Bast Shoes and Sneakers

15. 3. 2017

Antoni Kroh, “Wesołego Alleluja, Polsko Ludowa—czyli o pogmatwanych dziejach chłopskiej kultury plastycznej na ziemiach polskich” [Happy Easter, Poland of the Folk—or About the Tangled History of Peasant Visual Culture in the Polish Lands], Iskry, Warsaw, 2014.

Everyone who has been to Eastern Europe has encountered “folk art.” Even as you are marching through the airport terminal, glimpsing from behind duty-free shop windows are not only whole ranges of malt whiskey: on shelves adjoining alcohol there are sparkling skirts and foaming petticoats of dancers, who are courted, usually ineptly, by much more wooden partners in felt hats. More such dancers—supplemented with combs, beads, cockerels, pendants, scarves, hats, socks with pompoms, painted caskets, urns and the rest of wood-clay-cloth haberdashery all the way through to shepherd’s axes and whips with tassels, nowadays rarely advised by fashion stylists—will assault our incomer as soon as he starts his first walk along an old town trail recommended by his guidebook.

And perhaps already at this stage the visitor will pay tribute to local deities (or his children) and buy a sheepskin lined with nylon, a figure of a pony affected by a severe joint disease or a pen with a handle made from baked clay and with a BIC refill. If the visitor is curious about the world, he will perhaps visit one of the galleries by the promenade and will shudder at the view of roughly hewn figures of devils, angels, saints and Jews. If he has a more ample wallet, he will buy a set of really nice tablecloths knitted from raw linen, industrially hemmed. If he has a slightly better taste, he will perhaps reach one of the chain stores offering a little MORE folkish art: pottery bowls and wooden spoons bearing the label “Cepelia” or its Baltic or Romanian counterpart.

If he is really inquisitive, he will go to the local ethnographic museum, where he will delight in the vigor and multiplicity of forms, wonderful motley painted eggs, tapestries, sacred images and ribbons at the Easter palms, but after a while he will notice that all the colors are badly faded and most of the exhibits are more than half a century old. A few enthusiasts, usually researchers and reporters, will decide to find an “authentic folk artist.” They will acquire addresses, refuel their cars and after a few hours journey their curiosity will be rewarded: they will meet an aged maker of shrines, having passed two open-air museums, several “folk inns” and a thousand two-story houses, stubbornly covered with asbestos cement rather than thatched or tiled. The locals will show them the way from their slightly rusted Opels: it will be difficult to understand them, for the roar of the engine will compete with the roar of the radio, broadcasting a local variety of popsy or turbofolk. In the local church an altar straight from the wholesalers of devotional articles will be illuminated by bright sodium vapor lamps. So how do things stand with the art of the local folk?

My sarcasm is not entirely justified, because similar things can after all be seen almost all over the world from Britain to Texas. In all these places in the late 19th century enthusiasts discovered (and sometimes “cooked up” a bit) naive art, that is folk art, motivated by a complex mixture of emotions: sincere admiration, a desire to “uplift” or help the local people, a vague sense of guilt haunting the better born or a search for “authenticity”, increasingly appreciated as could be heard, in Paris, the world capital of taste. And who could be more authentic than a shepherd or an old man: illiterate, knowing nothing about the world at large, and even less about Trecento painting, not bothered by comparisons with others, just carving or dabbling whatever their instinct told them to carve or dabble?

So people everywhere (also, perhaps with even more paternalism and guilt, in the colonial world) were collecting or buying—dirt cheap— masks, bowls and paintings based on wedding photographs. Folk artists everywhere were offered models to follow and advised how to sculpt more authentically and “without foreign influence.” And thus the folk in the end came out of their huts and began to dress not in homespun, but in jeans—and to delight in soap operas. For one or two generations the folk artists were exploited by art dealers, supplying galleries in the capital—until finally everything was swallowed, processed and spat out by the tourist industry, the leisure industry, which makes sure that weekly tourers and guests of all-inclusive hotels get an appropriate (that is not too big) doze of local shows such as belly dance, sheep shearing and gutting the armadillo. “Authenticity”—which by the way is a more general headache—has long since scampered off.

