Iron Curtain excerpt: Anne Applebaum on Wanda Telakowska’s attempt to work with the Polish Communist Party.

Survival sometimes means collaboration. But it is no guarantee of success.

Warsaw, 08 1955 5th World Festival of Youth and Students, Youth demonstration on Defilad Square, participants are ZMP
Communist Polish Youth marching in Warsaw, 1955

Photo by Forum/UIG/Getty Images.

Wanda Telakowska did not begin her career as a Marxist. At different times an art teacher, designer, critic, and curator, Telakowska had in the 1930s been best known for her association with a Polish artistic group called Ład, which connoisseurs of design history will recognize as a cousin of the British Arts and Crafts movement. Ład sought to make use of traditional, folk, and peasant craftsmen, who still thrived in parts of southern and eastern Poland, and to use their work as the basis for a new and authentically “Polish” vernacular design. The artists and designers associated with Ład believed that “contemporary” did not have to mean “modernist” or futuristic. Not everything had to be sleek or simplified in the machine age: folk designs for furniture, textiles, glass and ceramics could, they believed, be brought up-to-date, and even used as inspiration by industry.

By instinct and by training, Telakowska was no communist either. Many left-wing artists of the time, including the Bauhaus designers in Germany, spoke of sweeping away the past in the name of revolution, and starting from scratch. Telakowska, by contrast, retained a distinctly un-Communist, lifelong determination to find inspiration from the past. Nevertheless, after the war, she was determined to continue Ład’s work, and toward that end she joined the new Communist government. She quickly found that her project—which favored “authentic” peasant art over the slicker modernism of urban intellectuals—overlapped with some of the aims of the Communist Party. As one cultural bureaucrat pointed out, folk art was more likely to appeal to the Polish laborer: “Our working class is closely connected to the countryside and feels more connected to the culture of folk art than to the culture of intellectual salons.”

By the end of the 1940s, Telakowska’s promotion of peasant art also fit in with the assault on formalism, launched in Poland at the same time as in Germany. In the constipated words of one approving Marxist critic, “Unlike the art produced by the nobility and the Court, which became increasingly divorced from the national foundations, the uncontaminated culture of the countryside was able to resist cosmopolitan tendencies and to protect itself successfully against ossified formalism.”

In Polish terminology, Telakowska was a “positivist,” or what an English speaker would call a pragmatist. She accepted the Communist regime as inevitable and was determined to work with it—even within it—in order to achieve goals that she believed to be in the national interest. In the spring of 1945 she joined the new Ministry of Culture and in 1946 she created the wonderfully named Bureau of Supervision of Aesthetic Production known by its Polish acronym as the BNEP. Under its auspices, she persuaded Polish artists from Ład and from the Warsaw School of Fine Arts, which had before the war organized workshops in decorative arts, to cooperate with her most ambitious project: to provide Polish factories with new designs which could be mass-produced, once Polish industry recovered from the war.

At first, a part of the artistic community was suspicious. Fearing a crackdown on painting and sculpture, the new Artists’ Union issued a defense of “pure” art, as opposed to “useful” art. More to the point, many didn’t want to collaborate with the Polish communists, who in 1946 were escalating their campaign against the Home Army. But Telakowska won at least some of them over, partly through her personal contacts (she had been a part of the artistic community before the war), partly because she offered material help, and partly because she was genuinely passionate about her cause. One Polish painter, Bohdan Urbanowicz, remembered meeting her on his return to Poland from a German prisoner-of-war camp in August 1945:

I travelled back to Poland full of fears and uncertainty, without any papers. After crossing the border at Cieszyn, I headed for Warsaw. Soviet trucks pass me, decorated with seals and slogans. Herds of cattle are being driven to the East. … At last, Warsaw. I’m lost in tunnels of former streets. There is a provisional bridge across the Vistula. In an enormous building in Praga, the former Headquarters of the State Railways, there is the Ministry [of Culture]. A dark stairway leads up to the Department of Fine Arts. A big room, full of people, chatter and smoke. … And suddenly, I am embraced. I’ve found myself in the arms of Wanda Telakowska.

Telakowska reached into a drawer, pulled out 2,000 zlotys and gave it to Urbanowicz, “without any accounting.” She also found him a place to stay, and arranged for him to join the Artists’ Union. For several years, he, like many others, remained under her influence and her protection. Because he, too, felt that he had a responsibility for the “reconstruction of our destroyed culture,” he went to work at the Ministry of Culture alongside her.

Under the slogan “Beauty is for everyday and for everybody” Telakowska’s BNEP commissioned and purchased dozens of designs for fabrics, furniture, cutlery, dishes, crockery, ceramics, jewelry, and clothes. She sent one group of artists to a glass factory in Szklarska Poreba and another group to a factory in Silesia, where they were meant to cooperate with the workers and the management in order to create attractive, popular designs which could be mass produced. One group created a series of glasses, etched with calligraphy in a prewar style. The other used older antique glass for inspiration. Telakowska also persuaded a prominent Polish sculptor, Antoni Kenar, to return to Poland from exile in Paris and to organize a woodcarving workshop and sent several designers to the mountainous south of the country, where they worked with women weavers, helping them to update their designs. At one point, her department held a competition to encourage peasant carvers to design new wooden “folk” toys, prompting one art critic to exult that “a new type of toy-making is being born, one which breaks decisively away from the objects which, in the 1920s, persuaded children to play at ‘war.’ ”

But in the end, Telakowska’s Bureau of Supervision of Aesthetic Production was defeated by socialist economics, too. Despite the care that had been lavished upon them, none of the hundreds of samples and designs produced by Telakowska and her colleagues were ever turned into elegant consumer products, because postwar Polish factories had no incentive to produce elegant consumer products. Because there were shortages of everything, anything that any factory produced would always find a buyer. Since prices were controlled, companies couldn’t charge more for a vase designed by a team of famous artists, and they couldn’t pay more to the people who produced one. Since factory managers were government employees on government salaries, they saw no need to exert any special effort either.

“Design for the workers” was ultimately of no interest to provincial bureaucrats and state factory managers. One art critic tactfully explained that “the leadership of the industry ministry completely understood the need to make art widely available—but at the level of the individual workplace, it was still not popular.” There was a Marxist explanation as well: “In the People’s Democracy, anarchy in the area of production has been replaced by socialist planning. However, in the realm of the aesthetic production of the articles of everyday life, anarchy, inherited from the era of capitalist economy, still remains…”

Telakowska herself went on to found the Institute for Industrial Design, which she ran for several years before resigning in 1968, but her influence did not last. A later generation of Polish artists dismissed her as a Stalinist, and then forgot about her. She had proved that it was not impossible to work in conjunction with the Communist state. But she could not prove that such cooperation could be successful.

This article is the fourth of four excerpts drawn from Anne Applebaum’s book, The Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-1956.