THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS

 

The Łódź Murals: An Old Alternative for Distributing Art

 

by Michel Ségard

 

The summer of 2020 saw increased attention in the United States on public murals as a result of the political turmoil surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement. All those murals advocated a particular point of view, mostly promoting the ideology of the BLM movement. In the US, it seems that most murals publicize either a political point of view or a particular ethnicity or social issue. Very few are “just” works of art; the vast majority are advocating a “cause.” In the US, this emphasis is largely a legacy of muralist Diego Rivera’s highly political stance and content. It has been reinforced by street art that is equally political.

That is not necessarily true in other parts of the world. Most notably, in Łódź, Poland, murals are used as a tool for beautification (and as a tourist attraction for economic revitalization).

Starting in the early 19th century, Łódź (pronounced “woodge”) emerged as the center of Poland’s textile industry. From this it acquired an artistic sensibility and heritage. Now Łódź is called the capital of Polish street art thanks to the Urban Forms Foundation. This organization was founded in 2009 by art historian Michał Bieżyński and actress Teresa Latuszewska-Syrda. The project has become the Urban Forms Gallery, a permanent street art exhibition in public spaces, mostly consisting of large murals on the sides of buildings. The project has grown to include dozens of murals. The website inyourpocket.com lists 72 with several images of every mural, the artist(s), their creation date, and their locations in the city. New ones are added every year as funds become available and artists are found to offer commissions.

 

AweR (Italy), AweR 3D Mural, 2018, for the Urban Forms Festival. This is Poland's first 3D mural (and the world's third). You need passive 3D glasses to see the full effect. Photo from inyourpocket.com/lodz/street-art/murals.          Bordalo II (Portugal), Bird Mural, 2015, for the Urban Forms project. The mural portrays a bird made of junk, from car parts to broken furniture. It is one of the Łódź murals that has a social message about the damage caused to the environment by man and the subsequent impact on endangered animal species of the world.  Photo from inyourpocket.com/lodz/street-art/murals.

 

What is startling to American eyes is the lack of overt social or ethnic propaganda in these murals. Most are the individual inspiration of the artist, and many deal with ordinary life issues. There is a similar set of influences as found in the New Leipzig School in Germany and for the same reasons: the sudden release from the authoritarian influence of the Soviet Union under the Polish People’s Republic. So, we see murals that have a definite surreal flavor, ones that celebrate the everyday, and others that “rediscover” abstraction and conceptualism. A few murals are left from the Soviet period as a point of comparison. They are mostly large ads for now defunct commercial enterprises.

Some of the murals are assembled from pieces of detritus (broken machinery or crockery and even left-over lumber). This is as close as these murals get to an overt political message—the act of rebuilding their town and culture. And many of the murals have had to be designed around the crumbling portions of the Soviet-era buildings they are meant to beautify.

Artists that have been invited from other countries tend to be more colorful or more abstract in their conception, which adds to the variety. But it is the murals created by Polish artists that end up being the most engaging. What is particularly noteworthy is the personal tone of many of these pieces. Here they are as huge images on the sides of building—yet they present a personal and intimate view of life as seen by the artist. The release from the oppression of the communist regime and centuries of prior domination by other powers has given the Polish artists the chance to finally sing their own song, not always a happy one, but THEIR song, not someone else’s. That is probably the main underlying political message in these murals. It is a message that does not assault you upon first viewing, but that you must thoughtfully coax out of the works as a group.

 

 Above: Wrocław artist Łukasz Berger, Cisza (Silence), 2015. The mural is made using half a ton of nails.Below: Close-up detail of Cisza showing how tonal variety was achieved by inserting the nails at different heights. Photos from inyourpocket.com/lodz/street-art/murals.        Designed by two Łódź school children, Martyna Antas and Oliwia Mikołajczak, and made by Sebastian Bożek, Meisal and Ovca, Reflowering of the Factory, 2018. It is the first mural in Łódż to be designed by children. Photo from inyourpocket.com/lodz/street-art/murals.

 

But there is a paradox in this system of bringing art to the masses. Viewing the work is free to anyone who wants to go see the murals or who happens to pass them by (or anyone who goes online, where they are well documented). However, these murals are paid for by a foundation that raises money the old-fashioned way—by donations from wealthy supporters and government grants. The main difference is that one does not have to go through a door and pay admission to see the work. Nor is it a temporary one-day-a-week free admission to an otherwise exclusive exhibition venue. In that sense, the Urban Forms Gallery is an alternative way of permanently bringing art to the masses. And it is free of the burden of obligatory and/or overt social, ethnic, religious, or political propaganda.

Surrealism

Many of the murals have a surrealist bent. Like the artists in the New Leipzig School, it is a natural and easy transition from the Soviet socialist realism that dominated before 1989. It also dovetails with the northern European zeitgeist. The following two murals  are from that group. That aesthetic extends throughout much of Europe. A number of the Łódź murals are by artists from Italy, Spain, and Brazil.

 

Gregor Gonsior, Untitled, 2010. One of several murals by this artist in Łódź. Photo from inyourpocket.com/lodz/street-art/murals.          ARYZ (Spain) and the Os Gemeos brothers (Brazil), Untitled, located at Roosevelta 5, part of the Urban Forms project in 2013. Photo from inyourpocket.com/lodz/street-art/murals.

Polish Themes

There are a number of the Łódź murals that carry ­Polish themes or commemorate Polish places or personalities. Below are two murals of famous Polish figures, the pianist Artur Rubenstein and the playwright Janusz Glowacki and a third mural (satirically?) depicting an old Polish woman. The Rubenstein and the old woman murals are humorous and self deprecating and contrast sharply with the serious commemoration of Glwacki.

 

Kobra (Brazil), Artur Rubenstein, 2014, for the Urban Forms project. Photo from inyourpocket.com/lodz/street-art/murals.           Andrzej Pągowski, Janusz Głowacki (Polish playwright, essayist and screenwriter), 2018. Photo from inyourpocket.com/lodz/street-art/murals.

Abstraction

The third mural category that stood out was abstraction, mostly executed by Spanish and Italian artists. These murals are usually very brightly colored and simple in design, contrasting with the conceptual and compositional complexity of many of the murals in the other categories examined. Here are three examples.

 

Moneyless (Italy), Untitled, 2017, part of the Four Cultures Festival.  Photo from inyourpocket.com/lodz/street-art/murals.          Samuel Szczekacz, Promised Art, 2012. The work was carried out by Gregor Gonsior. One of a set of three murals dedicated in honor of the local Łódź avant-garde artist Władysław Strzemiński.  Photo from inyourpocket.com/lodz/street-art/murals.

 

 

 

Michel Ségard is the Editor in Chief of the New Art Examiner and a former adjunct assistant professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He is also the author of numerous exhibition catalog essays.

 

ARYZ (Spain), Aryz Mural, part of the 2012  Urban Forms Festival. Photo from inyourpocket.com/lodz/street-art/murals.

Kobra (Brazil), Artur Rubenstein, 2014, for the Urban Forms project. Photo from inyourpocket.com/lodz/street-art/murals.

ARYZ (Spain), Aryz Mural, part of the 2012  Urban Forms Festival. Photo from inyourpocket.com/lodz/street-art/murals.

Kenor (Spain), Abstract Mural II, 2011, for the Urban Forms project. Photo from inyourpocket.com/lodz/street-art/murals.

 

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