The Future Will Be Different. Visions and Practices of Social Modernisation after 1918 / Przyszłość będzie inna. Wizje i praktyki modernizacji społecznych po roku 1918

The Future Will Be Different. Visions and Practices of Social Modernisation after 1918 / Przyszłość będzie inna. Wizje i praktyki modernizacji społecznych po roku 1918

Exhibition in the Zachęta National Gallery of Art, Warsaw, February 24 – May 27, 2018

Elżbieta Wysocka
Aleksander Ford; Franciszka Themerson; Stefan Themerson; Eugeniusz Cękalski; Wanda Jakubowska; modernism; film; interwar period; democratisation; emancipation; utopia; experiment; collective; education; sport; leisure; health; pedagogy; propaganda; photography; working class; women; children; START; SAF.

Montages of Modernity

The Second Republic of Poland is a compelling topic for analysis – both ideologically and politically. Over a short period of time, modern ideas came into a clearer focus to an unprecedented extent thanks to a combination of political events, new trends, and the urge for social transformation. The First World War and the later crisis had enormous influence, hastening the emancipation of previously undervalued and excluded social groups: women, children, workers, and ethnic minorities. As the exhibition’s curator Joanna Kordjak emphasises in the introductory text:

[…] the exhibition at the Zachęta National Gallery of Art, [has] shown the various faces of the transformations triggered by Poland’s independence, as advocated by artists and social workers after 1918. It focused on the macroscale changes manifested, for instance, in modern urban concepts and architectural solutions. On the other hand, it showed the microscale reflected in the concepts of the new housing and cooperative movement, as well as concern for the welfare of the individual and education in the newly formed state. (Kordjak 2018a: 3)

The Future will be different. Visions and practices of social modernisation after 1918 is the title of a past exhibition in the Zachęta National Gallery of Art. Zachęta is one of Poland’s most notable institutions for contemporaryь primarily Polish art. The co-organisers of the exhibition are the National Film Archive – Audiovisual Institute (FINA) and the Narodowe Archiwum Cyfrowe (NAC) are co-organisers of the exhibition. As promised by the curators, The Future will be different was a comprehensive exhibition dedicated to the period between the two world wars in Poland, presented through the prism of modernist design and architecture, film, avant-garde theatre, and photography. The exhibition has shown that the most important social and cultural ideas of the era are, in fact, universal and still relevant today. More than we, perhaps, would like them to be.

The title of the exhibition was borrowed from Zofia Daszyńska-Golińska’s 1921 manifesto, in which she wrote: “Żyjemy jednak nadzieją, że przyszłość będzie inna” [“We are living in the hope that the future will be different”]. The working title Szklane domy / Glass Houses pinpointed the main idea of the exhibition. It refers to the famous novel Przedwiośnie / Before the Spring of 1925 by the leading Polish neoromantic-modernist writer Stefan Żeromski. In Polish culture, “Glass House” has become a synonym for a utopian vision of modernisation and improvement. On the one hand, the faith in a new, better future reflects the spirit of that era. On the other hand, it contains the utopianism, brutally exposed and ended by the Second World War and the postwar period.

Cover of the Polish exhibition booklet Szklane domy. Wizje i praktyki modernizacji społecznych po roku 1918, edited by Joanna Kordjak. Warsaw : Zachęta Narodowa Galeria Sztuki, 2018. The English version of the book, Glass Houses. Visions and Practices of Social Modernisation after 1918, can be found here:

Joanna Kordjak, in her previous exhibitions skilfully wove stories from art objects and archival materials (Kosmos wzywa! Sztuka i nauka w długich latach sześćdziesiątych / Cosmos Calling! Art and Science in the long Sixties; Zaraz po wojnie / Just After the War; Polska – kraj folkloru? / Poland – a Country of Folklore?), once again examines the state of Polish society, culture, and ideas in the chosen time periods. The exhibition The Future will be different was accompanied by the collection of papers Glass houses. Visions and practices of social modernisation after 1918 published by the National Gallery of Art, Warsaw 2018, to which I refer in the following remarks.

