The Gnomes of Wroclaw
Poland's Whimsical Ambassadors
The Gnomes of Wroclaw
The museum I worked for sent two of us to Poland as part of an international exchange. Our participation in the program gave us the opportunity to share curatorial and exhibit information and learn the differences in our approach to preservation. I had expected to spend most of my time in storage rooms or offices, but thankfully our hosts viewed the exchange as the chance to show a couple of Americans the beauty of their homeland. They planned daily trips all over Poland and I knew that by the time I left I would have seen more of this country than most visitors ever got to.
The whole trip had me mesmerized, gaping in pure delight at the colors, the sounds, the sheer beauty of a land I’d never given a second thought. It was like unfolding a new page of an illustrated book each day, one created by an artist of extreme imagination and skill. There was nothing plain about anything I’d seen.
Each day I walked in the plazas where people gathered in outdoor restaurants while children played in fountains and felt myself transported to a fantasy land where evil kings and lost princesses, valiant knights and dashing Prince Charmings and perhaps even a fire-breathing dragon might cross my path at any minute. I’d already seen a few I was certain came to life when I wasn’t looking. These intricately carved dragons doubled as gutters and lampposts to hide their ancient power from the modern world. Giant statues carved of stone and precious metals overlooked every corner and city square. In the short time I’d been here I’d met fascinating people, been guided through medieval castles damaged by modern warfare and churches filled with art and riches and the powerful presence of faith. This was a land so full of history I couldn’t keep it all in my head. Then I saw the gnomes.
I had been there for a week when our hosts took my co-worker Dave and I to Wroclaw, home of more beautiful architecture and the fanciful gnomes. Like so much of this country, Wroclaw is a place of conflicted history that has seen much suffering. Even its name told a story. For years the city had gone by its German name of Breslau. As the Polish people have gradually taken back their country, they have also taken back their identity and the historic names of their places. But the scars of the past remain in small memories all across the landscape and in the pain in the voices of the people when they speak of tragedies that occurred long ago, sometimes even before they were born.
Perhaps it is these wounds that give Poles a grasp of the past that I so often find lacking in Americans. They remember those who suffered to finally bring Poland into its own national boundaries and honor them with grand monuments and spontaneous shrines throughout the cities. Cemeteries are works of art dedicated to the memory of those lost. Over and over on my tours I heard of the suffering of the people under the Germans and the terrible restraints of communism. They spoke of the difficulties of growing up under an oppression that took away not only personal identity but cultural identity as well. As I stood in the rubble of the chapel inside the oldest castle in Europe, intact for centuries until the bombs of the Nazis destroyed it, I couldn’t help but admire the strength and the durability of a people who keep coming back home and rebuilding it.
It is one of the most amazing truths to me that the human soul that has known much pain often finds great relief in odd bursts of humor. The old saying about laughter being the best medicine holds more than a grain of truth. It’s not only the best medicine but sometimes the most effective weapon as well. The history behind the gnomes of Wroclaw is a perfect example of this.
The statues are the creations of local artist Tomasz Moczek and can be found all over the city. My personal favorite was the little guy sitting in the window of an old prison that had been turned into a popular restaurant. He wore a chain on one leg and a sorrowful look on his face. I spotted another climbing a pole in the city plaza. Two more pushed in opposition against a huge boulder that sat not far from a memorial to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, as if to remind us that the twin masks of comedy and tragedy are both a part of life. It is something the Polish people have found to be important to remember.
Moczek based his fanciful creations on the peaceful protests of the Orange Alternative Movement in the 1980s. Deciding that humor was the best resistance to the oppression of the communists, the Orange Alternative Movement painted bright orange gnomes on buildings as a way of protesting what they believed was the absurdity of the communist edicts. Any form of graffiti was seen as subversive by the communist government and was painted over immediately. The Orange movement would look for the freshly repainted areas and paint over them again, with a bright orange gnome. I found this most interesting as today graffiti can be found all over Poland. There is hardly a building that doesn’t have some form of spontaneous artwork across the outside of it. It’s as if it’s now a matter of national pride to know they can spray paint their buildings to their hearts content.
Moczek was commissioned by the Wroclaw City Council to create the gnome statues and the first of them appeared around the city in 2005. They have become hugely popular, both with locals and with tourists, and other businesses have commissioned Moczek to add more of the statues over the years. Tourists are given a map to use to see how many of the fanciful creatures they can find as they browse through the streets. As I strolled along the river walk with my hosts, I couldn’t help but feel the power of whimsy protecting the city of Wroclaw from whatever the future might hold. In a fast changing world, that just might be the best weapon they have, for against something that can bring a smile to any face surely there is no resistance.