Yet, after a decade or two of the avant-garde sincerely delighting in the “savages” and hanging their walls with masks from Dahomey, naive art was relegated to do fringes of cultural life: one niche was occupied by ethnographers, another by art historians and yet another by cultural animators. In Central Europe folk art turned out to have a much greater importance, it was much more present in public life.

This difference originates from politics and democracy. “The folk” in Central Europe (and speaking in the language of economic history, across the “line of the Elbe”, defining the border behind which the word of serfdom used to begin) was much more numerous than in Western Europe. And it lived an incomparably more miserable life: dispossessed of land, starving, every one or two generations attacking the nearest manorial estate—or, if propitious circumstances and a charismatic leader appeared, hundreds of manorial estates. This mob and its rebellions were badly dreaded and cruelly pacified—but over time it was realized how huge its “revolutionary potential” could be and that if other means proved insufficient, this potential could be directed against the occupiers or other oppressors. The first person to notice that—in the Polish lands—was Kosciuszko, aristocratic conspirators dreamed about it for half a century (for some of them things got out of control, for example for the Galician concentrators on the eve of the peasant mutiny under Szela, and others, like the January 1863 insurgents, found out to their dismay that they were unable to get to the folk), half a century of grassroots work by various idealists and activists resulted in the victorious battle of Warsaw in 1920, and later the dream of channeling the folk’s anger in the righteous direction was entertained, sometimes successfully, by many: from the communists through the Workers’ Defense Committee (KOR) up to Samoobrona politicians.

The cynicism of the above remarks is probably exaggerated, for although in the history of Polish political theory and practice there was a lot of calculation regarding the efficiency of peasant scythes, it was often accompanied with a reflection on the monstrous injustice underlying the relations between the serfs’ quarters and the manor. “The problem of enfranchisement in the nineteenth century” was employed to torment whole generations of secondary school students majoring in history, but behind this clunky term there are dozens of political writers, journalists and social activists who had the imagination and sensitivity to notice that the “natural” order of things was not natural at all and they attempted to change it.

And once they found a way to peasant huts with quinine, a prayer book, or a proclamation of the National Government, they noticed not only children sleeping on the threshing floor, crumpets and lice, but—with time—a flute made of willow bark, a willow basket or an enameled pot. Some of them—from Zorian Dołęga Chodakowski to Alexander Brückner—were from the beginning mostly interested in customs, songs and rugs. Others, more politically minded, gradually developed this interest—sometimes on their own, sometimes after reading William Morris or Stanisław Witkiewicz, and sometimes, when the partitioning powers started to expand universal education, they realized that competition for the peasant souls had begun and if they would not win it, they would themselves end up in an open-air museum.

Already at that stage, at the turn of the 20th century, we are dealing with the emergence of an irremovable contradiction: folk art is, also as defined in encyclopedias, spontaneous and anonymous, free from self-reflection, consciousness of style, “schools” and perhaps even of its own past—since the countryside was immersed in the “eternal now”, equally eternal were the figures of saints and the enameled pots; when some of them decayed and others broke into pieces, they were replaced with new ones, identical in the minds of their makers. Yes, models constantly emanated from the cities and manors—as we know, baggy pants from the Łowicz region are strangely similar to the galligaskins of the Vatican Guards, and the jackets of Carpathian highlanders from the Tatra Mountains to Transylvania mimic the uniforms of the imperial cavalry, but nobody was aware of this influence when it was active.

