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Poles apart: the forgotten art deco of Poland: Poland's distinctive contribution to the creation of art deco, greatly praised in Paris in 1925 but neglected since, is triumphantly reappraised in a major exhibition in Krakow, as Nicholas Hodge explains.

If art deco has conquered the public imagination, then it is the skyscrapers of Manhattan that win the prize for doing so. New York remains an ambassador for the style both in the tangible reality of her buildings and in the virtual one of the cinema. Indeed, in 2005, art deco returned to the screens with fantastic flourish in Peter Jackson's remake of King Kong, for which Simon Bright's lovingly recreated New York sets garnered a clutch of awards. Curiously enough, the original King Kong (1933) was the brainchild of Merian C. Cooper, a former flying ace who had been decorated with the Virtuti Militari--Poland's highest military honour--for his valour in the Polish-Bolshevik War (1919-21). Cooper had launched Poland's first flying squadron, a unit that proved instrumental in repulsing the Soviets from the southeastern city of Lvov.

Today, it is Cooper's native United States rather than Poland that is most commonly associated with the art deco phenomenon. Yet if we turn the clock back to Paris's seminal 'Exposition des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels' (1925), we find a rather different story. 'In my opinion', wrote a British participant, the London architect Frank Scarlett, 'the Polish was the most inspiring national contribution to the exhibition, and showed the decorative arts in a manner expressive of the soul of the nation'. He added that 'if architecture is frozen music, then it had the fire and passion of Chopin'. His opinions were by no means eccentric: the Polish exhibits garnered 35 Grand Prix awards and 70 gold medals. The panache of Poland's contributions filtered into all aspects of Polish design over the next 14 years, before World War II suspended normal life.


The name 'art deco' was coined in the late 1960s, but in Poland--unlike in many Western countries--a full reappraisal of the inter-war adventure was hampered by political conditions. The cosmopolitan culture of Warsaw, Krakow and Lvov in the 1920s and 30s was anathema to Stalin's post-war programme and Lvov was absorbed into Sovict Ukraine as Lviv following the Yalta Conference of 1945. The first exhibition of Polish art deco was held by the National Museum in Krakow in the summer of 1993, and the current show follows on from that event.

On entering the exhibition, visitors pass through a charming recreation of Poland's Paris Pavilion of 1925 (Fig. 1). Beyond, an array of electrifying posters appropriately sets the tone, since the show was inspired by the world's largest collection of Polish art deco posters, in the Museum of Ethnography and Arts and Crafts in Lviv. The museum has lent 100 to the exhibition. If we are to single out a star from this galaxy of talent, the name of Tadeusz Gronowski (1894-1990) leaps out. He was much in demand, not only by private businesses, but also by political parties. His arresting use of colour and geometric lines, strongly influenced by French poster artists, was highly successful. A poster by Janina Przybylska (1906-70) for the 'VIII Eastern Fair in Lvov' points to a fundamental strain in Polish art deco. The flamboyant figure in folk costume who heralds the fair with a spirited trumpet call is one of many stylised folk figures that populate the era's graphic design, from Waclaw Boratynski's festive postcards to Przybylska's designs for the Lvovian chocolatier Ludwik Zalewski (whose main shop had a fine art deco interior).


The key influence here was Zofia Stryjenska, dubbed 'the Princess of Polish Art'. She was a star of the Paris Exhibition of 1925, and Scarlett noted that 'in the field of painting', it was her work 'that made the greatest impact on the exhibition as a whole'. Four Grand Prix awards resulted. Folkish imagery such as hers helps to explain why Polish art historians describe art deco as a national style.


Poland--reborn after over a century of partition in 1918--was keen to stamp a national dimension on modern trends. The reviewers of the 1925 Exhibition were quick to recognise this. Complementing the style's obsession with crystalline forms, Poles turned to the diamond-style cutting techniques of their highland carpenters, which were understood to be rooted in the gothic tradition. When looking at Mieczyslaw Kotarbinski's study interior for the Paris Exhibition, one is struck by a blend of the world of medieval chivalry with the chic 'Roaring Twenties'.

In the Krakow exhibition, crystalline forms are at their most enchanting in the glassware. During the 1920s and 1930s, Poles indulged their love of colour in an array of glasses, vases, decanters and bonbonnieres. Three factories led the way: Hortensja, Zawiercie and Niemen (Fig. 2).


The exhibition also nods to the world of fashion. Sketches by Janina Dluska (Fig. 5), an illustrator for Vogue and a number of other international and Polish journals, are complemented by cocktail dresses, hats and other swish garments. And in keeping with the exhibition's title, 'Not Only Art Deco', the curator, Magdalena Czubinska, has unveiled some extraordinary items from the Great War, including exquisitely designed military regalia relating to 'the father of Polish independence', Marshal Jozef Pilsudski. These items were firmly out of bounds during the Communist era, and are being displayed for the first time.


One leaves this outstanding exhibition agog at the overwhelming sense of movement that infuses the whole. This was a nervous age, framed by war on both sides. Poland, at the heart of Europe, was destined to absorb a series of shockwaves. But what a blazing beauty emerged from those years.

Nicholas Hodge is a freelance writer and art historian based in Krakow.
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Author:Hodge, Nicholas
Geographic Code:4EXPO
Date:Jul 1, 2007
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