The figures of these perished soldiers are in fact represented on the concrete base supporting the construction. Władysław Hasior sculpted a dead body under a shroud onto it. However, what towers over the relief-covered plate-tomb is a dramatically jagged and abstract form, the most significant part of this whole structure.
The monument should be interpreted quite literally, yet the work was not exactly created in the way in its creator had planned. Placed in 1966 in Snozka Pass in the Tatra Mountains, the monument's main part (namely, the abstract structure made of iron and bristled with pointed elements on both sides) was supposed to be supplemented with pipes. They were to make sounds caused by gusts of wind. Thanks to the fact that the monument is located in a mountain pass, the pipes would give out constant sounds.
The work is a manifestation of Hasior's fascination with the elements. Other than wind, he would also make use of water and fire – his beloved element. Originally, there was a place for fire in Organy – it was supposed to be in an elongated pit close to the plinth. Hasior's monument, which was meant to be woken up by the wind, is an echo of an idea by the modernist architect Oskar Sosnowski. His Harfy Gór (Mountains' Harp) was a Tatra monument that was never erected – in plans, it combined a modernist form with a romantic spirit.
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Orbits – Henryk Burzec
The 19th and 20th-century myth of the Zakopane bohemian still keeps on influencing the way in which this city is perceived, even though this Podhale city boasts many outstanding architectural examples and post-war modernist art. However, they are not praised much by the local authorities, as the numerous buildings, mosaics and sculptures by modern artists are deteriorating and, unfortunately, everyday use just speeds up this process.
Among the most interesting monuments that have survived in the mountain resort, there are works by Henryk Burzec, who was a sculptor educated in the famous Kenar school in Zakopane as well as in the Kraków Academy of Fine Arts under the watchful eye of Xawery Dunikowski. Some of them are located near the building of the old studio of the artist, whereas the especially effective concrete Orbity (Orbits) is placed right next to City Hall. This is why the work was known locally as ‘the Chief’s Ear’. The construction represents an abstract part of Burzec's creative output, in which the artist would hesitate between an organic Moore-like figurativism and abstract art.
Untitled – Jan Chwałczyk
Something that strongly influenced the public space of some Polish cities from the 1960s to 1980s was the development of open-air sessions and symposia devoted to sculpting. Such events compensated for the lack of modern art centres in those cities, but there was a time when they were considered to be the most thriving thought-labs. The symposia focussed on the so-called Recovered Territories, those western parts of today’s Poland that were controlled by Germany before World War II . These events allowed the government to tick a box saying that they had proven these lands to be Polish, while artists formally received complete freedom and the opportunity to benefit from the great blessings of the areas’ heavy industry – all of this so as to develop fraternity with the working class. One such event was The Biennale of Spatial Forms in Elbląg.
During its first edition in 1965, a representative of Wrocław’s avant-garde, Jan Chwałczyk, created a metal sculpture in the form of a windmill. Of course, it was a working one – just like Hasior's Organy, Chwałczyk's sculpture was supposed to be in harmony with the forces of nature. However, in this case, it was the visual aspect that was the most important. Because the artist painted the vanes in many colours, the work can have varied effects depending on different situations and conditions. It is one of the most interesting examples of the Polish kinaesthetic art, something Chwałczyk experimented with in his later years.
Melancholia – Maurycy Gomulicki
The most talked-about sculpture by Maurycy Gomulicki was Fryga in Szczecin. The work was widely mocked and used to inspire many memes up to the time when it cracked under the weight of its own embarrassment and was removed from public space. Still, it’s worth remembering those more fortunate constructions. It’s hard to disagree with the author's statement ‘Green space is my natural habitat’, especially while analysing such works as Melancholia. It takes the form of a polyhedron identical to the shape of Albrecht Dürer's woodcut that uses the same title. Melancholia is placed in the picturesque Strzelecki Park, a few steps from Strzelecki Palace which houses the BWA Tarnów art gallery. Gomulicki is an artist of vitality and pleasure understood in the most physical dimension possible.
