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Aspirational magazines of Socialism

By Agata Pyzik.

Since the mid-1950s, after the initial turmoil of installing socialism was over, and especially after the Khrushchev’s “thaw” in politics and culture in 1956, people in socialist countries could finally take a little rest and start enjoying themselves, if only for a short period of time. ‘I read Polish magazines’, says a character in Edward Limonov’s Memoirs of a Russian Punk, set in Thaw-era Soviet Ukraine. ‘And why? Because I am interested in life and in culture’. Poland enjoyed a period of real social freedoms: it had the most open press in the Bloc, censorship on literature weakened and the press were unashamedly presenting consumer goods, youth culture and popular culture in an unprecedented way.

People all over the Bloc, like the poet Josif Brodsky, learned Polish just to be able to read uncensored stuff and world literature. The first post-war illustrated magazine designed for the new society in the wholly new circumstances was Przekroj (Slant) – the very same which tried briefly in 2012 to transform itself again into a leftist periodical – one of many adventures of the most important popular magazine in Polish history. 1945 was the Year Zero and as the reader should realize, the first few years after the war were a relative relaxation in comparison to what was to come. As early as May ’45 Przekroj was founded – the first illustrated magazine of People’s Poland, and which consciously embodied the revolution happening in Polish society. If I could describe it in one sentence, Przekroj was striving to make a magazine which could be read by all the new social classes of the New Poland, from the new elites to engineers to the kitchen lady, while at the same time smuggling in some of the pre-war charm and aspirations of the intelligentsia and bourgeoisie. It comprised of world news, columns, varying from cuisine to fashion and savoir vivre lessons to those serving the preservation of a material culture destroyed by the war. It had a mission, as one critic sarcastically put it, to “civilize” the nation, with the whole formation of its readers (circulation 500,000, and each copy was read by several people) considered “the civilization of Przekroj”.

Visually, Przekroj embodied the social formation it tried to represent. And together with it went a style connected to the cultural ideal and ambitions they promoted – a combination of the pre-war intelligentsia’s artistic aspirations and the new post-war democratization and homogenization of avant-garde and high art. Przekroj employed several graphic designers whose roots were in the pre-war avant-gardism, of course condemned as “formalism” in the Stalinist period. Przekroj took up what we could consider ‘liberal’ positions, yet as the meaning of liberalism highly depends on the political context, the it meant something definitely different than after 1989.

Przekroj editors tried to discreetly ‘educate’ and raise the nation, publishing suggestions and various kinds of advice, which was mostly incredibly mundane and, read after the years, reflects the dramatic shortages and grinding poverty in the early PRL. The first two decades after ’45 were an era of special austerity: there was not enough good quality food, or food as such, housing was in a dramatic state, including people living in the “caves” left after bombings, crumbling infrastructure, no clothes or of very poor quality, not even mentioning care for their aesthetics or fashionability, and, of course, the post-1945 “social revolution”, which meant that the traditional codes of behavior, of savoir-vivre, traced from the bourgeois society, were not only suspended, they were the part of the bourgeois past. Przekroj took the task of “recivilizing” the nation in the reality of the implosion of everything that was before, discreetly reinstalling the bourgeois culture. Advice on cuisine, where various cheap vegetables were “pretend” meat, or how to dress/make up, having neither clothes nor cosmetics, was combined with witty stories, usually written under pseudonyms by the editor Marian Eile and his deputy Janina Ipohorska, both editors and artists established before the war. Wit, charm and delicate persuasion were the weapons of Przekrój in their mission. This was conveyed not didactically, which was the norm in the humourless and heavily stylized socialist press, but via tasteful jokes assisted by the original graphic design and lay-out. Przekroj dealt with the growing alcoholism, encouraging sobriety and good manners in public places; promoted good health, advocating sport (that compulsory element of every socialist politics and ideology, as a “typical entertainment of the proletariat”); and it promoted healthy eating and a less formal, democratic elegance.

The fashion column was one of the most important in Przekrój, and was basically a guide to how to do something and create a “look” out of basically nothing. It was initiated by Janina Ipohorska, but a few years later taken over by the young art historian Barbara Hoff, who ended up holding it for the next 50 years and becoming the first “fashion dictator” of Poland. Nation had to be taught once again how to dress well, and the national clothing and fabric production was so poor that in order to survive in style, one had to live by one’s wits more than ever. At the beginning, as Hoff has described in numerous interviews, this was an impossible task: when she realized there was nothing to write about, she asked the ministry for permission to produce a clothing line of her own. She travelled across Poland to factories, bought fabrics and ordered them to produce her fashionable, modern designs. They were still hardly available, yet Hoffland, as it was called, was, next to Moda Polska (simply “Polish Fashion”) one of the rare examples of the quasi-private, though officially nationalized fashion companies in Poland. Both have survived communism, and Hoff kept designing well into the 90s. You could be sure, that if Hoff wrote about a new style for wearing a shawl in her column, the same afternoon there would already be dozens of girls on the streets trying to copy this style. Her flagship idea was blackening the “coffin shoes” (i.e. light, paper shoes, used as footwear for the deceased) which when colored black could pass as elegant “ballerinas”. As Czech journalist Milena Jesenská wrote in 1929, from a perspective of a fashion columnist,

The fashion column is really for people for whom there is no fashion… The average person with an average job and an average salary cannot dress fashionably. She can, however, have superb clothes… It is up to her to make clothes for herself according to fashion, adapting to it without aping it. In short, the less money she has, the more art it takes to look good… While many people think for a rich person, she must think for herself. The fashion column in the newspaper is for people who love beautiful things and cannot afford them. Only these kinds of people make culture. Only these kinds of people have style: they are innovative, daring and modestly restrained. The desire for things cultivates taste… It is a rare art to look like a good human specimen, without much money or expenditure, through one’s own efforts and the proper organisation of one’s life.

