Size counts: giant mural by celebrated artist honours Warsaw’s Jewish past
Artist Tytus Brzozowski has returned to the biggest stage possible following the recent unveiling of this fourth mural to date – an XL project celebrating pre-war Jewish life in the Polish capital.
Already widely-known in Poland, and increasingly popular abroad, Brzozowski first forged his name after his surreal water colours depicting fantastical city scenes went viral. Since then, his trademark style has earned him an army of admirers with his work harnessed by such foundations as Instytut Polonika to promote the nation’s cultural heritage abroad.
Commonly accepted as one of the country’s best-loved artists of the contemporary era, the last couple of years have seen the artist broaden his portfolio in the most literal sense possible with the unveiling of several historically-inspired murals across Warsaw.
The latest, found on Próżna 12, pays tribute to the city’s vanished Jewish quarter with the gravity of the subject influencing a slight change of style from the artist himself.
“The entire district,” Brzozowski tells TFN, “together with its inhabitants, customs and everyday life, has irretrievably disappeared from the city’s plan and that irreversibly changed the character of Warsaw. Now, it’s also disappearing from our collective imagination. Obviously, the subject of extermination is very traumatic so I felt topics related to that had to be treated in a special way.”
Lacking his usual light-hearted elements, Brzozowski’s latest mural instead throws its focus on the structures that were lost when the Nazis methodically demolished the district following their brutal suppression of the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
“I wanted to present a harmonious scene depicting the former area,” he says. “I showed important and characteristic buildings such as the Great Synagogue on ul. Tłomackie as well as the Simons Passage shopping centre. In addition, I included the kind of tenement houses that typified that district and were the essence of its life.”
Floating above the city as if they were a dreamy memory, these landmarks are complimented underneath by a selection of buildings that survived, among them the Nożyk Synagogue, Gruba Kaśka on Tłomackie and the Church of St. Augustine which famously soared over the rubble and ruins of the Ghetto after its liquidation.
Financed through the city’s participatory budget, the idea for a mural was first suggested by Bartłomiej Gołąbek and, in turn, it took three painters working under Brzozowski’s supervision three weeks to complete.
“The wall we worked on turned out to actually be very wavy,” says Brzozowski. “That can’t be seen at first glance, but that really impacted our work at the beginning – it made it quite difficult for us to copy my original drawing.”
The location, however, was by no means accidental.
“Próżna was very much part of the Jewish district,” explains Brzozowski, “and it’s especially important given that there’s almost nothing original left of the area. It’s a fragment of old Warsaw, lined with historical tenements on either side, and that’s why it was chosen as the site to commemorate the life, inhabitants and unique atmosphere of this historic place.”
Placing an emphasis on historical accuracy, the mural demanded in-depth research on Brzozowski’s part.
“It required me to carefully study old photographs of the area,” he says. “Old advertising signs are important elements of the mural and something I had to spend a bit more time on.
“The Jewish quarter was a bustling place, full of trade and services. In the old photos you can find lots of advertisements and signboards. I wanted to reflect that atmosphere, so in addition to including people in period costumes, I also added signboards on the project.
Working with Marek Tuszewicki of the Faculty of Jewish Studies at Jagiellonian University to ensure the Yiddish spellings and inscriptions were faithful, already this sensitive homage to the past has proved a firm hit with the public.
For Brzozowski, meanwhile, it’s further evidence as to his successful transition into large-scale art. Having already authored three outdoor murals in Warsaw – one commemorating Polish independence, another lionizing the history of Wola, and another on Chmielna showcasing the contrast between old and new Warsaw – a fifth is now apparently in the pipeline.
“Street art and murals can have a huge value,” he concludes. “They can celebrate events, people or a district’s heritage, become a tourist attraction or a symbol of the neighbourhood. They can bring together communities or reflect the soul of a city.”