The miners who defied communism with their stunning works of art
The amateur artists lived and worked in the grim reality of the Katowice coalfields at a time when the country was smothered in stultifying blanket of communism.
Yet as a group they produced amazing works of vibrant colour reflecting a spiritualism and even occultism that defied their environment and made them one of Poland’s most unique artist communities.
The artists in question belonged to Grupa Janowska, a group of miners earning a living from the dangerous business of hewing coal at the Wieczorek mine in the town of Janów, which lies close to Katowice.
As the Culture.pl website reveals in a long and detailed article on the group, at first glance it was a communist official’s dream: honest proletarian folk elevated by the virtues of the socialism to the wholesome realm of art. But in reality Grupa Janowska was producing art that defied communist convention, and some of the group would go on to gain recognition both in Poland and abroad for their work.
One of the main influences on the group came from Teofil Ociepka, who worked as an electrician in the mine. A talented painter Ociepka had become an occultist before the war, and following the return of peace joined a community centre attached to the mine run by Otton Klimczok, who would go on to be one of the group’s most influential members.
At the centre Ociepka encouraged miners to paint, arguing, says Culture.pl, that painting was a mission from God. The use of colours and form in his work and some of those of the group reflected his unconventional spiritual beliefs, and started to set them apart from more conventional artists at the time.
This unconventionality could have been the end of Grupa Janowska in Stalinist Poland. But the group had protection in the unlikely form of Izabela Czajka-Stachowicz, a captain in the feared secret police and a woman who had the power to wind up the group at her whim. However, the captain was a passionate art lover and so protected and even promoted artists within the group despite the Stalinist strictures governing what was considered acceptable art.
As time went on the group became more settled and established but also developed its curious superstitions, which, perhaps, reflected its unconventional spiritual base. It, for example, only believed that there could be 12 in the group because accepting a 13th would result in someone dying or quitting.
Following the death of Stalin in 1953 and the gradual cultural thaw that followed, Grupa Janowska flourished with a core of artists such as Paweł Wróbel, Eward Gawlik and Paweł Stolorz going on to become known names not only Poland’s artistic world but also abroad. It also survived the loss of Ociepka, who left after falling out with Bogusław Skulik, a man who had once been one of his fiercest admirers.
The years from the mid-50s to the early 1970s are seen by some as Grupa Janowska’s golden years. The group still lives on having survived the end of communism and the turbulent arrival of capitalism, but art critics regard the group in those years as something unique in the history of Polish art.
By chance it boasted an unusually high number of highly talented artists shaped and influenced not only by the industrial environment of the coal fields but also by spiritualism and occultism. This combination helped produce some of the most individual and creative works of art in the post-war era. They never exhibited as a group but the influence of Grupa Janowska lives on.
To read more visit: https://culture.pl/en/article/naive-artist-coal-miners-occult-poland-silesia