In the second half of 1930s, Maria Ewa Łunkiewicz-Rogoyska often included sport themes in her paintings. That period brought the oil painting Football prepared for the olympic competition organised in the Nazi Germany on the occasion of the XI Olympics in Berlin (1936), as well as works related to the subject of recreation in Warsaw: Służewiec (1937) and Pływalnia (Swimming Pool) (1939), which showed, respectively, a vignette from the horse race track and a scene at a swimming pool.
All of these works demonstrated the artist’s departure from Cubist and Purist influences, which characterised her early works. They fall into the phenomenon of the ‘return to order,’ typical for many avant-garde artists, who in the late 1930s forwent experimental art for the sake of a return to realism and search for universal values. Pływalnia especially manifests those still very distant echoes of the avant-garde, demonstrated in depicting divers suspended in air and the beauty of Warsaw’s modernist architecture.
The painting Pływalnia shows a genre scene of everyday life of Varsovians during their spare time, recreation, and sport stunts on the diving board. That gigantic platform is in fact the famous tower which at the time was located on the grounds of the Legia swimming pool (no longer existent) in Łazienkowska St. It was a legendary and first open swimming pool incorporating modern architectural ideas. The 10-metre tall, reinforced concrete structure was designed by Aleksander Kodelski and Romuald Raksimowicz in 1929. It became a treasure of Warsaw’s Modernism – it’s poetic assets were highlighted in the magazine Architektura i Budownictwo (1932, no. 12):
It acts as a launch for the most aesthetic and daring developments in sport; the rawness of its boldly exposed surfaces accentuates the wealth of movement and rhythm of the flexible bodies ascending in a smooth flight.
This quotation from the biggest Polish magazine on modern architecture is an apt description of Łunkiewicz-Rogoyska’s Pływalnia. The image of the diving board’s beauty is complemented here by the grace of athletic figures. Divers fly into the air, they are suspended in the air and levitate, as if the depiction of the flight itself was key here, and not the dive into the water, which is not even visible in Łunkiewicz-Rogoyska’s piece.
The painting appears to be split into two parts – the active in the upper part of the platform (dominated by male figures) and a passive one beneath, by the swimming pool surface (dominated by women). Pływalnia was painted by a woman and it seems as if the composition of the scene was seen from her, female, perspective. It is not the bodies of women, but those of athletic, active men that are the main object of admiration and delight. In the active male world, some are flexing their muscles, while others are diving and thus exposing their bodies to the female gaze. Some of the women watching the dives appear to be more corpulent, immersed in passive observation and awe for the mens’ display of their incredible physical abilities. This clear-cut division into a female and a male world is only disrupted by two swimmers located on the right hand side and in the centre, as well as well as a woman preparing to plunge headfirst from the lower level of the platform.
The motif of water divers levitating in air was very common in avant-garde art. Even the composition based on a view from below brings to mind Alexander Rodchenko’s famous pictures of divers in Soviet Russia, as well as frames from Leni Riefenstahl’s film Olympia (1936). The film was screened during that time in Warsaw and there are a lot of implications that Łunkiewicz-Rogoyska must have seen it. Riefenstahl’s Olympia, the epitome of Nazi propaganda, was subtitled as ‘festival of beauty’ and generated the ideal image of an Aryan body – predominantly of a White, strong, muscular, tough man, modelled after the aesthetics of Greek statues (e.g. Myron’s Discobolus). In Łunkiewicz-Rogoyska’s painting, the athletic divers are mostly White, however it also shows one muscular Black sportsman on the right hand side of the composition. Pływalnia is thus far from a propaganda image of the superiority of the Aryan race over the Black one, of the beauty of a male body inspired by Olympia. The Black man here is part of the everyday life of Warsaw. Just like the other residents, he spends his time on sports and recreation.
Pływalnia, painted in 1939, in the eve of the Second World War, by no means hints at the anxiety caused by the political situation at the time. Łunkiewicz-Rogoyska shows Warsaw youth spending their spare time on gathering, flirting, improving their bodies and acrobatic skills. Persons relaxing at the Legia pool are unaware of the impending threat and the great tragedy that will affect Warsaw and its people in the same year. Soon, the artist will roam the ruins of the capital, documenting the atrocious damages in her sketches. Hence, Pływalnia turned out to be a significant piece reflecting the last moments of Warsaw that was free, joy-filled, and unconscious of its tragic future.
Author: Przemysław Strożek, October 2017, transl. AM, November 2017