During the 2012 Artloop Festival, the artist placed buoys in the shape of women's breasts on Sopot beach. When asked to elaborate on his installation, he replied straightforwardly that ‘boobs are cool’, while he also appreciated their ‘specific symbolic potential’. His Dürer- inspired polyhedron is opalescent and changes colour from pink to purple. Gomulicki's version is an abstract shape of melancholy that has an additional symbolic meaning – that of a mysterious fetish, almost an erotic toy.
Monument to a Peasant – Daniel Rycharski
In his Monument to a Peasant, Daniel Rycharski also refers to Dürer, but in a slightly different way than the previous artist. Rycharski, who is emotionally attached to his birthplace, the village of Kurówko, was inspired by Dürer's design for a monument commemorating the defeat of a 16th-century peasants' uprising led by Thomas Müntzer. Rycharski's monument is a realistic representation of Kurówko's mayor sitting in the pose of the Pensive Christ. Setting a classical iconographic background for such modern topics makes them more elevated, a technique that was already widely applied in the 19th century. At the same time, Rycharski refers to even more recent artistic trends.
His Monument to a Peasant can also be associated with relational aesthetics, because even though it is a monumental construction that towers over its admirers, it still has nothing in common with those bronze statues tightly bound with only one place. The mayor is accompanied by agricultural props like a pitchfork and a cow's chain. At the same time, he’s sitting on a manure spreader placed on a trailer. This mobile monument was first unveiled in Kurówko, before it travelled to many different places, like an icon of the Virgin Mary being carried through a series of villages. The monument is not only thought to reflect social relationships in the countryside, but it is also meant to have the performative power of animating them.
Auschwitzwieliczka – Mirosław Bałka
Monument to a Peasant – Daniel Rycharski
While visiting Kraków, it’s impossible not to see one of those little electric vehicles known as a melex that drive tourists around the city. The advertisements wrapped around these vehicles always show two drastically different trip destinations that are major attractions during the hectic summer period: the Wieliczka salt mine and the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp. This strange dichotomy was referred to by Mirosław Bałka during one edition of the ArtBoom Festival, which concerns itself with public space.
Auschwitzwieliczka is a concrete tunnel with the work's title – the name of both the camp and the mine – cut into its ceiling. The names are not put next to each other, but merged into one. The sunlight shining through these holes creates a light-inscription on one of the tunnel walls. This tight passage becomes a bright warning against the thoughtless process of turning history into a tourist funfair. Art critic Magdalena Ujma explains how this shape makes the warning even stronger: ‘A corridor – as a form – is a reference to a rite of passage. It is an allusion to the history and victims of Nazism.’
10m3 of Winter Kraków Air – Łukasz Skąpski
10m3 of Winter Kraków Air is one of the few examples of a Polish anti-monument, still quite a rare figurative form. This may be so because the idea of an anti-monument was created as an opposition to the tradition of bronze classical monuments. However, the difference lies not only in their form. Anti-monuments adopt a specific approach to history – not a pompous one, but one that’s subjective and filtered through physical experience.
In Ghetto Heroes Square near Skąpski's installation, there is a second, more famous Kraków anti-monument – the empty chairs designed by the Lewicki & Łatak agency. They commemorate the Kraków Jews in an extraordinary way – not by representing them, but by emphasising their absence.
In turn, 10m3 of Winter Kraków Air is just a plain white container filled with the eponymous substance. It’s a reference to the pressing problem of smog in the city, but it also has a historical background. It honours Julian Aleksandrowicz, alias Doktor Twardy, a Polish doctor who was one of the precursors of the country’s ecological trend. The sculpture was placed by the River Wisła, close to the historic border of the ghetto where Aleksandrowicz was imprisoned.
