Extraordinary tale of inner city Warsaw and a lost Picasso brought to life in fascinating new exhibition
What is the link between Picasso, the lost picture of a mermaid and a Polish housing estate? A new exhibition at the Wola Centre of Culture in Warsaw has the answer.
Entitled “Museum of Glass Houses”, it sheds light on three housing estates in the city’s north-western Wola district, built in the 1930s and 1940s for workers at nearby factories.
The exhibition, which opened on November 11th, explores “fulfilled and unfulfilled dreams of modernisation” in Poland, which is celebrating the centenary of regaining independence.
It focuses on three housing estates in the area: the modernist TOR and BGK ones at Koło, and the Syrkus estate built right after World War II.
The latter was designed by husband and wife Szymon and Helena Syrkus, two Polish architects associated with the Polish avant garde.
Pablo Picasso visited the Syrkus estate while in Poland in 1948 to attend the World Congress of Intellectuals in Defense of Peace in Wrocław. In one of the flats, he drew a mermaid – the symbol of Warsaw – on the walls of one of the flats. Rather than a sword, she was bearing a hammer.
Fed up with visitors coming to see it, the owner of the flat asked to be moved to a different one. When that failed, she simply painted over Picasso’s mermaid.
The “glass houses” in the exhibition title are a reference to a scene in Przedwiośnie (The Spring to Come), a 1925 novel by Stefan Żeromski, in which the protagonist’s father imagines Poland as a place of modern glass houses.
The housing estates in Koło were built in this modernist spirit, as homes for working class families. They had modern amenities, including indoor toilets, balconies and greenery. Residents had access to a nearby school, doctor and centre of culture.
“The history of pre-war housing estates fits the idea of a modern independent Poland, which is why the exhibition is a place for reflection on dreams of modernity and a well-designed home, city and state,” the Wola Centre of Culture explains on its website.
Preparing the exhibition, the organisers drew on residents’ memories, including their parents’ and grandparents’ memories in the Koło area before, during and after the Second World War.
The Wola Centre of Culture has occupied the same spot on 85 Obozowa Street since 1937, around the time the pre-war housing estates were built.
The exhibition, which runs until the end of March 2019, can be visited from Tuesday to Saturday, from 12.00 until 18.00.