Friday, 28 June 2019

The Gnomes of Wrocław, Poland

I wrote this piece for a newspaper some years ago, but it never appeared online. The gnomes are still there, so it's still current! Enjoy...

I’m on my way into a pub when I’m stopped by a dangerous revolutionary. With one fist raised in protest and the other support a flying banner, he looks up at me with clear disdain.

But perhaps I’m overstating my peril. For a start, he’s looking up at me because he’s only 50 centimetres high. And he’s made of stone. And he’s a gnome.

Yes, I’m not hunting wabbits, like Elmer Fudd - I’m hunting gnomes.

Walking through the cobblestone square of the beautiful city of Wrocław, in southwest Poland, I’m peering above doorways, at the ground, down alleys.

And I do find them - little statues of gnomes, doing a variety of tasks: telephoning, carrying suitcases, propelling a wheelchair, sleeping, even mouthing revolutionary slogans like my friend Leninek (Little Lenin in Polish), named after the father of the Russian Revolution.

But what are they doing here?

The gnomes, dozens of which have been placed permanently around the city, are a tip of the hat to the Orange Alternative, a communist-era dissident group that used humour as its weapon in the 1980s.

The leader of the group, Waldemar Fydrych, realised that physical struggle against the communist government would be suppressed, but ridicule was harder to resist. So he and his followers daubed gnomes on any wall where the authorities had painted over anti-communist slogans.

The difficulty of cracking down on such silliness without looking silly themselves had the communists in a bind, and kept the citizens of Wrocław sniggering.

Today’s gnomes are the work of local artist Tomasz Moczek. The first few were commissioned by the city council, but in recent years private companies have bought into the craze, commissioning gnomes that reflect the nature of their businesses.


Hence the Lenin gnome outside PRL, a pub decorated in communist kitsch. Elsewhere off the main square is a gnome making a telephone call high up above the doorway of a phone company, and a fat gnome lying on his back in a food bowl, just outside a pizza joint. Another gnome carrying a suitcase stands outside a nearby hotel.

What’s especially fun about the gnomes is that they’re not that easy to find. There are no signposts pointing them out, and they’re so small that you can easily walk past them, even when you’re specifically hunting them down.

Later in my quest, I spend ages popping in and out of the medieval complex of buildings in the centre of the square in search of a single gnome, only to finally discover him perched above the door to a police station.

There’s something very Polish about all this, reflecting the Poles’ dark sense of humour and the way public art blends into the older fabric of their cities.

They particularly underline the quirkiness and beauty of Wrocław. Around its streets, between gorgeous examples of baroque and Renaissance architecture, are scattered more intriguing items of street art.

The most striking is Crossing, a complex sculptural work which shows a full-size group of people approaching an intersection, disappearing beneath it as if being sucked down into the earth, then reappearing on the other side of the street. It’s breathtaking.


Not that Wrocław’s attractions are all modern. The most interesting sight in Wrocław dates from the 19th century.

The Panorama of Racławice, a huge circular painting housed in its own dedicated building, is both a cultural treasure and a historical curio. Before the cinema was invented, these vast panoramas were common in Europe, allowing visitors to imagine themselves in the middle of famous historical events.

The Wrocław panorama is one of the few to survive. Measuring 15 metres high and 120 metres around, it’s full of fire and action, depicting a famous battle of 1794 in which a Polish peasant army defeated a much larger Russian force.

Transported here from the east at the end of World War II, the painting sat in storage for decades while the communist authorities resisted its reinstalment. Finally, in 1985, it went up again.

It was worth the wait. Visitors look at the painting via a central platform, and various real-life objects have been placed between the walls and the viewers to enhance the effect.

I find myself peering intently, trying to spot the point where the real world and art join. It’s not easy to do… in one place the painted section of a scythe is joined by a real wooden counterpart, and the combined effect is very convincing.


Nearing the end of the day, I head back to the central square as Wrocław’s nightlife begins to gear up. Courtesy of its large university student population, the city has a lively entertainment scene, characterised by vibrant bars tucked into historic brick cellars beneath its streets.

The dining is diverse too, as Mexican and Italian joints vie with Polish cuisine from classic restaurants like Karczma Lwowska, which serves beer in old-fashioned ceramic mugs.

To start the evening, I opt for a quiet beer with my old friend Leninek at PRL. The bar’s remarkable interior is decked out with communist-era items salvaged from local attics.

Busts of socialist worthies decorate the walls, propaganda banners hide intimate alcoves, waiters prance around in red tracksuits, and 1970s music plays over the sound system.

It’s all a big joke, of course - nothing undermines an authoritarian ideology more than laughing at it. Which the gnomes have known all along.

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