Folk Art: The Spirit of Poland

Folk art (sztuka ludowa) is a constituent piece of Polish national identity and, as a technical term, applies to a wide range of artistic activity. Not being restricted to independent works of art, folk art is often applied art, and although it includes sculpture (rzeźba) and painting (malarstwo), it extends to embroidery (hafciarstwo), lace (koronkarstwo), ceramics (ceramika), pottery (garncarstwo), and wood carving (rzeźba drewniana) too. Folk art evolved out of a combination of practical need and artistic impulse and, as it reflects the everyday lives of those who create it, the accoutrements of work and religion can also come under the ‘folk art’ umbrella. Rural Poland is the real home of the country’s folk art, but it is also to be found in the cities, both in the form of tourist souvenirs and in museum collections, and it has been an important medium for the expression of a distinctively Polish culture through the centuries.

Although Polish folk art covers many different genres of artistic production, a few types are particularly well-known. Pisanki – traditional decorated eggs – are a very important form of folk art in Poland. While traditionally real eggs are decorated and then eaten on Easter Sunday, ornamental versions of these eggs can also be purchased. The intricate patterns are drawn on in wax or simply scratched into the surface, and then the eggs are boiled in natural dyes to color them. In the area in the center of Poland eggs decorated with petals, paper or pieces of cloth are also found, while in the north east pisanki are traditionally decorated with yarn. Another familiar form of Polish folk art is wycinanki – decorative paper cut-outs, typically with colorful designs of flowers and birds, which are traditionally cut out with sheep-shears. Finally, painting on glass (malarstwo na szkle) is another distinctively Polish form of folk art, particularly well-known in the area around the Tatra Mountains. In the nineteenth century these naïve images, created by painting onto the reverse of a piece of glass, were particularly associated with religious art, but today the method is embraced by artists working with a wide range of different subjects.

A number of towns and villages in Poland are strongly associated with folk art and are key attractions for the enthusiast. Zakopane, the famous ski resort at the foot of the Tatra Mountains, is perhaps the most important town in Poland for folk art. This is all down to Stanisław Witkiewicz, a painter, architect and art theorist who created the ‘Zakopane Style’ of ornate wooden architecture in the town. He attempted to forge an artistic identity for Poland in the late nineteenth century (at a time when it was partitioned between rival countries and didn’t actually exist as a nation), building on and preserving the strong folk traditions of the Górale people of the Tatras and the artistic heritage of the surrounding Podhale region. The Museum of the Zakopane Style (Muzeum Stylu Zakopiańskiego) is housed in the first building Witkiewicz constructed in the new style and contains a wealth of folk art characteristic of the region. Meanwhile, the village of Zalipie, some 40 miles from Kraków, has a unique folk art tradition of its own. The women of the village paint every surface they can find, from barn and cottage walls to fences, with highly colorful, typically Polish motifs, and there is an annual competition for the best-painted cottage. Known for a very different form of art, the town of Bobowa in Małopolska has been famous for its lace since the nineteenth century and it now hosts an annual Bobbin lace festival. Nearby Koniaków, in the Beskid Mountains, is similarly known for its crochet lace. Meanwhile, the western Polish city of Bolesławiec is famed for its ceramics – ceramika bolesławiecka. This highly-decorated pottery has a five hundred year history, which can be discovered in full at the Muzeum Ceramikiin the town. Some broader areas of Poland are also key to the nation’s folk art traditions, and Kurpie, an ethnic region in Mazovia, is particularly well-known for its preservation of traditional folk customs, while the area around Łowicz, in central Poland, also has a strong association with folk art.

While striking out from the urban centers and discovering folk art in situ can’t be beaten, the folk art of Poland is perhaps most easily and accessibly discovered in the ethnographic collections of the country’s museums. Zakopane’s Tatra Museum (Muzeum Tatrzańskie) has an important collection of religious folk art, as well as a recreation of a typical nineteenth century Podhale cottage, complete with painted glass icons. Kraków’s Ethnography Museum (Muzeum Etnograficzne) is Poland’s biggest ethnographic museum and has more religious folk art and a wealth of other folk artefacts. Warsaw, Wrocław, Toruń and Łowicz also have extensive folk collections at their own ethnographic museums, each focusing on the specific contribution of their respective regions of Mazovia, Silesia, Pomerania and Wielkopolska to the tradition. Toruń’s museum also has a skansen – an open-air museum which gathers together examples of the local architecture, from farm buildings to churches. These museums can be found all over the country, often preserving buildings that would otherwise have been lost, by dismantling them and reconstructing them on-site, and folk art can be found in its original setting here. The ethnographic parks at Dziekanowice, Wielkopolska; Wdzydze Kiszewskie,  Pomerania; Nowy Sącz and Sanok, both in Małopolska; and Lednica, Silesia are amongst the best of this type of museum.

After seeing the richness of Poland’s folk art traditions, you may want to take a little piece of this culture home with you, but buying folk art can be a tricky business since inferior quality items have flooded the market, targeted at unwary tourists. Your best bets are brightly colored pottery, leather goods and objects carved from wood, all of which can be found at craft markets in many city centers. But if you are looking for a genuine piece of folk art at a good price it pays to do some research in advance. Organisations like CEPELIA – the Polish Art and Handicraft Foundation – can advise on regional styles and authentic producers, and they even sell authentic Polish folk art to wholesalers online. Wherever in Poland you happen to be staying, smaller, family-run shops and workshops away from the urban centers are usually happy to discuss their work with you and educate you in the region’s artistic heritage. In folk art lies the spirit of Poland, so be sure to make a discovery of this cultural tradition part of your trip!