Having been chosen the Best European Destination of 2018 by participants of Tourism Offices Wrocław won the competition with such destinations as Amsterdam, Athens, Bilbao, Budapest, Lisbon, Milan, Paris, Prague and Vienna. One of its most popular, memorable and iconic attractions is not a cathedral, castle or monument which is still worth to see, of course but a legion of little creatures: gnomes, dwarfs or “krasnale” (in local parlance), to be precise. In Wrocław’s city centre these merry munchkins are simply ubiquitous – dotting doorways, alleyways and street corners, constantly underfoot but only seen by the observant. You may well overlook the first dozen or so that cross your path, but inevitably – and often quite literally – you will stumble upon these popular local residents. Keep your eyes peeled and you’re bound to notice the little fellas engaged in a variety of activities about town – from guarding public space to passed-out drunk. Beloved by locals and tourists alike, and the object of more photos than the city’s gorgeous Town Hall, these prolific pranksters have become the unlikely symbol of one of Poland’s most picturesque cities.
The free of charge app “Go Wrocławskie Krasnale” gives you opportunity to meet those gnomes. You can enjoy finding the dwarfs across Wrocław but please do mind you there might be a contemporary Central and Eastern European history behind them.
As communist governments across Central and Eastern Europe floundered in the 1980s, those strange creatures began to be seen behind the Iron Curtain. Mischievous little gnomes with cheeky smiles and pointy hats first appeared in the southern Polish city of Wrocław, and then began to pop up on the walls of cities across Poland. But despite their comical appearance, these gnomes had a serious purpose – using surrealism as a weapon to bring an end to the country’s repressive regime.
Non-violence and absurd humour to create social change
Although The Orange Alternative (Pomarańczowa Alternatywa) movement had roots in Dada and Surrealism, it derives from Provo, a Dutch counterculture movement in the mid-1960s.
Provo recognised that boredom and alienation (feelings of powerlessness and not belonging) were powerful energies. For the Vorticists (100 years ago the vorticists burst on to the art scene with the most avante-garde shows) this energy, generated by violent boredom, had symbolic, poetic and artistic power. For the Provos it was a real force that could be harnessed for social change. The Provos used provocative direct action (“pranks” and “happenings”) to arouse society from political and social indifference.
It was directed by a “playful anarchist” group which combined non-violence and absurd humour to create social change. It was preceded by the nozem movement and followed by the hippie movement.
The hippie subculture began its development as a youth movement in the United States during the early 1960s and then developed around the world. Its origins may be traced to European social movements in the 19th and early 20th century such as Bohemians, and the influence of Eastern religion and spirituality. From around 1967, its fundamental ethos — including harmony with nature, communal living, artistic experimentation particularly in music, and the widespread use of recreational drugs — spread around the world during the counterculture of the 1960s, which has become closely associated with the subculture.
Another movement is nozem being a term to describe self-conscient, rebellious youth, often aggressive and considered problematic by authorities in the Netherlands. It was the earliest modern Dutch subculture, related to the Teddy Boy movement in the UK and the greasers in the United States. It was followed by the Provos.
Provo was founded, on May the 25th 1965, by Robert Jasper Grootveld, an anti-smoking activist, and two anarchists Roel van Duijn and Rob Stolk. The name Provo was coined by Dutch sociologist Buikhuizen to describe, in a condescending way, post-war disaffected Dutch teens who spent their time provoking the authorities.
The theatrical street happenings organized by the Provos attracted huge crowds and often resulted in over-reaction by the police. The group found great sympathy among Amsterdammers and at one point obtained five seats on the City Council. Its ideas influenced urban planning, social housing, and cultural life in general. It campaigned against marijuana prohibition, air pollution from urban traffic congestion, and the tobacco industry, and it created numerous anti-royal events and literature.
The Orange Alternative changed Communism aesthetically
Provo was officially disbanded on May the 13th 1967. A Polish anti-communist underground and artist-activist student movement, would be founded in 1980 at the University of Wrocław and led by Waldemar Fydrych, commonly known as “Major” (Commander of Festung Breslau).