This changed when urban curators and enthusiasts started to safeguard the “purity of style,” to fight against external influences and to award the greatest folk artists. Spontaneity, or at least a large chunk of it, was gone, and the more deeply you dig into the history of “Polish folk art,” the more curiosities show up. The first school of folk crafts was established in Zakopane in the period of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy and it intensely promoted the Tyrolean Edelweiss, and thirty years later, in a similar school in the Hutsul region, Zakopane models were imposed. Perhaps the most famous Polish folk dance, “Zbójnicki,” an inspiration for Zofia Stryjeńska, Władysław Skoczylas, dozens of choreographers and thousands of enthusiastic spectators, had its origin in a set of exercises with axes, composed for celebrations organized by the Galician magazine Strzelec in 1910… For this is how it works with spontaneous folk art: the very act of observation, as in the case of the uncertainty principle, changes the object under study.

Still, the gourd with folk art exploded in Poland and other countries of Central Europe only when the doctrine of the dictatorship of the proletariat started to rule the day. The communists, who after the Yalta agreements came to power in countries with the largest percentage of rural population in entire Europe, felt in their element. Moreover, they badly needed the legitimacy they drew from the advancement of the folk they promoted, including the official interest in its traditions and likings, often with fatal results for the art of the “masters.” So there was a desperate rush to flatter, support, train and publicize the achievements of “folk artists.” Scholarships and schools mushroomed. In the early years, when there was no staff trained under communism, the regime resorted to the services of pre-war curators and folklorists such as Wanda Telakowska. In 1949 the institution called Centrala Przemysłu Ludowego i Artystycznego [The Center for Folk and Artistic Industry] (better known by its acronym “Cepelia”) was established to coordinate the work of hundreds of “folk crafts cooperatives” and thousands of “folk artists” (and if coordinate, then also, as Michael Foucault taught, verify, and sometimes impose artistic norms, patterns and canons). On the one hand, the forced collectivization was started (which the Polish authorities fortunately abandoned after 1955), on the other hand open-air museums were created almost in each province, showing „the misery of peasant life in capitalism,” but also, mostly inadvertently, the beauty of this life.

Official supervision of an intrinsically spontaneous and individual art had to (and did) generate freaks. But the heights of absurdity were reached when at the climax of Stalinism a campaign was launched to saturate all areas of public life—including the “spontaneous” products of folk art—with propaganda and ideology. The result of this marriage surpassed all expectations, and the few surviving examples of this enjoy a great success with art dealers, whether they are pale wool tapestries with the dove of peace, cocky roosters made of colored paper and carrying the slogan „Peace!” in their beaks, parades of tractors in the fields carved in soft lime wood, or oil pipelines and open-hearth furnaces formed from wet clay. The call “Happy Easter, Poland of the Folk,” present in the title of the book by Antoni Kroh, is admittedly apocryphal, but you can imagine that with a few more years of socialist realism we would get updated Easter rituals, like the delicious, infinitely bitter irony of Nabokov, writing in Pnin about the procession of „handsome, unkempt girls with banners bearing snatches of traditional folk ballads such as Ruki proch ot Korei [Hands off Korea].”

In the mid-50s the pressure eased and folk artists were no longer stuffed with contents from „agitator’s notebook.” The Holy Family was again painted on glass, sculptors returned to the themes of Christ’s Passion and still vivid among old ethnographers is a legend about busts of Lenin repainted as St Joseph. For some 30 odd years, until the late 80s and the ultimate collapse of the state economy, which found it more and more difficult to maintain out of obedience to the doctrine the open-air museums, museums of folk art and scholarship programs, this unique pageant called supporting “folk artists” was presented on stage. This phenomenon, “a tangle of paradoxes and misunderstandings, a mixture of the noblest human emotions and ordinary sham, altruism and greed, lucrative business and theatre of the absurd,” is described by Antoni Kroh, senior Polish ethnographer and a mountain man, for many years museum curator, researcher, organizer of folk art competitions, globetrotter crossing the whole Subcarpathian region from the Tatras to Beskid Niski.

