The album, released on the 75th anniversary of the Kraków Photographic Society (KTF), brings together pictures by photographers from all over Poland. Its simple graphic design and handy paperback format makes this specific catalogue of female nude photography suitable for frequent and comfortable browsing. Wenus Polska is an interesting example of an inexpensive photobook created for popular and convenient use with a mass audience in mind. This makes it stand out positively among the many artistic or landscape photography albums of the time.
Institutionally, the book was the aftermath of two famous exhibitions: Wenus '70 and Wenus '71. The two shows, organised by the KTF in the salon formula, turned out to be somewhat ground-breaking for the cultural life of socialist Poland, and ended up reaching the level of a sociological phenomenon. The Wenus shows, which took place annually from the early 1970s up until the fall of the Polish People's Republic, were extremely popular and surrounded by an aura of scandal. Wenus Polska is the first in a series of accompanying publications, noteworthy among which was another album edited by Anna Gogut, Akt (Nude, 1984), published in the impressive and record-breaking – for a photobook – number of 72,000 copies. The popularity of these publications, which in fact were very similar in terms of content, could be easily explained, not just by their theme, but, more generally, by the absence of pornography or even mild erotica on the publishing scene at the time. Their only substitute was home-reproduced photographs from contraband Western porn magazines, usually distributed privately or at markets. The political shift and the end of censorship combined with a moral liberalisation terminated this phenomenon, which was typical for the Polish People's Republic and remains unexamined.
Wenus Polska contains works by many recognised and distinguished photographers, published next to images by unknown enthusiasts of female nude photography. Some of them approached the theme as a form of artistic challenge (e.g. Paweł Pierściński, Tadeusz Link, Lucjan Demidowski, Jacek Kulm, and Wiktor Wołkow). One can also find future masters of the genre, still at the beginning of their career, such as Władysław Pawelec. It is interesting to note that out of 103 authors, only four were women.
All of the black and white photographs included in the album comply with the strictly academic convention of artistic nudes, and many of them still draw on the poetics developed in 1920s and 1930s. A contemporary viewer could be surprised by the repetitive and prudish approach to the subject, which in most cases comes down to photographing close-ups of buttocks, breasts, and hair, while avoiding depictions of the female genital areas or faces of the models. There is hardly any eye contact between the photographer (and the viewer) and the portrayed person. According to the modernist canon, the body is completely objectified here, treated as a plastic and submissive matter. The photographers try to play with light and shadow, shapes, curves, and skin texture. An image of a body becomes a pretext for formal as well as technical experiments (the bulk of the photographs were produced in black and white bromide technique, however there are also occasional experiments with noble techniques or isohelia).
Following the title of the exhibition and book, the ancient stereotype of beauty of the female body, along with specified breast and hips proportions and long hair, is dominant here. When combined with the conventional framing of the topic, this results in all models looking alike – or in fact, like Venus. One ought to admit, however, that such a lopsided representation of the female attributes paradoxically makes the Polish Venuses little different from the porn models from the then scarce adult magazines. Nonetheless, Wenus Polska strives to refrain from more provocative images and to conceal the erotic subtext of the photographs. On the other hand, the book breaks with the typical iconography of a socialist woman as a working woman, a physical worker, teacher, nurse, and mother. A woman returns as a beautiful object exposed to male contemplation and “dog looks,” referring to the title of a work by Edward Dwurnik, who created an explicit representation of the true level of male chauvinism prevailing in the era of real socialism.
The book ends with photocopied pages from the guest book of the Kraków Wenus exhibitions. The entries, humorous and infantile, sometimes embarrassing and resembling schoolboy humour, reflect the spirit of the time and deserve a separate analysis: “All of these women who agreed to be photographed naked are wretched and foolish. My girl is the best – she is shy even when wearing a chemise” (signature illegible). “Everyone enjoyed themselves, only the elderly men complained.” And finally, the sober female voice: “Since the gentlemen are twice as satisfied with the exhibition as the ladies, we propose that the ticket prices for the latter are lowered by half!” Signed: “thrifty ladies from Kraków and Łódź.”
photographs: various authors
text: Krzysztof Teodor Toeplitz
graphic design: Marian Sztuka
publisher: Wydawnictwo Artystyczne i Filmowe, Warsaw
year of publication: 1973
volume: 132 pages
format: 23 x 23 cm
cover: paperback with dust jacket
print run: 20 241
Original text: polishphotobook.tumblr.com
, transl. Ania Micińska, November 2015