By opposing conformism and consumerism with intelligent humour, the Orange Alternative movement achieved a considerable artistic victory over the Communist regime. Their continuing influence upon Polish political protest is noticeable to this day.
With roots in Dada and Surrealism, the Orange Alternative’s underground campaign was meant to ridicule the social and political absurdity of the Central and Eastern European situation in the 80s and 90s. Even The New York Times wrote in the late 80s:
“Solzhenitsyn destroyed Communism morally, Kołakowski philosophically and the Orange Alternative aesthetically”.
Waldemar Frydrych: Can you treat a police officer seriously, when he is asking you: “Why did you participate in an illegal meeting of dwarfs?”
Known to his friends and followers as “The Major”, far from having any inclination towards the military, art historian Waldemar Fydrych’s ironic moniker actually stems from an incident where he feigned insanity to avoid national service. Called up for military duty, Fydrych appeared in front of an army panel dressed in the regalia of a major, addressing himself as such, and calling his superiors colonels while insisting that they enlist him. His narcissistic, disrespectful and deranged enthusiasm had the desired effect of leaving the army commission in no doubt that he was as mad as a March hare, and in no way fitted to serve in the Polish military. Tasting his first success with subversive absurdity, the nickname stuck and “Major” made it his basic credo going forward to fight the establishment with an overt silliness and surrealism that would make the authorities look the bigger fools if they tried to repress it.
In 1980, Waldemar Fydrych wrote the “Socialist Surrealism Manifesto” (Manifest Surrealizmu Socialistycznego), in which he claimed that the system of government in Poland had become so surreal that it had transformed into a work of art. Fydrych led the creation of the Orange Alternative magazine, from which the resulting movement took its name. These events coincided with the first months of Solidarity (Solidarność), a political opposition movement that would grow in power throughout the 1980s and finally force through democratic reform at the end of the decade.
Fydrych’s name among the world’s 50 most important Surrealists
“Major” Fydrych was one of the ten thousand-plus participants in Jerzy Grotowski’s active culture experiments. Grotowski was an innovative Polish theatre director and theorist whose approaches to acting, training and theatrical production have significantly influenced theatre today. He is considered a father of contemporary experimental theatre.
Orange Alternative was characterized by mass street protests with a playful and theatrical flare. These “happenings” as they were known, became part of the “socialist surrealism” mantle, which Fydrych described as “what surrounds us, in this country, now”. In reality, this phrase depicted the incorporation of their mass actions, which distorted the struggle and mundaneness of everyday life, by hijacking control over mobilization and trumpeting ironic support for existing socialism, the Orange Alternative made people aware of how their lives were connected to the communist system.
Waldemar “Major” Fydrych, in “Socialist Surrealism Manifesto”, stated:
…Pure Rationalism failed to dominate toilets. Surrealism was kept alive in toilets thanks to the politicians…The politicians have always been great surrealists.
Fydrych’s name was listed among the world’s 50 most important Surrealists alongside Picasso, Duchamp, Buñuel, Dali and others, in the book, Surrealism – 50 Works of Art You Should Know (2013).
There Is No Freedom without Dwarfs
The dwarfs were the mascot of the Orange Alternative. Its members resorted to graffiti, happenings and samizdat, all of which became a subject of study for researchers from sociology, anthropology, art history, as well as political science throughout the movement’s active years.
The Orange Alternative advocated using ridicule as a form of resistance, modelling its absurdist, avant-garde character on the Surrealist art movement in 1920s’ France. From 1982, participants in this artistic opposition painted over government slogans on the streets of Poland and left the graffitied image of the dwarf in its place. The movement gained pace as young people saw it as an appealingly exuberant substitute for the seriousness of Solidarity. As the Orange Alternative symbols appeared on city walls from Kraków to Gdańsk, the Polish militia attempted to end the rise of the gnomes by detaining graffiti artists, but still the irreverent images multiplied to over a thousand.
