Poland's Cultural Scene: A Snapshot from 1918
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A horror movie about a mummy featuring Pola Negri, or a poetry reading alongside a cup of coffee at Pod Picadorem? The year Poland regained its independence is usually seen through political and military history. For a change, Culture.pl presents a review of cultural events from 1918.
Dictatorship of the poetariat
It was an undoubtedly good year for the poets of the Skamander: a Polish group of experimental poets founded in 1918 by Julian Tuwim, Antoni Słonimski, Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz, Kazimierz Wierzyński and Jan Lechoń. Three published their debut poetry books: Tuwim’s Lurking for God, Słonimski’s Sonnets, and Iwaszkiewicz’s Oktostychy (editor’s translation: Octets).
Everything began with one of the biggest scandals of interwar literature. ’The degenerated Mr. Tuwim disturbs young souls like the most searing of poisons’, wrote journalists in 1918 following the publication of Spring in Pro Arte et Studio – a magazine by Warsaw University students. Here is a fragment of the poem that sparked outrage among the critics:
And further! Further! Further!
To the dark greenery, to the alleys,
On a bench, you rascals, on the grass,
Create little brats for Poland,
Writhe, you rascals, writhe,
Drink in corner bars
Translation taken from Antony Polonsky’s ‘Julian Tuwim, the Polish Heine’ at the American Association for Polish-Jewish Studies
The young poet was scolded for promoting pornography and bolshevism (which at the time was a very popular put-down used by unfavourable critics). The fame of the Skamander poets also rose thanks to the Warsaw cafe Pod Picadorem (often translated as The Picador), which was opened on 29th November 1918.
With the consent of the military authorities (at the time, there were still no other authorities to even ask), the place was opened and advertised as ‘The Great Headquarters of the Main Army for Poland’s Deliverance from the Whole of Contemporary Domestic Literature’. It is there that Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz and Kazimierz Wierzyński made their first public appearances, with the guests of the café including the writers Stefan Żeromski and Leopold Staff and the activist Andrzej Strug. Antoni Słonimski described the first days of the literary cafe’s operation as follows:
Tadeusz Raabe, a friend of mine, told us about similar ‘poets’ cafes’ that were very popular in Moscow. Following the example of all the Burluks and Majakovskis, we decided to open such a place in Warsaw. So the idea originated in Russia. (…) We did not have any place to publish our poems and we could not afford it anyway. All this was happening in turbulent times which made even the most tranquil people riot in the streets. So Pod Picadorem served as a public speaker’s corner. It did not offer any intimacy or any separation from a throng of philistines. (…) For an inexpensive fee of five markas [editor’s note: Poland’s currency from 1917 to 1924], anybody could be the guest of Pod Picadorem. No vodka or meat was served inside – it was a little cafe where sober poets read their poems aloud to a walk-in audience.
Contrary to what Słonimski believed, 5 markas was quite a sum for many people in the post-war Warsaw reality. This was later remembered by Leon Kruczkowski, who complained in a poem that as a young off-duty soldier he was standing all evening in cold weather outside Pod Picadorem, listening to poems:
Oh, the misery of five markas, oh, that evening left me sore:
How cruel you have been, the ‘poets of The Picador!
Apart from an entrance fee, any direct interaction with the poets had a price of its own: an ordinary conversation with the right to shake hands was 50 markas; explaining a poem was 75 markas; and writing a dedication including the word ‘beloved’ was as much as 600 markas… And discussing how things should rhyme was forbidden.
A foretaste of futurism was brought to Warsaw by two fresh high school graduates – Aleksander Wat and Anatol Stern, who published a leaflet-manifesto titled Tak (Yes) which initiated the futurist movement in Poland.
The Skamander poets enjoyed a friendly relationship with the futurists. Following the short three-month existence of Pod Picadorem in Nowy Świat Street, its founders joined forces with the futurists’ club Czarna Latarnia (Black Streetlamp) and they ran the place together in the basement of the European Hotel.
