Polish art has been present in Scotland for a very long time. The oldest connection of significance traces back to the 16th century. It’s possible that the famous Stirling Heads, made out of wood imported from Eastern Poland, were directly inspired by the painted heads at Wawel Castle in Kraków – the only ornamentation of its kind present in the whole of Europe at that time.
Fast forward a few centuries to the years immediately after the First World War. A newly reinstated Poland experiences a cultural and artistic boom. The arts are the voice of the new, free generation. Students freely travel within the country and around Europe showing an insatiable hunger for new experiences and for life itself. Many new art groups are founded. Then suddenly, after 21 years of freedom, Germany attacks. Whoever can and is willing flees the country and joins the army to fight the aggressor. The assembly point for the troops is France for a while, but after it capitulates, the Polish Army retreats and is recreated in United Kingdom.
Thousands of soldiers are stationed in Scotland to protect its East Coast. Amongst them are former art students who later become a part of the Scottish artistic landscape: Marian Kratochwil, Zdzisław Ruszkowski, Josef Herman, Jankel Adler, Józef Sękalski, Mieczysław Janikowski, Leszek Muszyński, just to name a few.
One of the most recognised Polish artists to come to Scotland, however, is Aleksander Żyw (link to on-line catalogue). Once he arrives in Edinburgh, he is appointed as a war artist to the Polish Army and sent to the front with the First Polish Armoured Division under General Anders. Years later, it is said that his drawings and paintings realistically “(…) covered every aspect of warfare – bombardments, prisoners, corpses, ruined and surviving buildings, and many studies of the Army entrenched or at rest.”(1)
After his return he meets and marries a wealthy local Scottish lady – Leslie Goddard. Aleksander finally has the time and space to freely create from their newly bought house at Bell’s Brae in Dean Village. The couple is known for their efforts to revitalise the village as an artistic colony and later campaigns against commercial development in the area.
After the war ends, Żyw’s style undergoes a dramatic change. His war-inspired realism is replaced by emotionally clumsy paintings of dehumanized puppets, which reflect his feelings of inner pain and tension in the face of the fate of his family and country.
Time passes, and after seeing Paul Klee’s paintings at an exhibition in Paris he recovers “(…) a faith in painting as a positive, indeed joyful, creative effort rather than an emotional outlet (…)”(1). His paintings become more and more abstract, undergoing several changes in colour and subject matter, not always understood by his contemporaries.
Today he is remembered as one of the most cherished émigréPolish artists, having exhibited in Warsaw, Paris, Edinburgh, London and Milan.
Many Polish soldiers who were unable to go back to communist Poland stayed and settled in Scotland. The generations born after the war’s end produced quite extraordinary and unique artists of Polish origin.
Video excerpt from the With Eyes Wide Open documentary
Richard Wawro, the autistic savant who excelled in landscapes and seascapes of Scotland in wax oil crayon, was a very successful painter with many exhibitions throughout his life. His works were purchased by important figures like Margaret Thatcher and John Paul II.
Historical Research Illustrator Jurek Pütter took upon himself the mammoth task of illustrating Scotland’s ‘golden age’. Based on historical and archival evidence, he spent the last 48 years methodically and scrupulously creating over 40 large format prints which depict 15th and 16th century St. Andrews, and various smaller illustrations in the style of German Renaissance illustrator Albrecht Altdorfer.
Two quite phenomenal Scottish artists of Polish origin, whose work have adorned many public and private art collections including that of the Scottish Parliament , are Norma Starszakowna and David Mach. Both of them are highly innovative and known around the world – Starszakowna for her site-specific, mixed-media textile works and Mach for his large scale public space sculptures, often made out of everyday materials.
Another artist who requires no introduction is Richard Demarco. Although not Polish himself, he actively supports and promotes Polish art in Scotland. He is most well known for bringing Tadeusz Kantor with his Cricot 2 theatre to the Edinburgh Fringe, at a time when most Central and Eastern European art had been tucked away behind the Iron Curtain. For his efforts, he was awarded several honours by the Polish Government including the Polish Gold Order of Merit. Richard Demarco and his impressive archives deserve a separate article (follow the link).
In recent history, Poland’s admission to the EU has seen a surge of immigration into the UK. Scottish universities have welcomed many Polish students into their ranks, and the Polish community (Polonia) has many active cultural and artistic contributors who energetically work to bring Scottish and Polish culture together.
Polish names are being housed by the most important and prestigious galleries in the country every year and their accomplishments are so frequent and numerous that this short article is able to contain just a few.
The Royal Scottish Academy organised an exhibition in 2012 titled “TUTAJ/TERAZ (HERE/NOW): An investigation of Polish contemporary artists in Scotland”. The show contained “(…) paperworks, printmaking, multiples, oils, watercolour, photography, drawing and installation.”
In 2013 Summerhall held a very successful “Quality of everyday life” group exhibition which brought together 14 Polish artists and artists of Polish origin as well as six authors and members of the Interactive Writing Salon in Scotland. It was organised by an independent curating body – the Polish Contemporary Art Group.
Most recently, video artist Paweł Grzyb, painter Tomasz Wróbel and collaborating performance artists Aleksandra Roch and Justyna Ataman were recognised as some of the finest emerging artists in Scotland at the New Contemporaries 2014 exhibition at the Royal Scottish Academy.
Contemporary Polish art created in Scotland is extremely diverse, dealing with social, political and environmental issues, through universally human issues to more personal ones. Each artist has his own vision of the world and the way he relates to it through various media, materials and subjects.
Whether born to Polish parents or new blood straight from the Fatherland, Polish artists consistently prove that they are talented, creative and, as much as ever, hungry for life and new experiences.
Words: Patrycja Godula
Patrycja along with Iga Bożyk is a curator at the Polish Contemporary Art Group – the leading organisation promoting Polish artists and artists of Polish origin who create in Scotland.
Photo at the top of article: opening of “Quality of everyday life” exhibition 2013 – Richard Demarco on the laft hand side of the photo – Radosław Słomnicki
(1) Art in Exile, Polish Painters in Post-War Britain (2008) Douglas Hall, ISBN 978-1-904537-66-3
The other Auld Alliance link
Zdzisław Ruszkowski works link
Aleksander Żyw 0n-line catalogue link
Aleksander Żyw orbituray link
Marian Kratochwil works link
Marian Kratochwil works link
Josef Herman works link
Jurek Putter works link
Richard Wawro works link
Jankel Adler works link
Leszek Muszyński works link
Tu i teraz (here and now) @ the RSA link
Tu i teraz (here and now): An investigation of Polish contemporary artists in Scotland link