The first known actions of the Orange Alternative consisted of painting dwarf graffiti on spots created by the militia’s (communist police) covering up anti-regime slogans on walls of the Polish cities. The first graffiti was painted by Waldemar “Major” Fydrych and Polish happener Wiesław Cupała on the night from August the 30th to 31st, 1982 on one of the residences in the Wrocław district of Biskupin and Sępolno. It happened two years after the Gdańsk Agreement was signed as an authentic social contract with the government.
Altogether more than one thousand of such graffiti were painted in the major Polish cities such as Wrocław, Cracow, Warsaw, Łódź, and Gdańsk. Dwarfs appearing in numbers all over Poland aroused the interest of both Polish pedestrians and the militia, whose intervention led to short term arrests of the graffiti artists.
The surreal activities included handing out free toilet paper, sanitary towels and pretzels to passersby, to satirise the state’s control over the distribution of consumer products and highlight their scarcity. The artists and their supporters often wore bright orange hats, and subverted the rhetoric of both the government and Solidarity to create nonsensical slogans, such as “Every militiaman is a piece of art”.
Their so-called “open street formula” allowed all individuals, including random pedestrians, to participate in these happenings. Thanks to this inclusiveness, the happenings could gather thousands of participants in a very short time. The Orange gathering organised on June 1st 1988, also known as the Revolution of Dwarfs, attracted over ten thousand people who marched through the city centre in Wrocław, wearing orange dwarf hats. Their slogans read: There is no freedom without dwarfs.
This brightly-coloured peaceful protest began to be reported by the Polish and international press, leading the humouristic happenings to become increasingly popular. Thousands of pedestrians started joining in with the actions, while the militia arrested hundreds of participants at a time.
During one of those incidents, “Major”, a detainee at a militia station in Łódź, proclaimed, in reference to the Marxist and Hegelian dialectics, yet another artistic manifesto and referred to his graffiti art as “dialectic painting” stating:
“The Thesis is the Anti-Regime Slogan. The Anti-thesis is the Spot and the Synthesis is the Dwarf. Quantity evolves into Quality. The more Dwarfs there are, the better it is.”
In spite of their sense of humour, Waldemar “Major” Fydrych and the Orange members were dead serious in their endeavours to present Polish citizens with a way of protesting peacefully.
Anti-communist peaceful underground movement that changed Central and Eastern Europe for good
Waldemar Fydrych’s name gained media attention a few years ago regarding a copyright infringement case involving his original Orange dwarf and the commercial dwarf recently used by the city of Wrocław for promotional purposes (the same dwarfs that are on the app “Go Wrocławskie Krasnale”).
In April 2014, the court ruled in favour of Fydrych, who originally argued that the dwarf used by the city was copied from his original drawings, and that the city must stop using the image, as well as file an apology due to copyright infringement.
Even though Wrocław had to withdraw its commercial use of the dwarf wearing an orange shirt and holding a flower, the city is still surrounded by 292 iconic dwarf sculptures, which do not contain any direct reference to the Orange Alternative movement. But following the dwarfs remember that Wrocław is a birthplace of orange dwarfs and anti-communist peaceful underground movement that changed Eastern Europe for good.
Wrocław has to offer much more attractions. There is the oldest zoo in Poland, having been opened in 1865 as the Breslau Zoological Garden while the city was part of Prussia. It`s the fifth most visited zoo in Europe. I will tell you more about that wonderful place soon.
The history of Wrocław dates back over a thousand years, and its extensive heritage combines almost all religions and cultures of Europe. It was also placed among the top 100 cities in the world for the quality of life by the consulting company Mercer. And as I mentioned earlier the town has been chosen the Best European Destination of 2018. Do you still doubt Wrocław is worth a visit?
I hope I shall see you there!
By Agata Szostkowska
Photos: Joanna Rumińska
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