During the same year, a book of poems was also published by a mentor of the Skamander group – Leopold Staff. It stood out among his books, as it was the only time that he commented on current affairs in his poetry. In this collection of poems, entitled Tęcza z Łez i Krwi (A Rainbow of Tears and Blood), he reflected on the experiences of the revolution of 1905 and WWI.
Expressionism is trendy
At the dawn of independence, artistic circles were debating the need to create a national style. It was to combine elements of traditional folklore, without being anarchic or differing from modernist trends. This successful combination of tradition with modernity was famously achieved by Zofia Stryjeńska in a cycle of lithographs entitled Slavic Idols. They presented a pantheon of fifteen idols, partially based on the few existing accounts of pre-Christian mythologies, but most of all, however, on her own imagination. That same year, she arranged biblical scenes in the surroundings of a pastoral Polish village in a cycle called Pascha (Passover), where fair-haired apostles preach in hats made of peacock feathers.
Expressionism was the most fashionable trend of the avant-garde. There were three artistic groups who collaborated with one another and gained the most prominence. They were Bunt (Revolt) from Poznań, Jung Yiddish from Łódź, and Polish Expressionists from Kraków (in 1919, they would change their name to Formists), each originating from a different partition of Poland.
The Poznań-based Bunt was formed by artists belonging to the group making Zdrój (Spring), a bi-weekly magazine dedicated to arts and culture. The name signified the group’s objection against tradition and the state of culture at that time. Bunt’s members were very much socially and politically engaged, and they collaborated closely with left-wing Berlin magazines Die Aktion and Der Sturm. One of their postulates was: ‘Away with the slogan: art for art’s sake‘ .
On 1st April 1918, an exhibition of works by Bunt members was held at the Poznań Society of Fine Arts. Visitors could admire the works of Adam Bederski, Jerzy Hulewicz, Małgorzata and Stanisław Kubicki, August Zamoyski and others. But due to a scandal (the artists were accused of public indecency), the exhibition had to be moved to Berlin and Düsseldorf.
A lot was happening in Łódź as well. The city’s Association of Artists and Promoters of Fine Arts organised two big exhibitions at the House of Arts on Piotrkowska Street, one in spring and one in winter, featuring avant-garde artists from the Jung Yiddish group. Their style was a result of expressionist novelties combined with their fascination for Marc Chagall. Among the exhibited works one could see pieces by Jankiel Adler, Mojżesz Broderson, Marek Szwarc and Wincenty Brauner.
The Kraków expressionists, who called for breaking away from realism in art, were not idle either. They organised two exhibitions: in their home town and in Lviv. The group was comprised of, among others, Tytus Czyżewski, Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz, Leon Chwistek and Henryk Gotlib.
On posters & on screens
If a contest for the most popular film star had been announced at that time, it would have most probably been won by Pola Negri. During this breakthrough period, she became a star of a European calibre. In 1918, she played the starring roles in two German films by Ernst Lubitsch: The Eyes of the Mummy and Carmen. Of all her films, these two roles are praised the most by the critics.
A Polish newspaper proudly proclaimed:
Pola Negri overshadows every German film star, leaving all the infuriated hakatists green with envy. [hakatists were German nationalists]
Despite the war, there were many films produced in Warsaw during that time thanks to Aleksander Hertz and his Sfinks Film Studio. Thirteen films were produced there in the period 1917-1918, and they were more ambitious and more diversified in genre than what came before them. A popular series called Tajemnice Warszawy (Mysteries of Warsaw) was part of the studio’s success – Arabella, Pokój Nr 13 (Room No. 13), Tajemnica Alej Ujazdowskich (The Mystery of Ujazdowskie Avenue). Apart from historical and political films like Carat i Jego Sługi (The Tsardom and its Servants) and Carska Faworyta (The Tsar’s Favourite), the studio produced melodramas like Melodie duszy (Melodies of the Soul) and Sezonowa Miłość (Seasonal Love). It also made comedies like Rozporek i S-ka (Zipper & Co). The latter, which was Konrad Tom’s debut as a director, was a farce dealing with the life of Warsaw black marketeers. Tom played one of the main roles in the film, together with Mary Mrozińska, Józef Redo and Marceli Trapsz.
