• The Painter and his Bus (1961)
Tuesday, 6 December 2011 Leave a comment
Only after I posted yesterday about Szpilman and his cheerful 1952 song The Red Bus did I remember a quite different ‘bus’ altogether. When I was a student in Poland 40 years ago, I went to the National Museum in Warsaw and was bowled over by one particular painting, completed ten years earlier. I bought a glossy black-and-white photo of it and put it up on the wall of my room. I still have it. It’s pretty gruesome and certainly intended to disturb, so why did I want to look at it every day? It was because its subject matter still resonated and illuminated my first experiences of Poland.
Szpilman’s music and Kazimierz Winkler’s lyrics had painted a sunny picture of Warsaw under reconstruction in the early 1950s. Such songs were intended to encourage Poles to look to a bright socialist future under the ‘benign’ gaze of Poland’s eastern neighbour, the USSR, and its leader, Comrade Józef Stalin. The following year, Stalin died and the later 50s were witness to upheavals in East Germany, Poland and, bloodiest of all, Hungary. Even the Soviet Union changed somewhat.
Creative artists felt that there were now possibilities for greater freedom (this varied wildly from country to country behind the ‘Iron Curtain’) as well as for criticism and satire of the authorities and their dogmas about the ‘bright future’. One of these artists was the Polish painter, Bronisław Wojciech Linke (1906-62). Towards the end of his life, 50 years ago, he created his masterpiece, Autobus (1959-61).
Polish buses were still crowded and rickety in the early 1970s, but I never encountered one quite like this. Linke’s pessimistic, dehumanised vision may seem nightmarish to us, but to its contemporary viewers its metaphors were all too real. They knew these characters, these distortions, this life.
Within this cut-away red bus are symbols of a broken and divided society. From left to right, they include:
• the Driver, a mannequin made of wood grasping a cobwebbed driving wheel
• the Jew, facing away
• the Polish Army Soldier, helmet in his hands, standing next to a figure with a giant lemon for a head
• the gormless Worker making a common and rude gesture
• the Cosmonaut
• the trendy (= scruffy) Young Man with his gloved girl and her silver handbag, sitting on a missile
• the greedy Priest, with coins for eyes
• a naked Young Girl on her naked mother’s lap
• the faceless (in fact, bodiless) Bureaucrat, sitting neatly on a pile of paper
• the lecherous Old Man with the naked doll
• the Drunk in his czapka krakuska (Kraków cap) and white overcoat, his body a giant bottle of spiritus
• the queuing Woman, clutching a large loaf and bags of shopping
• and, last but not least, Generalissimus Stalin himself, with a prison window for a heart.
Most of them have their eyes shut. And among them are ghoulish faces, a newspaper that screams with raised arms and clenched fists, pierced by the passengers’ handrail, and a gigantic beetle. I can’t claim to have picked up all the references (any further observations gratefully received!), but its imagery remains as powerful as it did for me in 1971.
There is not much on this penetrating artist on the web, but the following links may be helpful:
• http://polish-art.info/linke.html (some further images)
• http://englishwarsaw.blogspot.com/2011/02/on-bus-bronisaw-wojciech-linke.html This is a blog entry (25.02.11) by ‘Pan Steeva’, with more Linke images interlacing his translation of the Polish Wikipedia article on the painter.
• http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ms5Y0cDJ-3A This is a strange concoction uploaded only last week. It’s a freeze-frame download from a Polish TV ‘Kultura’ profile of Autobus made in 1998. The commentary by the distinguished painter and graphic artist Franciszek Starowieyski (whose art has clear connections with Linke and whose posters had an even stronger impact on me in the early 70s) is discarded in favour of a performance of a Scarlatti sonata … But this YouTube video, ‘Autobus.wmv’ (3’32”), does give some valuable close-ups of the picture.
See also my subsequent post about Jacek Kaczmarski’s powerful song Czerwony autobus (7.12.11) and another giving its Polish lyrics and an English translation (13.12.11), both with a YouTube audio link.