As communist governments across Eastern Europe floundered in the 1980s, 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 the country. 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.
The dwarves were the mascot of the Orange Alternative, an artist-activist student movement founded in 1980 at the University of Wrocław. In that year, art historian Waldemar Fydrych, who went by the nom de guerre ‘Major’, wrote the Socialist Surrealism Manifesto, in which he argued 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.
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 pomposity and seriousness of Solidarity. As 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.
From the mid-1980s, the Orange Alternative developed into a series of over sixty ‘happenings’, artist-led actions and performances that took place in Polish cities, including Warsaw, Łódź and Lublin. These 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 ‘There is no freedom without dwarves’ and ‘Every militiaman is a piece of art’. 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.
However, the events presented a dilemma to the authorities, as by arresting protesters they risked making the regime itself look ridiculous. As Fydrych noted, “Can you treat a police officer seriously, when he is asking you: ‘Why did you participate in an illegal meeting of dwarfs?'” The state’s anti-Orange operations led to absurd scenes, such as the militia hauling away over 70 people dressed as Santa Claus. Members of the Orange Alternative also anticipated the authorities’ aggressive response and incorporated this into their plans for the happenings, such as running through the streets in T-shirts bearing the words ‘galloping inflation’, and then upon arrest, loudly congratulating the state on finally putting an end to the galloping inflation. The Orange Alternative movement reached its climax on 1 June 1988, when over 10,000 people wearing orange hats marched through the streets of Wrocław in the ‘Revolution of Dwarves’, while similar protests took place in Warsaw and Lublin. The following year the movement disbanded, as the communist Polish United Workers Party finally loosened its grip on power and allowed semi-free elections for the first time since 1928.
In the essay ‘Performing Revolution: The Orange Alternative‘, Julius Gavroche explains the movement’s importance as a model for peaceful protest around the world:
“They introduced what could be called performative politics, often using carnivalesque techniques, theatrical foolishness and taking back the spectacle into their own hands. The members of the Orange Alternative were not just artists with political objectives, they were also shrewd manipulators.”
Since 2005, the Orange Alternative has been given a permanent memorial in its birthtown of Wrocław, as an assortment of bronze gnomes have been placed on the streets of the city’s Old Town by local artist Tomasz Moczek, proving a popular draw for tourists.
Images: Orange Alternative graffiti, n.d. Courtesy Julius Gavroche/Autonomies; Down with Hot Weather–Down with Batons (Precz z upałami–Precz z pałami), Wrocław, July 1988; Revolution of Dwarves (Rewolucja Krasnoludków), Wrocław, 1 June 1988. Courtesy Grzegorz Borkowski/OBIEG; Dwarf sculpture in Wrocław.