And what was happening in the theatres? The Juliusz Słowacki Miejski Theatre in Kraków held a thunderous celebration of its 25th anniversary. During just a single weekend at the end of October, it staged Wyspiański’s Wyzwolenie (Liberation), Fredro’s Zemsta (Revenge), Słowacki’s Balladyna and Mickiewicz’s Konfederaci Barscy (Bar Confederates) among others. In addition to that, there were concerts with the music of Chopin, Moniuszko and Liszt, as well as readings of Adam Asnyk’s poetry.
The theatre even attracted some competition – construction of the Bagatela Theatre began that year. The name was reportedly coined by Tadeusz Boy-Żeleński, who, when asked what the newly-built institution should be called, said: ‘What’s the best name for a theatre? That’s a trifle!’ (In Polish, bagatela stands for ‘trifle’).
In Warsaw, Juliusz Osterwa began working with the Polski Theatre. He directed Calderon’s The Constant Prince (he based the adaptation on Juliusz Słowacki’s free translation) and played the main part of Don Fernando himself. A critic called Jan Lorentowicz stated after the premiere that it was ‘another attempt to create in Warsaw a more lively and more serious atmosphere in the theatre’. The play also marked the beginning of Arnold Szyfman’s second tenure as the head of Polski Theatre.
Theatre historian Józef Szczublewski writes:
The Constant Prince that Osterwa brings us is a prisoner, who full of dedication defends a Christian city from being taken over by Muslims. While doing so, he exhibits the most noble traits of the human spirit: a willingness to make sacrifices, dedication, love, steadfastness.
On stages big & small – debuts & comebacks
Another big event was the comeback of Warsaw Operetta’s prima donna Lucyna Messal. The singer had spent the war in Russia and her first concert after the hiatus took place three days after 11th November. The Warsaw audience greeted her with thunderous applause and welcomed her with great excitement.
polish art of the interwar period
polish artists of the interwar period
The national euphoria and patriotic sentiments influenced the repertoires of all sorts of cabarets and smaller theatres. On 12th November, the Mirage Theatre staged a revue entitled Vivat Wolność! (Hurrah, Freedom!). Its final song, written by Andrzej Włast, was a thank you to the countries of the Triple Entente.
Their great acts led us to the freedom’s way,
Just as they’re free, then so are we today.
It was such a great hit that it became one of the only vinyl records published that year by the first Polish record label – Syrena Rekord. The album greatly bolstered patriotic sentiments as it’s B-side contained the famous patriotic song The Oath by Maria Konopnicka. Both songs were sung by Marek Windheim, who 10 years later became the tenor voice of the Metropolitan Opera in New York. But other than that, it ended up a miserable year for the Polish record-making business. Syrena Rekord ran into deep financial troubles during the war and published only a couple of reissues of pre-war recordings.
Many people who would soon go on to become popular music superstars made their debut that year in Warsaw. Jerzy Petersburski, Ludwik Sempoliński and Tadeusz Olsza all started performing back then. But these beginnings were not always easy. On 17th September, Sfinks staged its first revue W Naszej Kochanej Warszawie (In Our Beloved Warsaw). It was then when Hanka Ordonówna, 18 years old at the time, first appeared on stage as a singer. One of her colleagues wrote:
[…] She debuted […] in a song Szkoda Słów (Not Worth Mentioning) […]. The debut turned out to be quite unsuccessful. One could actually simply say ‘not worth mentioning’. […] A well-known and admired critic, whose opinions were treated at the time like infallible truths, wrote: ‘As for Ms Ordonówna, I believe that neither the cats nor children should be shown onstage.’ It was, as we can guess, a hint towards the childlike look and still very squeaky voice of ‘Ordonka'.