Curatorial tour guided by Joanna Kordjak. In front of Dziś mamy bal (Today we have a ball, 1931) projection. Photo by author.

In the seven rooms of the Zachęta National Gallery of Art, we can see about 500 objects: photos, films, slide installations, archives, books, various types of leaflets, mock-ups, and a few paintings. I will focus on the medium of film and photography on display due to my own affiliation and the central place they occupy in the exhibition. The new film medium represented the new generation in great depth, it awakened hopes in the “dangerous minds” of the young generation of the 1920-1930s. Together with the curator Joanna Kordjak, thousands of photographs (provided by the NAC) and dozens of films (provided by the FINA) were subjected to intensive research. Many previously unavailable films have been digitised and restored for the exhibition, and some of them have also been made available on a dedicated website. However, the beauty of these films can hardly be fully appreciated in brightly lit galleries, and with the limitations involved in this type of presentation. Once again, you can – and should – see these movies in their natural environment, a darkened cinema.

New media, new technologies – interwar perspective

One can examine modernism through the lenses offered by technological changes and the technologies available to artists of that epoch. The new medium – film in this case – free from the yoke of tradition and established canons, seemed more suited to represent new concepts. In a similar way, new materials for architects allowed them to put into practice many previously utopian designs. In both cases, showing the material and revealing the technology and mechanical production of these artworks was considered by artists an asset.

At that time in Poland, filmmaking was not a completely uncharted territory. Without financial support from the state, the film industry relied on a group of private entrepreneurs. Yet investors were relatively poor. All this resulted in tight budgets. Thus the films produced had to flatter the audience tastes and make a quick profit. Despite the unfavourable soil, Polish cinema grew in the 1930s and embraced some attempts at experimentation. Although it could not fully develop and many projects therefore collapsed during the phase of scriptwriting or actual production, the small number of those that were produced and survived are a great source of interest for researchers today.

In the short films, one could explore a more formal and more direct experimentation with the medium: composition, rhythm, diversity of viewpoints and depth of field, reversed negative image. The enthusiastic reviews from Berlin, Paris, and London are a testament to the international successes of Polish short films of that period. Unlike the features, they can be regarded as fully modern. These include films by Franciszka and Stefan Themerson and an avant-garde group of young artists, created in the 1930s, as a kind of film cooperative under the name of Stowarzyszenie Miłośników Filmu Artystycznego – START (The START Film Enthusiasts Association). Nevertheless, as described by Iwona Kurz:

[…] the START agenda negotiated between decisive attempts to find new means of expression and the idea of making fine mainstream films. The association’s members calling themselves ‘avant-gardists’ was something of an exaggeration; again, such a label held true only when compared with the dominant production. What is evident in the practices of the START filmmakers is, on the one hand, a striving, fundamental for the avant-garde, to play a socially significant role and, on the other, a desire to transform the world, with due consideration however for the existing conditions of production (which did not preclude attempts aimed at changing them) (Kurz 2018: 150; translated by Marcin Wawryńczak).

What cannot be shown…

The films were made by groups like START and Spółdzielnia Autorów Filmowych – SAF (Cooperative of Film Authors) were distributed within a very narrow circle. Limited distribution condemned them to oblivion: the vast majority of materials went up in flames when hostilities began in the September 1939 Warsaw campaign. Eugeniusz Cękalski was the most experienced filmmaker in the START group and the circumstances surrounding the destruction of his materials are detailed in Stanisław Wohl’s postwar memoirs (Wohl 1978:4). He recalls that just before the outbreak of the war, when he returned to shoot exteriors for Hania / Hannah, (Józef Lejtes, 1939, Poland, unfinished), he met Cękalski for one particular reason of hiding and preserving films they had made together. They withdrew negatives and prints left at the Laboratory and put everything in what became then Wohl’s apartment on the fifth floor in the house on the corner of Polna Street and 6th August Street. One of the first artillery shells falling in September 1939 in Warsaw blew up this house (Lemann 1996:74).

