Culture.pl's Elżbieta Sawicka reviews the collection of photographs taken by Swedish photographer Georg Van Der Weyden. With bilingual commentary by foreign correspondent and author Kjell Albin Abrahamson, the album presents a colourful portrayal of the contemporary face of Poland...
Culture.pl's Elżbieta Sawicka reviews the collection of photographs taken by Swedish photographer Georg Van Der Weyden. With bilingual commentary by foreign correspondent and author Kjell Albin Abrahamson, the album presents a colourful portrayal of the contemporary face of Poland
The construction of Poland Through Foreign Eyes" / "Polska oczami obcokrajowca is through and resolute. Readers are presented with a few hundred full-colour phoographs, each illustrated with a concise commentary in English and Polish, along with a miniaturised map indicating the location for each specific entry.
The book is split up into 11 sections, from "Striking Scenery" through "Rich Culture" to "Fascinating People". Then there are those sections titled "Progressive Life" and "Delightful Recreation", which are slightly more ambiguous in their presentation of the subject matter.
The very selection itself shows the author's optimistic, if not outright enthusiastic, approach to Poland and its people at the outset. Who is he? In the publisher's note, we read:
Georg van der Weyden is a photographer of Swedish origin; his curiosity about other countries and cultures led him to live in a few different countries before coming to Poland. He first arrived pre-EU, and has spent the past couple of years travelling and learning about and understanding Poland. As he did so, he fell in love with Poland's beauty, history and people - as well as the country's numerous other intriguing dimensions.
As for his photography credentials, his background as a commercial photographer shaped the book's aesthetics - its juxtaposition of contrasting subjects in startling compositions, whereupon grey backgrounds are punched through with splashes of red, orange and green. In other words, the images portray "strong beliefs with strong images", according to the afore-mentioned note, which goes on to describe his approach as "dynamic, sensitive, humorous and unflinching - all at the same time".
Ultimately, it promises its readers - Poles in particular - to see the country "through a new lens, a new perspective, with a new passion".
While the photographs are solely the work of Georg van der Wyden, the text was provided by a number of contributors, mainly Kjell Albin Abrahamson, a foreign correspondent and writer who has spent much of his career in Central and Eastern Europe, writing on the progress of democracy in a number of nations, including Poland. His writing has afforded him a number of awards, including the Newsweek Polska Award in 2009. Readers should also be aware that Abrahamson has long served as a correspondent for Swedish Radio in Poland, an expert on Polish culture and history and the author of such books as "Polen - Diamond in the Ash", Czas, 2003.
In his introduction, titled "The Elusive Poland", Kjell Albin Abrahamson writes:
Poland was never a part of Eastern Europe in the sense that its language, alphabet, religion and culture always had deep roots in the West. After the end of the Cold War it was therefore the obvious next step for Poland, as a continental European country, to quickly and naturally become a member of NATO and the EU.
Music, literature and theatre - the country's rich culture from Frederic Chopin to Andrzej Wajda - are intimately linked to the Polish core, and perhaps cultural expressions even make up the centre of this core.
How does Georg van der Weyden portray Polish culture? He attempts to capture its diversity and complexity. And thus we have the Grand Theatre - National Opera House (where "musical and theatrical productions of the highest calibre have lured a sophisticated crowd"), Michael Nyman playing Chopin, the Malta Theatre Festival in Malta, highlander peoples in traditional costume, the "picturesque village of Zalipie, Kostrzyn nad Odrą's own version of "Woodstock", Wieliczka's Samba festival, grafitti on the wall of an abandoned factory in Gdańsk (with the tagline that in Poland one can find art in the most unexpected places) and a performance of Anna Karwowska's "Vagina Dentata" at the Koneser stage - a former vodka factory that has been transformed into a cultural centre. We have the depressing housing blocks of the suburbs and the fancy hotels of the metropolis. Finally, we have the chapel of skulls in Kudowa -Zdrój, acompanied by the following description:
The culture of death has many faces. Some 200 years after a priest and a gravedigger got the somewhat bizarre idea to collect and display thousands of skeletons - including, eventually, their own - it's all still there to be seen, accompanied by macabre stories presented by a nun.
Parenthetically speaking, chapels of this sort are not strictly a Polish feature. Similar sites can be found in Czech Republic (Kutna Hora) Austria (Hallstatt), Portugal (Evora and Faro) and Italy (the Capuchin Crypt in Rome). In all its admiration of Polish culture, the album's authors also demonstrate an incisive interest in politics - which comes as no surprise. In the section titled Shifting Leadership" Georg van der Weyden depicts Poland's "transformation into a modern open European state (...) which despite its challenges has led to more smiles and more hope in the air". The main players of the section include Lech Wałęsa and General Jaruzelski, Donald Tusk, Tadeusz Mazowiecki and the Archbishop Gocłowski ("The Church is not officially politically active, but with its strong position in society, politicians need to maintain friendly ties with the Church"). Splashed across the pages are campaign billboards from PiS and PO representatives, footage of PO's victory and "new" leftist street marches (it's hard to find anything more adorable than a little black dog taking part in a protest, his tongue a lighter shade of crimson than the banners flying waving in the wind).
Interspersed through the sections are pages dedicated to "Nostalgic Objects", offering up a smorgasbord of symbolic (at times simply stereotypical) objects that run the gamut of PRL-era artifacts like the Fiat 126 (aka the "maluch"), washing machines, coffee makers, cigarettes and a range of traditional delicacies - pierogies, oscypek, sausage and shots of vodka chased with a pickle. There's a stork too. The Polish reader may find him or herself reflecting "Ah, yes, indeed! And I'd never realised it before!" At least when taking a look at the photograph of a restaurant in Łańcut, accompanied by the tagline "concrete on the outside and wood panelling on the inside - typical trademarks of communist 'design'". The pseudo-rustic interiors of a concrete bunker - is that not precisely what PRL dining was all about?
There are a few eyebrow-raising comments in the book, such as a reference to the "apt" English anagram for Warszawa - "Saw-War". While most Poles don't come to consider their capital city through foreign anagrams, an alternative perspective always provides valuable insights and food for thought.
Author: Elżbieta Sawicka, December 2010.
Edited and translated by Agnieszka Le Nart, December 2010.
Georg van der Weyden
Poland Through Foreign Eyes" / "Polska oczami obcokrajowca
P 49 Production, Warsaw 2010
Dimensions: 240 x 240 mm