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Culture of Poland

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Polish culture has progressed at the crossroads of the Byzantine and Latinate worlds in a continuous interaction with a number of ethnic groups living in Poland. The trends of the 19th and 20th Centuries proved Polish culture to be more significant than politics and economics.

A major characteristic feature of Polish art is the dialogue and interaction of cultures. The style of clothing, as well as the manners and customs of the Polish people reflect influences of the East and West. The traditional apparel of the Polish in the 16th and 17th Centuries reveal inspiration from the opulent Eastern ornamental style, with influences of the Islamic culture.

The architecture of Polish towns reflects a variety of European styles. The eastern frontiers of Poland used to mark the final boundary of the influence of the architecture of the West. Poland has a great number of architectural monuments. However, only a small number of ancient buildings have survived, such as churches, castles and buildings with unique regional and European character. Some of the structures have been carefully restored, such as the Wawel Cathedral, or were totally reconstructed after World War II, such as the Wawel Royal Castle and the Old Towns in Warsaw, Wroclaw and Gdansk. A fine example of a well-preserved medieval town is Kazimierz on the Vistula river, with some of the best preserved Renaissance and Gothic architecture in Europe. Polish church architecture has a character peculiar only to Poland. Katowice and Upper Silesia boasts some of the best preserved buildings of Modernist architecture in Europe, which were designed and built in the 1930s. Socialist Realism also brought examples of well-built buildings during the Communist regime.

Polish art is unique in character and has always reflected the latest trends. Jan Matejko is a representative of the renowned school of Historicist painting and produced monumental pictures of significant events in Polish history. Realism had its expression in Poland as well, with its major representatives Stanislav Witkiewicz and Josef Chelmonski. The rise of modern Polish art came with the Young Poland movement, with such representatives as Jacek Malczewski, Josef Mehoffer and Stanislav Wyspianski. The Polish Impressionists also created much influence on society. Various schools and trends worked in the avant-garde trend in the 20th Century. Cubism was represented by Tadeusz Makowski, while Henryk Stazewski and Wladyslaw Strzeminski created their works in the Constructivist context. Popular contemporary artists include Leon Tarsewicz, Roman Opalka, Jerzy Nowosielski and Miroslaw Balka. Some of the most famous Polish sculptors include Katarzyna Kobro, Alina Szapocznikov, Xawery Dunikowski and Magdalena Abakanowicz.

Polish literature originated in the 14th Century with pieces written in the Polish vernacular. Jan Kochanowski wrote poetic works in the 16th Century and was a leading representative of European Renaissance literature. The Baroque and Neo-Classicist literature contributed greatly to the enrichment of Poland’s literary heritage. In the early 19th Century, Count Jan Potocki wrote the world-classic novel Manuscrit trouve a Saragosse. In the 19th Century, Polish Romantic literature flourished, even though Poland had lost its independence. The poets Juliusz Slowacki, Adam Mickiewicz and Zygmunt Krasinski, known as the ‘Three Bards’, were central literary figures and spiritual leaders of the nation who wrote for independence. The novelist Henryk Sienkiewicz won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1905.

The avant-garde experimentation of the early 20th Century resulted in the emergence of outstanding Polish literary pieces. The legacy of Kresy Marchlands in the eastern regions of Poland, such as Wilno and Lwow, two significant centres of the arts, played a special part in these developments. In this region, the movement of Hasidism and its Jewish traditions were major influences as well. The Kresy Wschodnie (Eastern Borderlands) served as a cultural arena for a number of national and ethnic groups, whose achievements inspired one another; Boleslaw Lesmian, Bruno Schulz and Josef Czechowicz wrote their masterpieces here. Zakopane, in the south of Poland, was home to the avant-garde pieces of Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz. In 1924, Wladyslaw Reymont was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for his novel Chlopi (The Peasants). Some of the outstanding 20th-century poets include Tadeusz Rozewicz and Zbigniew Herbert. Czeslaw Milosz won a Nobel Prize in Literature in 1980, and Wislawa Szymborska took home the same award in 1996.

Many celebrated Polish directors were graduates of the famous Lodz Film School, including Roman Polanski, with his films Rosemary’s Baby, The Pianist, Knife in Water, Frantic, and Krzysztof Zanussi, who was a leading figure and director of the Cinema of Moral Anxiety in the 1970s. The films of Andrzej Wajda are a profound analysis of the universal values in Polish reality and the struggle to preserve human dignity in difficult circumstances. Wajda’s most important films describe identities of different generations of Polish people. For his contribution to cinema, he was awarded an Oscar. The 1990 films of Krzysztof Kieslowski include The Double Life of Veronique and his Three Colors trilogy. Some Polish film directors have worked in Hollywood, such as Janusz Kaminski and Agnieszka Holland. Many Polish animation films derive inspiration from graphic arts and have a long tradition as well, with such representatives as Jan Lenica and Zbigniew Rybczynski, who was awarded the Oscar in 1983.

The avant-garde theatre of Poland is world famous. The most innovative and creative representative of this trend includes Jerzy Grotowski. Another original Polish playwright of the 20th Century was Tadeusz Kantor, who was also a theoretician of drama, stage designer and painter. Kantor’s ideas follow the theme of death, with his most recognised production Dead Class.

Poland also boasts such well-known music festivals as Wratislawia Cantans and the International Festival of Contemporary Music, Warsaw Autumn. Poland’s museums exhibit impressive collections of art and such international masterpieces as Leonardo da Vinci’s 'Lady with the Ermine', at the Czartoryski Museum in Krakow, as well as Hans Memling’s 'The Last Judgement', in the National Museum in Gdansk. Other attractive collections and pieces are showcased in ethnographic and open-air museums.

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