How to exhibit what has not survived? What tools can we use to represent films that for decades have become almost mythical, non-existing entities for filmmakers and contemporary film studies? Kordjak confronted the impossibility of representation by showing the promotional documentation of the films from the extensive collection in the National Film Archive. The curators were sent original materials accompanying the production and promotion of the film: posters and programmes, as well as press clippings. Some of the artists – like the Themersons themselves – created albums from clippings of film magazine reviews.

In reviews, we can find, for example, an interesting analysis of the film Zwarcie / Short Circuit (Franciszka and Stefan Themerson, 1935, Poland) produced for the Institute of Social Affairs with the music composed by Witold Lutosławski. Zwarcie is an instructional film warning against the dangers of electric shock.

The Themersons have their own approach, their separate and interesting film physiognomy. This little movie – like all of Themersons’ films – is a dramatic poem. The action takes place without people. It prepares itself on the electric wire, which is badly hung on a fuse broken, replaced by an unnecessary nail, explodes in a flame winding around the wall and lights the screen with a series of sparks, a red stain of danger. In this film, there is a poetry of things, lines, plans, lights, there is a drama of electricity, there is a short circuit of breathless forms, it is aconvincing pronunciation of the pictures themselves. Lovely movie. (Zahorska 1936: 7; translation mine)

Unfinished dreams and horrors

The war was not the only obstacle to the survival of the films. Production of some of them was halted by the Polish censorship authorities. In this exhibition, Aleksander Ford’s name and work is ubiquitous. In the context of non-existing movies, his film Czarne skrzydła / Black Wings (1934, Poland), halted during the production, is seen to be so important that the curator devoted an entire wall to it and also a whole chapter in the accompanying book. The script for Czarne skrzydła was based on the novel by Juliusz Kaden-Bandrowski. The controversial subject of the great crisis in Silesia, which this feature-length project was supposed to address, was unacceptable to censors of the time. The expressionist works of Bronisław Linke from the Silesia series (1936) and fragments of the documentary film Misère au Borinage / Ellende in de Borinage (Henri Storck and Joris Ivens, 1933, Belgium), presented at the exhibition, suggest potential inspirations and a context for this non-existing film, giving us an idea of the intended aesthetic. In her article about Czarne skrzydła, Monika Talarczyk goes further in investigating the importance of unmade and lost films as an invisible source of all postwar Polish cinema. Nevertheless Talarczyk admits:

[A]fter searching for the right formula in the early postwar years, the idea of socially useful film disgraced itself in socialist realist productions before stabilising in the individual styles of the former START members who by then had been relegated to the fringes of mainstream Polish cinema. The argument that the achievements of Polish film of the socialist era, i.e. works created as part of a state-owned film industry, owe their success to the concept of the cinematographic institution, which can be traced back precisely to START, remains controversial. What research perspectives would make it possible to revive that tradition in the most fruitful way if more of those productions have been lost, destroyed, halted, or radically re-edited than have survived intact? (Talarczyk 2018: 189; translated by Marcin Wawryńczak).

Niepodległa aka Independent woman

“La grande absente” of the exhibition was Wanda Jakubowska. Outside Poland she is mainly known as the director of Ostatni etap / The Last Stage (1947, Poland), but few know that in the 1930s she was an active member of the START collective, a director of an important film Nad Niemnem / Upon the Niemen (1939, Poland, not extant) based on the Positivist novel written by Eliza Orzeszkowa. “It is a pity that the film has not survived, and the only feature film directed by a woman could not be represented at the exhibition,” Joanna Kordjak emphasised in a personal conversation in March 2018. However, women cinematographers were represented with the series Ręka pracująca / The Working Hand in the section dedicated to female emancipation.