The fashion column in Przekrój was doing exactly this: teaching people how to be artists, often how to make clothes on one’s own; how to create elegance out of nothing by paying attentions to details and creating visual sensitivity towards one’s everyday life. The images were accompanied by witty remarks and comments, and in this, those delicate drawings by Hoff still emanate an elegant, dandy austerity which we could look for in vain in today’s chain store driven fashion. Only after making the everyday palatable, could the higher needs be fulfilled, like the need for beauty, aesthetics and art. In here is some of the greatest merit of Przekroj, which relentlessly propagated modern art (in visual arts and music) and abstraction, which extended to publishing “posters” with Picasso or Leger to pull out and hang on the wall in the modest socialist salons, giving away postcards of Polish abstract paintings to its readers or even selling abstract paintings painted by the artists-editors. It also was a vehicle to the post-Thaw eruption of the new, colorful design, associated today with the Festival of Youth in 1955 in Warsaw and Expo ’58 in Brussels.

Yet, if this was a ‘civilization’, then it had to be according to Norbert Elias’s definition, i.e., civilization as something created in the West. Przekroj supported the silent, careful  rebirth of the ‘cool’ in Poland too. It was creating ‘positive snobbery’ for the abroad, but its sights were ceaselessly always turned to the Seine, not the Moskva. It discreetly cheer-led the birth of the new, casual Western elegance, e.g. in the person of Brigitte Bardot and the new kind of free, careless, self-conscious girl. From the 60s films of the Polish school, like Janusz Morgenstern’s Goodbye, See You Tomorrow, or Innocent Sorcerers by Andrzej Wajda, there emerges a certain kind of noblesse, even if produced with little money. This is the era, when the youth prefer, rather than the rough sleazy American culture they pretended to have in the ’50s, a noble and stylish European version: they wear black and dark sunglasses, listen to jazz, are sexually liberated, looking like their counterparts in the later Nouvelle Vague. Or at least that was the image promoted in the suddenly liberated and West-friendly atmosphere of the 60s. This is the reason for the golden era in culture, art, film and design that ensues. Whereas elsewhere the 60s meant the most hectic time of social revolutions and upheavals, for the Bloc it meant that for the first time, consumerism was noble, as noble as art. Przekroj was never a simple proletarian agit-prop of the authorities. It was neither bourgeois enough nor proletarian enough, said to be too westernized for the communist poputchiks, and too ideologized for the pro-Western intellectuals. It continued to be inconvenient even after 1989, when it wasn’t socialist in content at all.

So why did the civilizational mission of ‘culturation’ in the new society have to be always understood as ‘liberal’ or ‘bourgeois’? One of the answers is weakness of the proletarian culture in Poland, where it never really create a strong grassroots base. And this wasn’t strong enough – aside from the beleagured interwar efforts of the Polish Socialist Party or the Jewish communists – the Bund, liquidated by the war, or the striving of Polish Futurists and Constructivists towards more leftist aesthetics, there wasn’t much of a legacy to build upon. Or, one could say, the proletarian culture, of big cities and their industrial bases, was often Jewish, and disappeared together with their extermination. This way anything culturally sophisticated was automatically suspicious (or celebrated) as being ‘bourgeois’. Yet it’s hard not to sympathize with the style of Przekroj, today inspiring only nostalgia for the sophistication of its language and good taste, which despite being egalitarian in its message, also tried to decompress the crude ideological information it had to provide.

Another level of the strange discrepancy between the official state policy in “bringing up the nation” and the practice was the strange existence of ‘luxury’ goods. While Przekroj’s strategy was to seduce, become the part of a life and then ‘raise’ its readers, “Ty I Ja” (You And I) monthly was very elitist: a strange combination of an artist and luxury magazine, with an avant-garde lay-out designed by artist and graphic designer Roman Cieślewicz, whose treatment of the magazine’s looks combined contradictory approaches to luxury and consumerism, at the same time celebratory and critical of it. Cieślewicz was a pioneer of pop-art and nouveau realism in Poland, who later migrated to France to design for ELLE and became one of the most prominent Polish artists living in the West. Driving from surrealism and his own version of Pop, Cieślewicz’s covers invited the reader to dream, they were a window to the secret life of unexisting bourgeoisie, in the atmosphere of Bunuel’s Belle du Jour or the erotic tales of Walerian Borowczyk, another Parisian exile. It often presented haute-couture creations from Parisian fashion houses arranged in an artistic way (yet, it was only photomontages cut from the unattainable French fashion magazines, never or rarely actual photo sessions produced in Poland), houses of artists and famous writers, which didn’t at all correspond with anyone’s lives and ironically, remained only ever available in the rotten world of the high party officials and apparatchiks.

Agata Pyzik is a Polish writer, who’s been active in UK press since 2010. focuses on art, politics, music and culture. She writes for various magazines, including The WireGuardianNew Statesman, Calvert Journal, Icon, New Humanist and Frieze. In her new book Poor But Sexy: Culture Clashes in Europe East & West (2014, Zero Books), she looks at the abandoned scenes of history in Eastern Europe and its relationship with the West, through historical and political movements and the development of popular cultural forms.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, August 7th, 2014.