1956 was a heady year of protest against the repressive Communist governments that controlled much of Central and Eastern Europe. The most famous uprising of that year is the Hungarian Revolution, a nationwide rebellion that was brutally suppressed by invading Soviet forces. Espionart has previously explored this landmark Cold War episode by looking at József Jakovits’s poignant biomorphic sketches, which chronicled the revolutionaries’ fight against the encroaching army.
A less well-known revolution of 1956 is the Poznań Uprising, a two-day wave of protests by factory workers in one of Poland’s largest cities. As events spiralled out of control on 28 June 1956, with escalating violence on both sides, the Polish military entered Poznań. By the end of the conflict, at least 57 citizens lay dead, including Roman “Romek” Strzałkowski, a 13-year-old schoolboy who would become a posthumous symbol of Polish resistance to Communism. However, unlike the increased repression that followed the Hungarian Revolution, the Poznań Uprising ultimately heralded liberal reform, with the so-called Polish October later in 1956 precipitating the Solidarity movement of the 1980s, and the eventual fall of Communism in Poland. [Find out more about art, Solidarity and the cheeky dwarves who brought down the Iron Curtain.]
Fifty years later, the Polish and Hungarian authorities both looked to artists to commemorate the uprisings of 1956. In Hungary, a modernist sculpture by the art collective i-ypszilon, unveiled in Budapest’s City Park, proved a provocative choice. In Poznań, an allegorical mural, commissioned by the district council, would also cause controversy. The 2.9 by 8 metre painting was the work of the eccentric Polish artist, Franciszek Starowieyski. Also known by the pseudonym Jan Byk, Starowieyski trained as a painter in Kraków and Warsaw, before making his name as a prolific poster and set designer for theatre and film. In later life, Starowieyski found international fame and, in 1985, became the first Polish artist to have a solo exhibition at MoMA in New York. [You can now relive that exhibition, thanks to the museum’s excellent online archive.]
Over the course of seven days in 2006, Starowieyski painted his tribute to the 1956 uprising in public at the ZAMEK Cultural Centre in Poznań. In his distinctive surrealist-grotesque style, the canvas depicts the winged figure of the Ancient Greek goddess Nike (Victory), watching over the fallen protesters, each one numbered. Behind them, a boy waving a white and red banner is said to be Romek Strzałkowski. Nike faces a menacing personification of Communism, which Starowieyski described as the “red plague”. Next to this bulging, weaponised figure, bursting out of a red star, Starowieyski also acknowledges thirteen members of the Polish forces killed during the confrontation.
Upon the completion of the mural, some participants in the 1956 rebellion objected to its flagrant nudity. However, later in 2006, Starowieyski’s painting was welcomed to its new home at the headquarters of H. Cegielski–Poznań S.A., the manufacturing company whose workers had sparked the uprising.
An additional visual parallel between the Hungarian and Polish rebellions is also of interest. In 1956, Starowieyski created a rare political poster in tribute to the victims of the Hungarian Uprising, demonstrating the strength of sympathy among Poles after their experiences in Poznań. The lithograph, which depicts the head of a peace dove with a teardrop hanging from its eye, is remarkably similar to the final etching in the Revolution series, created in the same year by Hungarian artist, József Jakovits. Assuming that Jakovits’s design was inspired by Starowieyski’s famous poster, the works demonstrate little-known dialogue among dissident artists behind the Iron Curtain, and a shared artistic response to a year that shook Eastern Europe.