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Day November 4, 2012

Behind the Iron Curtain Entry 4: Survival sometimes means collaboration. But it is no guarantee of success.

Anne Applebaum:

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 ?ad, which conoisseurs of design history will recognize as a cousin of the British Arts and Crafts movement. ?ad 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 ?ad 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 ?ad’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.”