The affair was brief, yet with grand intentions for world peace... The two big balloons of the post-war period took flight from Polish soil, travelled to Soviet Russia, sailed across the seas to the United States and came back today to raise an even deeper conversation on love, art and peace.
Picasso arrived in Warsaw in 1948. During his visit, he was taken on a tour of newly constructed Le Corbusier-style apartment complexes in the Koło district. Growing attempts to rebuild the city from its ashes touched Picasso’s heart and he gifted the city of Warsaw a large sketch of Syrenka, the mermaid. The drawing was painted over in 1953 by a couple who moved into the same apartment and couldn’t handle hundreds of strangers wanting to come in and stare at their wall. Picasso’s sketch was documented only in photographs and forgotten until 2006, when online shops recycled the story of Picasso’s Syrenka by putting it on souvenir mugs and T-shirts... But what brought Picasso to the city of the mermaid?
Even though Warsaw is over 200km away from the closest sea coast, the city adopted a mermaid as its symbol. Named after the mythological Greek Siren, the Polish “Syrenka”, however, is closer to the English description of a mermaid and numerous legends surround her mysterious pose with a sword and a shield.
The main legend used by most tour guides suggests that the beautiful mermaid stopped for a rest on the Vistula River near today’s Old Town. After hearing her charming singing, a rich merchant trapped and imprisoned her. Luckily, the gentle fishermen of the town came to her rescue, and ever since, Syrenka the mermaid has guarded the city of Warsaw and its residents. Sometimes this legend is stretched to claim that the iconic Little Mermaid in Copenhagen is actually Syrenka’s sister, who made her way farther from the Vistula into the depths of the Baltic Sea.
Another common legend assumes that King Kazimierz Odnowiciel or Casimir I the Restorer got lost while hunting in the marshlands back in the 1200s. Miraculously, a mermaid guided his way to the nearest fisherman’s hut by the Vistula, where a poor family lived with their twin daughters, Wars and Sawa. The family hosted the king overnight with all-inclusive Polish hospitality. In gratitude, the King ordered for a new town to be founded and named after the daughters, Wars and Sawa, also adopting the mermaid as its emblem.
The first presentation of today’s traditional mermaid-form dates back to the early 1600s. The current version of Warsaw’s mermaid seen each day on public buses, taxis, ticket machines and gates was introduced in 1938; after being used for about a year, it disappeared during World War II; it also lost its crown after 1945 to the Communist authorities, until it was restored again on 15th August, 1990.
From Powiśle to the Queen’s Regiment
There are numerous mermaids throughout the city of Warsaw: the most famous is the zinc-cast mermaid in the Old Town by Konstanty Hegel in 1855, but there are also mermaids on Karowa and Grochowka streets, as well as Królikarnia park, to name only a few.
A fairly large-scale mermaid sits right by the Świętokrzyski Bridge on the Vistula, in the Powiśle district, a summer favourite. Designed by Ludwika Kraskowska-Nitschowa in 1939 just before the outbreak of World War II, this particular mermaid is modelled after poet Krystyna Krahelska, who died during the Warsaw Uprising in 1944.
With a traveller’s curiosity, having arrived in Warsaw via foreign waters, the mermaid however did not merely remain within Polish borders. She is known in the UK as the Maid of Warsaw, and every member of the 7th Queen's Own Hussars light cavalry regiment wore the crest of the city of Warsaw on the left sleeve of his No. 2 Service Dress. This tradition honours the valorous support provided by the Polish Forces during the Italian Campaign in World War II.
Another very unique mermaid rests at the entrance to the Technical Museum, by the Palace of Culture and Science in Warsaw’s Centrum. Made of recycled electronic equipment and parts of appliances, this Syrenka perhaps could have been another favourite of Picasso’s, who was keen on collecting and recycling found objects for sculptural pieces inspired by African tribal arts.
Picasso’s Dove and Einstein’s Letter
Picasso was an active Communist Party member, but more importantly, his position as an artist and an intellectual figure knew no political boundaries when it came to supporting world peace and standing against all kinds of dictatorship.
Picasso’s visit to Poland – and his eventual love affair with Warsaw – was due to an invitation he received to attend “The World Congress of Intellectuals in Defence of Peace (Światowy Kongres Intelektualistów w Obronie Pokoju)”, organized by the Wrocław University of Technology from 25th to 28th August, 1948. It was clearly a conference of propaganda organized in the aftermath of World War II by the Polish and Soviet communists and targeted emerging American Imperialism. The congress could not have been hosted anywhere else than in Wrocław – the city was barely recovering from the Siege of Breslau in 1945 during which the Soviets reclaimed its Polish name from the Germans.
As the World Peace Committee was strongly influenced by the Soviet Peace Committee during the 1950s, it tried to build a better public image by engaging the peace loving peoples of the world. The congress in Wrocław was among the first attempts. Attended by about 600 individuals from 46 countries overall, it featured numerous notable individuals, of course, mainly supportive of leftist policies.
Alongside Pablo Picasso, the guests included notable intellectuals like Frederic Joliot-Curie, the French Nobel laureate in chemistry and also the husband of chemist Irène Joliot-Curie – daughter of the legendary Polish chemist and Nobel laureate Maria Salomea Skłodowska-Curie, writers like Aldous Huxley of Britain, Jorge Amado of Brazil and Bertolt Brecht of Germany, György Lukács, Paul Éluard, Eugénie Cotton, and Anna Seghers to name a few. Among the Polish representatives, world-famous names like composer Andrzej Panufnik and poet Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz appeared in the highlights.
Albert Einstein is also known to have sent a letter regarding his concerns about tyranny over nuclear energy; the letter was censored yet read for the first time in Wrocław. Together with a simultaneous showcase of artworks entitled the Exhibition of the Regained Territories, the conference in Wrocław aimed to convince the world that the new territorial adjustments under Soviet rule would be beneficial both to Europe and the cause of world peace.
Picasso's lithograph, La Colombe/ The Dove (1949, MoMA) was chosen as the emblem for the next Congress in 1949 in Prague; the dove became the official symbol of the WPC and is recognized today as the iconic bearer of world peace across nations.
After the congress in Wrocław, few people knew or remembered that Pablo Picasso also visited Warsaw – a trip and a love affair which resulted in the now iconic sketch of the legendary Syrenka. While the exact address of the apartment is unknown, records suggest it was on Deotymy street in the Koło district. There is, however, more documentation of Picasso’s visit, and that is the Picasso Plaque hanging on 28/30 Obrońców Street in the Saska Kępa district. Unveiled in 1989 and decorated with colourful glazes, the plaque commemorates Picasso’s visit to the building, which back then housed the seat of Warsaw Visual Artists' Association and a lithography workshop.
2014: Picasso Returns to Wrocław
In 1986, a committee decided to organize another congress, this time in Warsaw, the Congress of Intellectuals for the Peaceful Future of the World. As Communism crumbled into pieces and the Cold War era brought very many changes, the invited guests kindly replied back with a thank you and declined.
There came another occasion, however, to commemorate the matadorian spirit against dictatorship. Between 24 July and 16 November 2014, the Museum of Architecture in Wrocław hosted a magnificent exhibition entitled Tauromachia/ Bullfight, featuring key works by the three legends of Spanish art; Goya, Dali, and of course, Picasso.
The bull, which symbolizes courage and fertility, found its place next to the beautiful Varsovian mermaid and the white Spanish dove, reminding us one more time that art indeed remains a solid advocate for peace regardless of nationality or how shaky the political or social grounds may turn out to be.
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