The Gnomes are in Wrocław and they are not retreating. Hiding in plain sight all over the city, the bronze gnome statuettes stand only about 10″ high yet they have a celebrated history of dissension with extraordinary influence on Polish political processes. Today they are just fun to have around.
The word for gnomes in Polish is krasnoludki and they are embedded in Polish culture and folklore. I remember growing up learning many ‘krasnoludki‘ songs as a child. And fanciful tales of krasnoludki abound in Polish children’s books.
The gnome as a means of dissent was started in Wrocław during communism by a group called the Orange Alternative. During the iron-curtain years, humor and ridicule was weaponized when outright dissidence was outlawed. Gnomes became the calling card of an artist named Waldemar Fydrych (alias The Major) who went to battle with paint cans, brushes and a sense of humor. When the communist authorities painted over anti-communist slogans on walls and buildings, the Orange Alternative would paint silly smiling gnomes over the freshly painted walls. When the communist politicians tried to crack down on this silliness they ended-up looking silly themselves. The people were laughing at the authorities while undermining an ideology. There’s a lesson for modern politics in there.
The irreverent gnome-y images appeared on city walls all over Poland. The Polish militia attempted to end the uprising of the gnomes by detaining graffiti artists which stoked the movement rather than squashing it. The Orange Alternative movement reached its climax on June 1,1988, when over 10,000 people wearing orange hats marched through the streets of Wrocław in what was called the ‘Revolution of Dwarves’. Their slogan was: “there is no freedom without dwarves”.
Today these little guys with their legacy are crawling all over Wrocław performing a variety of tasks. Their activities usually sync with a nearby business venue. For example, a gnome riding a lion is located in front of the Lion’s Club while a gnome carrying a suitcase is located in front of a hotel. I found a gnome sitting on a rock blowing a flower-blossom trumpet in the Botanical Gardens. There is a full symphony of bronze gnomes in front of the concert hall.
Private companies are seeking to connect their businesses with the Gnome-craze. They compete to have their own gnome with a name and a relevant trade near their place of business. Yes, every gnome has a name. Did you think with all that personality that they would be anonymous? The names reflect the personality, for example, the gnome who has been jailed is called Więziennik which means something like Jailbird. And the gnome that lies sleeping in a bed in front of the Hotel Patio is called Chrupek or Snorer.
The city of Wrocław has published a map of gnome locations. There are over 350 known gnome sites. And for the seriously gnome-engaged, you can go Gnome-Hunting with the ‘Wrocław Gnomes’ App.
My stories of Wrocław begin with the story of the gnomes. This is a fitting start for a quirky city with a lot of public art that blends into the older fabric of the city. There is a popular piece of street art that also bears mentioning here as it is also symbolic of cutting the ties from the communist era.
At the intersection of Pilsudskiego and Swidnicka streets, there is an art installation contrived by Jerzy Kalina, a Polish artist. It is a sculpture that depicts fourteen realistic human figures. Seven people are descending under the ground on one side of the busy intersection. They emerge from the ground across the street onto the opposite corner. The sculpture is called “Passage” (Przejscie). This is a striking metaphor for being sucked into the dark by communism and re-emerging in a new, modern, and western Poland.
How does one pronounce Wrocław without sounding totally American? It’s a difficult word unless you know the sounds of the Polish alphabet. Here is the closest I could come up with: V-roe-slaw-f … Give it a try.
About the ‘Orange Alternative’ gnome movement: https://espionart.com/2017/02/24/ridiculing-the-regime-the-orange-alternative-in-poland/
More about the sculpture ‘Passage’: https://mymodernmet.com/jerzy-kalina-passage-transition/
More about the current family of gnomes: https://www.inyourpocket.com/wroclaw/Gnomenclature_70297f
“Why Poland?” is a blog written and produced by Grace Nagiecka with photos by Gregory Spring. Kraków, Poland 2018.