Chopin monument with one of Poland’s most turbulent histories celebrates unveiling anniversary
An iconic monument of Frederik Chopin which has one of Poland’s most turbulent histories today celebrates the anniversary of its unveiling.
A jewel of the Art Nouveau era, the monument in Warsaw’s Łazienki Park depicting Chopin plunged into contemplation under a rustling willow tree was first unveiled in 1926.
However, in 1940, the Nazis blew it up, cut it into pieces and transported it to Germany to be melted down and used to make weapons.
Today’s celebration is in recognition of the unveiling of its copy which was put up in 1958.
The convoluted history of the monument dates back to 1876 when members of the Warsaw Music Society hatched plans for a monument, but in Polish lands under Russian rule, the law strictly prohibited the raising of any monuments celebrating Poles.
Many years later in 1901, hopes were raised when Polish opera singer Adelajda Brocholska performed at the Court Theatre in St Petersburg.
Moved by the beauty of her voice, Tsar Nicholas II asked her how he could repay her for her performance.
Adelajda asked that a monument to Fryderyk Chopin be erected in Warsaw. The tsar, surprised by her request, gave his consent.
However, the Russians soon regretted the decision and started to obfuscate.
While the Russian Governor's Office in Warsaw gave permission for the building of the monument, he stipulated that the organisers could not advertise in the press to raise funds. They could only conduct fundraising by word of mouth and collections after concerts making it impossible to raise the 60,000 roubles needed.
The ban on publishing in the press also made it virtually impossible to hold a competition to select a design for the monument.
The organising committee therefore had to approach sculptors individually. One of these was Wacław Szymanowski, who had previously created a monument to Juliusz Słowacki, an adaptation of which is now in Wrocław.
Szymanowski was asked to come up with a design, which he did. However, in the meantime, the Russian authorities had relaxed their restrictions and allowed press announcements for an open competition to select a design.
Surprisingly, Szymanowski was not invited to take part. However, when the new designs failed to impress the judges, the organisers returned to Szymanowski.
When images of his design were released in the press, the reaction was not positive. There was even a dendrologist who proved that the shape of the willow tree under which Chopin sits is impossible in nature.
The criticisms were so loud that the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg, whose opinion was needed to build the monument, issued a firm no to the design.
Efforts dragged on but were interrupted by the First World War. The monument was finally cast and unveiled some years after Poland regained its independence on 14 November 1926 in Warsaw’s Royal Łazienki Park.
The monument depicting Fryderyk Chopin sitting listening to the rustle of a willow tree lasted only 14 years.
It survived the German siege of Warsaw in 1939 without damage. Hopes that it would remain safe were bolstered when its image was placed on the 10 zloty banknote, which was issued from March 1940 by the Emission Bank in Poland, created by the Germans for the General Government.
However, it soon became an unwelcome presence for the Germans. Under the pretext of needing scrap metal for the war industry, the Nazi governor Hans Frank ordered the demolition of the Chopin monument, which took place on 31 May 1940.
The German authorities further justified the barbarism by saying that the monument was ugly.
The pedestal was blown up and its pieces taken away by rail. It is not known exactly what happened to the individual fragments of the monument.
It has been speculated that the scrap metal was bought by the company of Walter Caspar Toebbens, a wealthy German industrialist. Another theory is that the remains were sent to Breslau when workers in Wrocław found a fragment of a statue depicting Chopin's head in an industrial plant.
The Germans were so keen to remove all traces of the monument that they even removed copies that were in Polish museums, which made it very difficult to recreate the monument after the war ended.
The rebuilding of the monument became a matter of national pride after the war, even in the new Soviet dictatorship.
In October 1946, Varsovians engraved on the monument's empty plinth the inscription: "The statue of Fryderyk Chopin destroyed and looted by the Germans on 31 May 1940 will be rebuilt by the Nation".
Miraculously, a small plaster model survived, found in the rubble of the Szymanowski’s house in Mokotów.
In 1946 it was used, together with rescued copies of the composer's head, archival photographs and a photogrammetric analysis, to reconstruct it.
In 1958, the copy, measuring over 6 metres in height and weighing 16 tonnes, was placed once again in its original spot.
It remains there to this day as a backdrop to the famous summer Chopin concerts and as one of the most recognisable images of Chopin around the world.