Prague, Czech Republic – In the years 1980-1989, the cooperation between Poland and the Czech Republic (then-Czechoslovakia) flourished on the grounds of the Solidarity movement, and eventually led to the freedom of both Central European countries after decades of communist rule.
The Polish National Centre for Culture, in cooperation with Good Looking Studio, have decided to commemorate it by creating a trans-border work of art: two murals in Prague and Warsaw, that were unveiled last week to symbolize the “common road to freedom of Poland and the Czech Republic” and which, combined together, form one wholesome and unique composition.
We spoke with Prof. Rafał Wiśniewski, director of the National Centre for Culture Poland (NCK) about the project.
What is the story of “Aim high – Wall of Culture”? How did this initiative came to be?
Poland and the Czech Republic share similar historical experiences of the Soviet oppression after World War II and the difficult and long road to democracy and sovereignty. This path in both countries was marked by the democratic opposition, and the milestone was the Polish Solidarity (Solidarnosc) movement, which was born 40 years ago and radiated throughout the region.
The fruit of its labor also paved the way for the Polish-Czechoslovak Solidarity and the underground cooperation between the two neighbouring countries developed within its framework. This history of Solidarity and its influence on the collapse of the communist party and the democratization of the countries of our region in 1989 is what served as the inspiration for eight Polish and Czech murals.
The idea of making the murals arose from the need to commemorate those events that initiated systemic changes in Poland and neighboring countries and as a result led to the collapse of the communist bloc in 1989. The National Cultural Centre has established cooperation with the Polish Institute in Prague and a strategic partnership with Svet Knihy. The implementation of the project is possible thanks to the grant program “Inspirational Culture” of the Polish Ministry of Culture and National Heritage.
We wanted to present the story in a form that would be more understandable to the younger generations who do not remember the events from the 1980’s. The impact of our joint activities, initiated in the first half of this year, are two large murals decorating the walls in the capitals of Poland and the Czech Republic.
How were the illustrators chosen for the project?
We were looking for illustrators from both Poland and the Czech Republic. What was really important for us was to establish new relationships with people with whom we had not had the opportunity to cooperate so far.
Every day we are looking for new, fresh illustrators with an interesting line. We wanted their styles to complement each other.
Will NCK be working on similar projects in the future?
The National Centre for Culture has already completed over a dozen mural projects in Poland. The “Aim high – Wall of Culture” project is another NCK undertaking to commemorate this anniversary. Murals observing specific events were also created in Jastrzębie-Zdrój, Gdańsk and Szczecin, where the August Agreements were signed. We will certainly use such forms of expression in other important projects in the future, because a mural is a form of applied art presented in the largest and most visited gallery, which is urban space.
How were locations for the murals chosen?
We wanted both locations to be in the city center, visible to both car users and pedestrians. The walls also had to be similar in size and dimensions. In Warsaw, we decided to locate at Sienna 45, in the very center of the city. In Prague, the mural is located at Tusarova 42, in the Praha district 7.
What kind of impact did the creation of Solidarność have in Czechoslovakia?
In the memoirs of Czech and Slovak opposition activists, they very often refer to the emergence of “Solidarity” as an important moment in their lives. They especially admired the fact that at a time when opposition activity in Czechoslovakia was the domain of a very small group of people, a mass social movement arose in Poland, in which the intelligentsia cooperated with workers.
Some, like the writer Jachym Topol, managed to emigrate to Poland in 1981: he recounts the incredible atmosphere of freedom compared to Czechoslovakia. Alexandr Vondra, an opposition activist who later became a politician, said recently that “Solidarity was an inspiration for us, a source of know-how and a symbol that it could be better with us as well.”
Of course, the communist regime also reacted to the events in Poland. Out of fear of “an infection from Poland”, a huge propaganda machine was launched, which presented Poles as “slackers and workers of socialism”. Many negative stereotypes created by the former communist press continue to this day.
How did solidarity between Poland and then-Czechoslovakia express itself in those years?
The opposition in both countries repeatedly expressed mutual support and solidarity: for example, in Poland, there were frequent hunger strikes or demonstrations in front of Czechoslovak diplomatic missions to remind people of the imprisoned activists of Charter 77 and VONS. Reciprocally, the spokespersons of Charter 77 repeatedly supported the striking Polish workers in their texts. From 1978, meetings began to take place secretly in the bordering mountains.
This eventually paved the way for the creation of the Polish-Czechoslovak Solidarity (for the first time in 1981, but due to the declaration of martial law in Poland, it started to operate more intensively in 1987) which was the first cross-border, international opposition organization in the Soviet bloc. It played a major role in the fall of 1989 when it became one of the accelerators of change in Czechoslovakia.