Light in the Darkness

Ilona Karwińska’s images of communist-era neon preserve a unique and significant moment in Poland’s history, says David Crowley

There is no possibility of mistaking where power lies in Warsaw today. The city’s unequivocal embrace of capitalism is marked in the countless billboards that cover almost every surface of the Polish capital. Entire façades of hotels, high-rise blocks and even historic buildings are cloaked in massive fabric screens promoting Coca-cola or ice cream. Behind these glossy surfaces, many of the communist-era structures on which these ads are fixed are slowly crumbling. Advertising, it seems, represents not only Poland’s happy embrace of commerce but also its disregard for the communist past.

This impression is not, however, entirely accurate. One can still trace a seam of socialist advertising in the city, not least in the neon signs which punctuate the city skyline. Most were installed in the 1960s and 1970s and, surprisingly, many still function. London-based photographer Ilona Karwińska has been drawn to these illuminated signs, often recording these remnants of the socialist city just before they were discarded or the buildings on which they were fixed demolished. Exhibited in London in June and about to be displayed in Warsaw in the autumn, her photographs have attracted considerable interest from Warsaw’s citizens. The letters pages of the city’s newspapers and email forums have filled with memories of neon. Some writers chart their affection for these radiant symbols, emphasising the memories of friends and family that these signs trigger. Others recall the crisis of the mid 1980s when the country slid into bankruptcy and the neon and street lights were periodically switched off to save power. As one writer noted, without neon the city suddenly seemed a greyer place. It was as if these neon signs – often advertising the services of seamstresses, chemists and cafés – had been forgotten until being captured by Karwińska’s lens.

But how can the existence of these often graceful and witty signs be explained in the first place? After all, the shops were rarely overflowing with goods in communist Poland. Moreover, official ideology was antagonistic to commerce. One Communist Party writer in the early 1950s called the advertising hoarding in the West the “shrill screams of a hyena”. A well-dressed socialist street was to be decorated with uplifting sculptures of muscular workers and sturdy peasant-women “building socialism”. Production, in the brave new world of the People’s Republic of Poland was to prevail over consumption.

“There is something… in the streets of Warsaw,” wrote one foreign visitor in the mid 1950s, “which gives the city an air of drabness – the uniformity of its shop windows, and the total absence of publicity and neon lights. There is nothing to strike the eye, nothing to surprise. One almost has to put one’s nose inside each shop to find out whether it is a grocer’s or a barber’s.”

Attitudes changed at the end of the 1950s. When the Eastern Bloc tried to throw off the dark shadow of Stalin, a “campaign” was launched to change the face of Warsaw. How could it be brought back to life whilst keeping its identity as a socialist capital city? For some, the answer lay in neon. It fell into the politically correct category of “socialist advertising” based on “dependability and total trust”. Stolica, a popular magazine, led a campaign to neonise the city. Like signposts, these brilliant torches in the cityscape would be useful landmarks with which to navigate a rapidly growing city. Fixed and unchanging, they would not encourage the voracious cycle of fashion on which capitalism thrived. By simply announcing a commodity or service (“Save with the Polish Saving Fund for your apartment”), neon would disseminate important information.

All this was true enough, but the results were not quite as prosaic as neon’s supporters suggested. The illuminated lettering and dancing symbols announcing the appearance of “Cocktail”, a new cafe, or “Szanghaj”, a Chinese restaurant, introduced a new cosmopolitan vocabulary to a city in a country which had largely had its borders closed to the rest of the world. Strange creatures settled on the city’s buildings including animated butterflies (to mark, of course, a florist’s) and electric spider (announcing the presence of a music shop). The city authorities became keen patrons of neon; at one time instructing Reklama, the state-owned sign company, to “neonise” the entire length of a major thoroughfare running to the city centre. The authorities – despite the communist claim to be expert planners – had misjudged the cost. The project would, as the director of Reklama acknowledged, have required 12,000 metres of neon tubes. Many of the signs were the product of talented graphic designers. A leaping volleyball player overlooking the main Stalin-era square – used to advertise the presence of a sports shop below – was designed by Jan Mucharski, a member of the renowned Polish Poster School of the 1950s and 1960s.

The neon lightscape suggested life after dark. Shaking off Stalin, the Poles enjoyed a liberal period when modern art could be displayed and jazz and satirical cabaret performed without attracting the attentions of the censor. This new mood was captured in Andrzej Wajda’s neglected 1960 film Innocent Sorcerers. Warsaw’s shadowy jazz clubs and inky black streets, lit only by neon signs and the light cast from shop windows formed a backdrop to his love story. Neon was inseparable from pleasure.

Karwińska was drawn to make her photographs when she noticed these signs disappearing from the cityscape two years ago. This realisation turned the photographer into a curator. One of the first signs to draw her attention, the 1974 lettering marking the entrance of the Berlin gift shop disappeared before she had the chance to photograph it. She rescued the six illuminated letters from the skip and set about having the sign restored by the company which had made it over 30 years earlier.

Karwińska is not neon’s only saviour. In 2006 the volleyball player was restored with funds raised by Paulina Ołowska, one of a number of young Polish artists who are building considerable reputations abroad. Asked why she had saved the sign, she said “this neon comes from an exceptional time when… it was possible to achieve great advertising, often abstract, by renowned artists.” This is, of course, a provocation in a culture which still finds it difficult to find virtue in the communist years. Neither Karwińska nor Ołowska is infected with the nostalgia for communism which in Germany has been dubbed “ostalgie”. Too young and too smart to yearn for the past, Karwińska finds something else in these signs. “These extraordinary neons are not only beautiful, they provide insights into a unique period of history that is rapidly being forgotten in the rush to join the western free market.” The value in these bright symbols lies in their capacity to cast a distinctly local light on the tidal wave of global advertising which has washed over Warsaw.

David Crowley is the author of Warsaw (Reaktion, 2003), a history of the city since 1944.


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