It is an unusual story. Besides reflections on the contradiction hidden in the very phenomenon of “folk art supported by urban masters” it contains dozens of genre scenes of which Kroh is a consummate portrayer, but above all it contains portraits of a dozen artists, “village idiots,” “deviants” and hurt people. Schizophrenic Maria Wnęk, Stanisław Hołda („He said, characteristically mumbling, that he was from Ciężkowice, but that he had taken to the road, for there was a terrible poverty in the cottage. His hearing and speech were once normal, but the Germans kept him in the cellar and thrashed him terribly, and they beat speech and hearing out of him.”), Wojciech Oleksy (“I stand up to greet him, come closer, and the old men pushes his head between his arms and although he stretches his hand out, it looks like he is cowering for fear of getting beaten.”) and many like them recovered their dignity and respect of rural and small communities where they lived thanks to this hybrid of state support for “folk art” and the long-established Polish curiosity for the achievements of naive artists.

Antoni Kroh is silent about himself, but he described with great tenderness Father Edward Nitka, “an intellectual and peasant in one person,” parish priest in Paszyn near Nowy Sacz, who was sent to this village in the mid-1960s when there still were mud huts. After twenty years of his service in this previously one of the most dilapidated villages of the Nowy Sącz region, Paszyn could boast not only of “weddings without vodka” and joint construction of a road, but also a school of painting on glass. Under his supervision successive deaf, illiterate, marginalized people (“Stasinek” Józek Grucela, “Wojtuś”) carved their passion scenes, and the editors of the communist Gazeta Południowa, gnashing their teeth, awarded him a “Medal for valuable contribution to the development of socialist fatherland.” (“I bless you, Eddie, for the communist medal”— said the then Bishop Wojtyła to Edward when giving him a blessing.) Kroh devotes many pages to the still not adequately described, extraordinary figure of Ludwig Zimmerer, correspondent of the West German press, who “fell head over heels in love with Poland”: having arrived in 1956, he remained here until his death (he was dying long and hard, having suffered a stroke at the news of the imposition of martial law) and before that he gathered Poland’s largest collection of works of folk artists, spending all that he had for this purpose.

Kroh’s book is an epitaph for Zimmerer, Father Nitka and the “Stasineks” they championed—but the bitterest thing in this work is the awareness of how few are their followers. The photos taken by the author in today’s Nowy Sącz region show shrines with Christ the Sorrowful overwhelmed by billboards advertising a disco, Stations of the Cross surrounded by a fence made of car tires painted with flashy colors, altars of unimaginable ugliness. The love for peasantry from the turn of the 20th century was not free from the sin of paternalism and the patronage of the communist state, for folk art was driven by bad intentions— the retired ethnographer Kroh seems to be saying—but they were better from the dictate of tawdriness and ugliness, from the situation when only enthusiasts of camp reach for “folk motifs.” In the Nowy Sącz region (and probably all along the arc of the Carpathians!) is still urgently needed a person who in righteous anger would tear down the signs printed on doily and give a set of crayons, or even a portable 3-D printer, to a neglected kid from the cottage at the end of the village.

Wojciech Stanislawski

Wojciech Stanislawski is a historian and a columnist. His main topics of interest include Polish intellectual history in 20th century and nation-building processes in Bosnia, Macedonia, and Kosovo. Until 2017 he was the editor of Plus Minus, the weekend edition of Rzeczpospolita daily. Recently he joined the Polish History Museum. In 2016 he published the translation of Solomon Volkov’s Magical Chorus: A History of Russian Culture from Tolstoy to Solzhenitsyn.

Share this on social media

Support Aspen Institute

The support of our corporate partners, individual members and donors is critical to sustaining our work. We encourage you to join us at our roundtable discussions, forums, symposia, and special event dinners.

These web pages use cookies to provide their services. You get more information about the cookies after clicking on the button “Detailed setting”. You can set the cookies which we will be able to use, or you can give us your consent to use all the cookies by clicking on the button “Allow all”. You can change the setting of cookies at any time in the footer of our web pages.
Cookies are small files saved in your terminal equipment, into which certain settings and data are saved, which you exchange with our pages by means of your browser. The contents of these files are shared between your browser and our servers or the servers of our partners. We need some of the cookies so that our web page could function properly, we need others for analytical and marketing purposes.