Kazimierz Podsadecki's photomontage published in 1929 in the 27th issue of Na szerokim świecie weekly.
The theme of life in a metropolis and participation in a modern technical civilisation, with a slight futurological aspect, also appears in two other Podsadecki's compositions from the same year: Portret Mariana Czuchnowskiego and Rok mija, świat pędzi dalej (editor's translations: Portrait of Marian Czuchnowski; A Year Passes, the World Goes On). Those photomontages were considered examples of catastrophism, which was a popular trend in the culture of the 1920s and 1930s. The theme included not only the mentioned motifs of civilizational progress and the development of technology, but above all the subject of war, often depicted as an apocalyptic vision of the future. In popular fiction it was represented by, among others, Tadeusz Konczyński's Koniec świata / Ostatnia godzina (editor's translation: The End of the World / The Last Hour), published in 1921, while the issue of civilizational progress was addressed by Michał Rusinek in his book Bunt w krainie maszyn (editor's translation: The Revolt in the Land of the Machines) from 1928.
City – Mill of Life seems to represent this cultural trend, which was based on a deeply transformed vision of contemporary urban reality. This composition may be considered one of the numerous futurological and architectural fantasies created at that time. It is dominated by piled up solid figures of modern tower blocks, which form a compact mass, dynamized by the contrast of different spatial perspectives in which individual buildings were shown. This creates an impression that the architecture is dominating and unstable at the same time, overwheling its inhabitants. It is an image of a city's growth in the era of developed technical civilisation, materialising Tadeusz Peiper's manifesto: City, Mass, Machine. Is the city, however, presented here as a dangerous, hostile world – which not only overwhelms men with its scale, but also gets out of their control – to ultimately turn against its inhabitants? This work appears to contain only a few characteristic elements of urban dystopia, a vision of a hostile urban space, threatening those who live in it, the best example of which is Fritz Lang's Metropolis.
According to Stanisław Czekalski, Podsadecki's works do not address the problems of catastrophism, understood as a serious philosophical and existential reflection. The meaning of his photomontages is closely related to the fact that they were published in commercial, entertaining weeklies. Catastrophic or disturbing visions of the city functioned in popular culture of that time in a way similar to science fiction or crime stories. They were supposed to attract with their horrors, yet they were rather an affirmation than a criticism of the progress of urbanisation. Another important element of such performances was a strong fascination with American culture. The pace of civilizational development in the US was considered as something positive, rather than worth criticism.
City – Mill of Life depicts Chicago's and New York's skyscrapers, constituting a compact, dynamic structure. In the foreground human figures are visible. It is because of them that the modern metropolis gains its dangerous dimension, turning into a scenery of bloody crimes. We see a gang shooting, a victim falling on the ground, a policeman coming around the corner. Above the participants of those criminal stories there is a woman's face. She is deeply moved and surprised, with her eyes and lips wide open, and hands raised to her head. Podsadecki placed her in the center of the whole composition. She does not see the bloodletting on the streets of the city, her eyes are directed upwards, where, as in Lang's film, planes are circling between skyscrapers and athletes are performing acrobatics in the air. In Podsadecki's work there is a stark contrast between the top storeys of the skyscrapers and the bottom – the criminal underworld.
The author's intention was to emphasise social inequalities dividing inhabitants of a modern metropolis rather than to show the threat of the very structure of the city. However, there is no deep reflection on crime as a social problem. Podsadecki only reveals an ambiguous face of the metropolis, which brings both hope for a better future and fear of the disastrous consequences of living in a big city. The work suggests deep fascination with criminal topics, which were then becoming very popular thanks to American gangster novels. Rather than encouraging the reader to a deep moral reflection, they were supposed to attract their attention. Therefore, the elements of horror were balanced by optimistic visions of the future. In his work, Kazimierz Podsadecki reveals the ambivalent character of the city. In his vision utopia and dystopia complement each other. The image of a modern, vibrant metropolis is close to Walter Ruttman's vision from Symphony of a Great City.
Kazimierz Podsadecki's works were significantly influenced by his co-operation with the Ilustrowany Kurier Codzienny company. The photomontages published in Na szerokim świecie and Światowid weeklies took various forms, close to constructivist solutions, where graphical elements were made from glued-on coloured paper, as well as to surrealist irony. Podsadecki willingly included references to well-known photographs and films of his time, which was quite an exception when compared to other avant-garde artists, reluctant to use such quotes. It seems that his ability to pick fixed visual patterns and combine different poetics provided his works with visual attractiveness and suggestive message.
Kazimierz Podsadecki, City – Mill of Life, photomontage, 1929, Museum of Art in Łódź.
Originally written in Polish by Magdalena Wróblewska, Nov 2009, translated by Marcin Gozdanek, Aug. 2018.