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Guma – Paweł Althamer
Rubber - Paweł Althamer
Paweł Althamer rarely works alone. His numerous works, including his outdoor sculptures, were created with the likes of the Nowolipie Group. The sculpture Guma (Rubber) was created together with children from the association of streetworkers known as Grupa Pedagogiki i Animacji Społecznej (the Pedagogy and Social Activity Group) based in Warsaw’s Praga-Północ district. It was their initiative to immortalise Guma – a drunkard whose name is unknown and who could almost always be found in the vicinity of a liquor store in Brzeska Street. His sculpture was placed in its most natural habitat. Althamer explained:
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The sculpture’s on a swaying spring, mimicking its original. It’s going to be placed in the spot where Guma stood on his soft legs for many years, talking with the passers-by.
In the beginning, the idea was controversial. According to some locals, it would contribute to damaging the already bad reputation of the district. However, over the course of time, the idea for the rubber Guma was accepted. This was probably not unconnected to the death of its model during work on the sculpture. So it became a de facto monument. In winter, someone even put a hat on its head in a display of tenderness.
Greetings from Jerusalem Avenue – Joanna Rajkowska
The famous fake palm tree created by Joanna Rajkowska was placed in the middle of Charles de Gaulle Roundabout in late 2002. The idea was born during the artist's travels to Israel. When the sculpture was installed, it provoked emotions just like Julita Wójcik's Rainbow did in Plac Zbawiciela (Saviour Square) sometime later. Rajkowska's work ended up attracting some devoted supporters and, all in all, became one of the most recognisable spots in the city.
Greetings from Jerusalem Avenue can be considered an anti-monument whose meaning is similar to that of Lewicki and Łatak's chairs in Kraków. The only difference is that it employs a different, less pompous image that attracts attention to the disappearance of the Jewish community from the city. There is a trace of it in the name of the avenue and now in the tree that was seemingly transplanted from an Israeli landscape.
Stall – Monika Sosnowska
Greetings from Jerusalem Avenue ‒ Joanna Rajkowska
The Renoma Department Store in Wrocław is an example of Wrocław’s early modernist architectural style. Designed by Berlin-based architect Hermann Dernburg, it connects glass strips of elevation with elegant glazed ceramics. In the 2000s, the building was restored and extended so that now it takes up twice as much space. An eye-catching bent facade was added, lightened up by the cornices.
A far less polished object is Monika Sosnowska's inconspicuous nearby sculpture. It’s no accident that it’s located in this place. This blue skeleton-like construction refers to the trade traditions of a different place, one from which trade was eradicated – Warsaw’s Stadion Dziesięciolecia (10th-Anniversary Stadium). A reconstruction of a stall from the so-called Jarmark Europa (Europa Fair), this tribute to the Polish political transformation and all its distortions, fills the narrative gap between the pre-war and modern splendour of Renoma.
Guardian Angel – Roman Stańczak
Another peculiar document of the Polish political transformation period were Roman Stańczak's sculptures – they were discarded wall units, wardrobes or bookcases, their French polish removed. Right in the middle of the 1990s, Stańczak disappeared from the world of art. He was going through a difficult period in his private life, descending into alcoholism.
Works by Roman Stańczak – Image Gallery
art in the public space
bródno sculpture park
contemporary polish sculpture
But he made a comeback in 2012, somewhat by chance, when he bumped into Paweł Althamer with whom he used to study in the so-called Kowalnia, namely Grzegorz Kowalski's studio at the Academy of Fine Arts. He started travelling with his school friend while he was preparing his artworks, for example, to New York.
At Althamer's invitation, Stańczak created a sculpture for Sculpture Park in Warsaw’s Bródno district, a project supervised by Althamer. Stańczak sculpted an angel and painted it gold. The spirituality that was always present in the interpretation of the artist's works had now taken a more literal form. However, this was above all a very personal work, a glimmer of hope in the artist's life. After all, the angel stands at the gates of a small Bródno version of the Garden of Eden..
Originally written in Polish, translated by AS, Apr 2018