Where’s ‘herstory’ in history? Webber’s World explores how women are honoured with monuments
First making waves a couple of years back, a Poznań-based NGO is leading calls for the establishment of more monuments dedicated to historical female figures after highlighting the dearth of such statues to be found around the country.
Moved to take action following the realisation that Poznań had just one monument specifically named after a woman – that of pedagogue Maria Grzegorzewska – the Julia Woykowska Foundation has since campaigned ceaselessly to raise awareness of the issue.
Among other things, their subsequent actions have often taken a physical form with International Women’s Day seeing campaigners standing on pedestals in the city’s Plac Wolności and donning the kind of period clothing that would have been worn by the likes of biologist Helena Szafran and poet Kazimiera Iłłakowiczówna.
Yet whilst these ‘human statues’ have previously generated plenty of column inches in the press, to this day the problem exists with women often railroaded to become little more than composite representations of ideals or movements.
Living as I do in Warsaw, that much is immediately apparent – prowling the centre, it is impossible not to pass figures of male heroes (often sporting extravagant moustaches and some military sash), yet women are a far rarer sight.
True, one could easily point to the trio of mermaid statues, possibly the most famous of which – by the mouth of Świętokrzyski Bridge – was modelled pre-war on Krystyna Krahelska, a poetess that would later die after sustaining fatal injuries on the first day of the 1944 Warsaw Uprising.
Likewise, those seeking to blur the argument could also flag up the presence of other females – for instance, the defiant, laurel-thrusting partisan monument between Smolna and Nowy Świat (and built, partially, using granite materials recovered from the demolished Hindenburg Mausoleum), or even the sabre-wielding Nike close to the W-Z Tunnel.
Honouring the Greek Goddess of Victory (not the sports shoe, duh), it was authored by Marian Konieczny, formerly a student of the acclaimed Xavery Dunikowski. Measuring ten metres in height, the 10-ton Goddess was then cast in Gliwice before being sent by train to Warsaw in two separate pieces.
Unveiled in 1964, and originally perched on Pl. Teatralny, for many this symbol of Warsaw’s wartime suffering was viewed as something of a covert tribute to the Uprising, an event that had been written out of the history books by the Communist authorities.
But despite being reputedly modelled on Konieczny’s adolescent daughter, the figure (now found teetering on a 14-metre plinth) was a conceptual representation rather than a direct tribute to anyone in specific.
Of course, the treatment and commemoration of the war remains a sensitive topic in Poland, and as such the unveiling of any new monument faces scrutiny and criticism.
Meeting with widespread approval, last year saw the unveiling of Monika Osiecka’s memorial to the women of the Uprising. Revealed to coincide with the anniversary of the capital’s surrender, and placed in Plac Krasińskich, it depicts three women holding hands.
Speaking of dignity and fortitude, and seeking to spotlight those women who served as soldiers, nurses and messengers, it is a work that makes a lingering impression on all those that view it. “It’s not about who survived and who did not,” says the sculptor, “but about female solidarity.”
As extraordinary as this monument is, it too speaks only in general terms. That said, Warsaw is not completely bereft of memorials to individuals, and it says much as to how the city has developed that some of these have become much-cherished features of the districts that they are found.
For example, the leafy Saska Kępa suburb is nothing without its statue of Agnieszka Osiecka. Debuting in 2007, it commemorates the prolific poetess and author, depicting her seated at a table with her legs elegantly crossed.
Briefly the wife of Wojciech Frykowski (who would later die at the hands of Charles Manson’s band of lunatics), she stood on the vanguard of Poland’s bohemian intelligentsia and carved a name as one of the greatest and most influential artistes of the time – a point underlined by a rich portfolio that included the authorship of over 2,000 songs.
With fresh flowers placed daily at her side by anonymous locals, this remarkable monument has become arguably the defining landmark of this entire district.
Equally loved, the Maria Skłodowska-Curie monument that gazes from the New Town towards the Wisła has also become entrenched in hearts ever since premiering back in 2014.
Though not the only monument dedicated to this pioneering scientist, it is possibly the most high profile – in fact, its ‘opening’ was jointly attended by both the Presidents of Poland and France.
Not all of Warsaw’s female monuments can boast such popularity and devotion, however. There have been some marvellous recent-ish additions (not least scoutmaster and insurgent Wanda Tazbir in 2007, actress Halina Mikołajska in 2012, and Poland’s first female general, Maria Wittek, in 2007), but others have fared less well.
In Praski Park, for instance, novelist Eliza Orzeszkowa can be seen looking gloomy under generous flecks of bird poo, her stern scowl perhaps reflecting her thoughts on the pigeons that circle with wicked intent.
Regardless, that this monument appeared in 1938 (thirty years after it had been sculpted by Henryk Kuna) can be seen as proof that Warsaw has done more than most to commemorate Poland’s greatest women.
Certainly, the city is an outlier with regards to this. Looking beyond, locating statues honouring women can be a thankless task (albeit one handled with stoicism by TFN’s intern, Lidia).
In Lublin, a statue of Maria Skłodowska-Curie that’s stood since 1964; in Suwałki, a monument of Maria Konopnicka crafted by Jan Bohdan Chmielewski. And although the trail does not exactly dry up entirely at this point, you could hardly accuse it of ever getting going.
That said, at least Ciechanów has lost its unique tribute to Doda. The idea of TV showman Szymon Majewski, 2012 saw the startling premier of a statue ‘honouring’ Poland’s princess of pop.
Though later revealed to be a prank, it was met with a mix of bemusement and indignation in some sections of society, but hearty peels of laughter in many others.
Now no matter what you may think of Doda’s artistic output, there can be few others who have done more to shape Poland’s modern celebrity culture – to see her reduced to a giant pair of boobs said much for the giggling schoolboy attitudes that prevail among many.
And just to clarify, I pen this as a beer-swilling hoodlum not some tub-thumping member of the militant fringe; that even I, King Bozo himself, recognises the need for more female statues should be cause for alarm.
And no, these should not be faceless representations of women as maternal figures or bringers of peace, but dedicated celebrations of the countless females that have played a starring role in the development of this nation.
Where to start? Personally, I can think of no-one better than Julia Woykowska herself. Reportedly a cigar-smoking vodka lover that was partial to kissing her husband in public (outrageous!), this 19th century writer broke boundaries at the time.
Opening a boarding school for girls in 1840 in Poznań, this pioneer was determined that it should not just be boys who had the right to a good education. Heavily involved in the fight for social equality, if anyone befits a statue then it is this rebel with a cause.
Additional research by Lidia Ławecka.