Created by Lviv photographer Janina Mierzecka and her husband, Henryk Mierzecki between 1924–1938 and published after the WWII as a monograph, The Working Hand series was an extraordinary artistic piece, as well as a social and scientific undertaking. It included 120 photographs of hands of representatives of various professions, patients of the Lviv health insurance fund. The photographs by Mierzecka were a record of scientific observations of the skin on people’s hands for her husband, a doctor of medicine and dermatologist. The changes taking place on the skin of the hand under the influence of various factors connected with the patients’ professions. (Kordjak 2018a: 12; translated by Marcin Wawryńczak).

At the same time, it became an artistic project in its own right. Something that at the beginning was not art, today becomes fully legitimate art thanks to the later decisions of the artist, and further re-contextualisation by a curator. In this case, the beauty and multi-dimensionality of this social project ultimately make this series a fully artistic creation.

Films which we can see

At the exhibition, one could see excerpts from the film created in the START circle, the early sound film Dziś mamy bal / Today we have a ball (Jerzy Zarzycki and Tadeusz Kowalski, 1931, Poland), studied in the book by Piotr Słodkowski. The film is an avant-garde reportage of an evening party in which:

[t]he narrative is filled with isolated close-ups of the typical attributes of modernity: the telephone dial, a printing press rapidly spitting out invitations for the party, electric (rather than gas) street lamps, and finally a jazz band. (Słodkowski 2018: 213; translated by Marcin Wawryńczak).

Both the form and the theme clearly show an inspiration of Fernand Léger. In his text, Słodkowski juxtaposes cinematography with the photo-collage technique also represented in the exhibition. Dziś mamy bal introduces several points of view: it moves, rises, falls, spins, leans, moves away or zooms in, and even turns into a negative. All this composes different perspectives and an astonishing succession of images. This is a good example of how the free form of the film medium – through the selection of objects, its framing, and rhythm achieved by filming and editing decisions – introduced a radical change in perception and new means of artistic expression. These methods, attributes, and qualities are characteristic of later electronic media, more frequently encountered on Zachęta Gallery’s screens.

This exhibition demonstrates that the film medium already had the ability to fulfil modernist ideas, showing how it expands human senses to experience the world: from various points, at different speeds, exceeding the limits of our eyes, just as the microscope and telescope did in the past. It also proves its ability to fulfil postulated social usefulness. It was an excellent idea to include fragments from L’Hippocampe / The Seahorse (1934, France) by avant-garde filmmaker, biologist, and social activist Jean Painlevé. Moreover, it is a surprising reference to the biological Laboratorium quotation from the film Mir Kumen on / Children must Laugh (Aleksander Ford, 1936, Poland) which I will elaborate on in chapter eight.

Ogródek Jordanowski przy ul. Opaczewskiej 1 w Warszawie (Jordan’s Garden at Opaczewska street no. 1 in Warsaw), from Poland Weekly newsreel PAT. Photo by author.

In the room devoted to leisure time, sport is seen as a new area of emancipation for various, previously underrepresented, social groups. Dynamically developing disciplines – football, athletics, boxing – are shown on small screens. Most egalitarian of all is swimming, which did not necessarily need specialised equipment or a dedicated architectural solution, as did many other club-organised sports. In the case of swimming, a proud exposure of the body was a bold representation of the social changes underway. From the Polish Sound Weekly newsreel produced by the? state agency PAT (Polska Agencja Telegraficzna), we see female archers shooting in formation, who, perhaps due to synchronised movements or the way they are dressed, suggest Hitler Youth exercises to the eyes of the contemporary viewer.

In the same room, we see one of the exhibition’s surprises – Woda / Water (Witold Romer, 1938, Poland), an experimental movie, depicting a jump into the water. At first sight Woda seems just a film about sport. However, it turns out to be an almost abstract film using a simple sheet of water and a swimmer’s silhouette. Shooting underwater was possible thanks to Romer’s engineering skills. As the granddaughter of the artist recounts, he adapted cameras himself for this purpose. Romer intentionally photographed splashes and widening ripples on the water so that they became abstract forms. The swimmer is just an instrument for creating a dramatic effect of light and shade in the water, enabling the free transformation of visual reality into visual poetry. The Zachęta exhibition was the first public screening of this film since it was made.