Visual Arts & Architecture

Dr Marta de Zuniga in Conversation with Waldemar Januszczak

Tuesday 11 October 2022
Waldemar Januszczak by the Vistula river in Kraków with Wawel Castle and Cathedral in the background

MdZ: Waldemar, in your brilliant Sunday Times review of the Young Poland: The Polish Arts and Crafts Movement, 1890-1918 exhibition at the William Morris Gallery you say ‘The Poles are Britain’s silent minority. But their art has begun to speak’. Why do you think the Conversations with God: Jan Matejko’s Copernicus (The National Gallery) and Young Poland exhibitions both made such a big splash last year? And how can art help Britain’s most silent minority to regain its voice?

WJ: Art has power. It can change things. Transform them. Turn nowhere into somewhere. You can put an art gallery in an empty field, and – if it is a good gallery – people will come to the empty field to see it. So one way to get British people interested in Poland as a nation with a profound and pertinent history is to show them Polish art. Also, Polish art is new for the British. It has a freshness to it. Everybody has seen lots of Italian or French art. But they have not seen lots of Polish art. So it’s a voyage of discovery. And we all love voyages of discovery.

Young Poland at the William Morris Gallery

MdZ: The Granville-Skarbek Anglo-Polish Cultural Exchange project is actually taking your idea a step further and proposes a modern, digital format for celebrating Poles who’ve made an immense contribution to British culture. The list is far from finished, but it opens with remarkable personalities who’ve lived and worked here in the UK – Krystyna Skarbek, Feliks Topolski, Joseph Conrad, Leszek Kołakowski and Sir Andrzej Panufnik. Who else would you like to see being recognised and celebrated? And do You think projects like this one can resonate in a post-Brexit reality?

WJ: When it comes to naming Poles who have made a significant contribution to British culture – it’s complicated! So many have anglicised their names. And people like Kasia Madera or Rula Lenska are Polish, but people don’t think of them as Polish. As for the post-Brexit world – and I’m trying to be really optimistic here! – it could maybe become a world of discovery. Perhaps living in an isolated Britain will encourage the population to yearn ever more fiercely for the big wide world out there. Maybe it will fire a desire to learn more about that big wide world. And perhaps that’s where Poland comes in! Or perhaps not…

MdZ: Paraphrasing Monty Python’s sketch ‘What have the Romans ever done for us?’ how would you describe Polish contribution to British culture and society?

WJ: Where to start?! On a social level, Poland has done SO MUCH to keep Britain ticking over. From driving the buses to waiting on tables to fixing the plumbing; the Polish workmen who arrived here after Poland joined the EU have played an immeasurably huge part in keeping Britain going. In older days, Poles were already a significant minority here renowned for their hard work and their courage. Today, most people have heard of the Polish airmen who were so vital to the success of the Battle of Britain. So the real life contribution to British society has been huge. Culturally – it’s another story. Yes, there have been magnificent one-offs like novelist Joseph Conrad or artist and designer Franciszka Themerson. But the larger truth is that Polish culture has had little chance to impact significantly on British culture. It’s too far away and ‘other’. But my feeling is that this is slowly changing….

MdZ: I know you’ve just come back from Poland where you’ve been working on your recent film about Polish culture. Polish and British cultures seem very different, but is there something that they have in common? Which artists and cultural phenomena did you enjoy exploring the most?

WJ: Poland and Britain are both nations that like to remember the past. Sometimes to their detriment! One thing it is not a good idea to remind the British about is that Poland fought on the French side in the Napoleonic Wars! The myths of Wellington and Nelson are so deeply embedded in Britain’s national story. But events in the Second World War forced the two nations into each other’s arms – this time on the same side! – and since then there is, I believe, a special relationship between them: the sort of relationship you only have with comrades in arms. But to go back to dwelling on the past – it’s an attitude that has had a profound cultural impact. For example, the rise of the Arts and Crafts Movement in Britain at the end of the 19th century was paralleled almost exactly by the Young Poland Movement in Poland. Both movements sought a return to the old or traditional ways of doing things. Both movements believed that the past had a role to play in the future.

MdZ: In what ways did growing up with a dual Anglo-Polish heritage influence your life and career, and why was it important for you that your daughters speak Polish as well as English and Japanese?

WJ: I was born in England, but I have never felt English. From as long ago as I can remember I have thought of myself as Polish. I was brought up on a Polish camp. Polish was what I spoke until I was 6 when I was sent to English school. So from an early age I was aware of the value of speaking more than one language. If you speak different languages, you have a freedom that others don’t: a different sense of what is possible. Doors open for you. There’s also a mental difference that goes with speaking more languages. You’re more open, less afraid of foreigners. You don’t feel like a stranger wherever you go. That’s why I have encouraged my children to speak as many languages as possible. I firmly believe that if more people in Britain spoke more languages, Brexit would not have happened.

MdZ: Earlier this year in April you went to Lviv to report on art in Ukraine during the war. I was there with you and remember that we were all deeply impressed with the incredible resilience of the Ukrainian people, but for you it was also a very personal project. Why was it so important for you to go and speak out on the situation in Ukraine as well as its art?

WJ: My mother was born in what is now Ukraine. In those days it was Poland. She never had a passport – only some tatty stranger’s papers given to her by the British government. But she was always dreaming of seeing her old home. So one day I decided to get her a British passport. It was complicated, but we did it. And the first trip she made out of Britain since she came here during the war was to Poland, and then to her old house in Ukraine in a village called Lepica Dolna. We also went to nearby Lviv, which she had seen once as a girl. So for me, the situation in Ukraine had and has an immense personal force to it. Every time I think of it, I think of my mum and the shared history of Poland and Ukraine.

Waldemar Januszczak is Britain’s most distinguished art critic. Formerly the art critic of The Guardian, he now writes for The Sunday Times, and has twice won the Critic of the Year award. Renowned for his feisty opinions, Waldemar is also a film maker of television arts documentaries. Waldemar was born in Basingstoke, Hampshire, to Polish refugees who had arrived in Britain after World War II.

Dr Marta de Zuniga is Director of the Polish Cultural Institute in London. She studied in Warsaw, Munich, Moscow and London and lectured at the Department of Journalism and Political Science at University of Warsaw. During her five years as Director of the PCI, Marta’s work has focussed on developing partnerships and projects that highlight close cultural links between Poland and the UK.

Copernicus, by Jan Matejko
Waldemar Januszczak’s Ukrainian Journey