Anna Godlewska knows her way round the cultural labyrinths of two very different European cities. Four years ago she was working at the Polish Cultural Institute in Prague, which had its own cinema and gallery, allowing her to take on the role of part-time curator. She then left to take over as Deputy Director at the Polish Cultural Institutein London, becoming its Director this August. It’s a slightly smaller affair, with just nine dedicated staff and no dedicated venue for events, so tend to be organized with other institutions.
‘We’ve observed that people in the UK are becoming more familiar with Polish culture – maybe because of their neighbours’, Anna reveals. This is hardly surprising, as there are now more than 600,000 of these neighbours in the country, and they also form a significant proportion of people who come to the events associated with the Institute: ‘We’re very happy if it’s a 50/50 split, or a slightly visible majority of British people in the audience.’
So what kind of events can those audiences expect? ‘We aren’t focusing on any specific branch of culture, and although we’ll be organizing one or two big events ourselves we’ll be mostly supporting Polish and British partners, and enabling or helping cultural exchange.’ One of the most prominent outcomes of that exchange programme in recent years was the 2011 Wilhlem Sasnal exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery, and Anna tells me that we have a show of work by his Polish associate Pawel Althammer to look forward to at the Hayward next year.
One of the Institute’s recent flagship projects was the Unsound festival, which came from from Krakow. ‘It’s electronic music imported from several countries in Europe like Poland, Germany and Austria. And there were UK musicians’, explains Anna. This grand cross-border experiment featured Pianohooligan aka Piotr Orzechowski, who did unexpected things with a piano including reworking some Penderecki, and a host of other muscians and DJs who filled various venues across London with surprising sounds. It was all a far cry from the decorous Sunday recitals that the Chopin Society holds at the Polish Embassy.
‘Actually, November and December are all about music and literature’, says Anna. There’s was Polish Music week (11–15 November) at the Yamaha Music store and Polish musicians at the London Jazz festival (15–24 November). Henryk Górecki’s sublime Third Symphony and Penderecki’s Violin Concerto No 1 will be performed at the Royal Festival Hall 27 November as part of the year-long The Rest is Noise festival, which looks at the way war, race, sex and politics have shaped music over the past century. Gorecki’s Third Symphony was composed to commemorate the victims of the Holocaust. ‘The Rest is Noise is very eclectic and fascinating’ says Anna. ‘The concerts tell you tell so much about the political situation in these countries using the language of music.’
Promoting literature in a foreign language can be more of a challenge. ‘I was surprised when I went into Waterstones once that I saw no modern European poetry in translation. It’s true that it’s difficult to get interest in poetry originally written in another language, but we have excellent translators, and I think it’s important. You can translate one culture into another’, Anna states. There are encouraging signs. Two volumes of poetry by Irit Amiel and Krystyna Milobedzka have just been published and the third edition of the Secret Agents of Sense, the third edition of Modern Poetry in Translation, is devoted to Polish poetry.
Curiously, a number of recent Polish novels are about crime, including Anya Lipska’s Where the Devil Can’t Go, which is set in London. So is Polish Noir is the new Scandi Noir? ‘Maybe it’s too early to tell’, muses Anna. ‘Polish authors and translators are very good, so we’re keeping fingers crossed that the readers will think so too.’ And do these Polish thrillers have a different flavour? ‘Maybe more black humour’, she laughs.
Although Anna feels that ‘for most British people Polish film is terra incognita’, the Institute has recently collaborated with Second Run DVD in issuing a box set of Polish Cinema Classics, including some remastered Andrzrej Wajda films, such as the early Innocent Sorcerers, which captures Poland during the post-Stalin era of late 1950s. But for the latest Polish films there’s the annual Kinoteka festival, which takes place at various venues in London, Edinburgh and Belfast each spring. It’s a source of some pride that Pawel Pawlikowski’s Idawon the prize for best film at the recent London Film Festival. It’s about post-war Poland coming to terms with past demons through the story of a novice nun, an orphan who has been brought up in a convent who has to confront the fact that she was born Jewish before she can take her vows.
There’s a theme emerging in our discussion – and that’s how so much Polish literature and film deals with recent history, and how it represents an attempt to come to terms with what happened during the Second World War and its aftermath. Anna nods in agreement: ‘Recent history is a very important part of Polish culture. The Germans are struggling with the past, and we also have our pains in the past. We were victims during the war and victims of a clash of systems, as we were wedged between Germany and Russia. It was a complicated situation, and the Holocaust was in the middle of it. Polish people felt as though they were in a house where there was a fire and a burglary going on at the same time. Recent films and books are still dealing with this trauma.’
It might seem strange that it is still so current but, as Anna says, ‘Communism was like a big refrigerator. Everything was frozen and waiting for the right time to emerge. That’s why we’re dealing with some heavy past problems right now.’
As I leave she gives me a copy of Mother Departs by one of her favourite authors, Tadeusz Rozewicz, who is now in his nineties. It’s a portrait of his mother in poetry and prose, infused with a sense of the turbulent times through which he and his family have lived. The poet said that he had set himself the task of creating poetry after Auschwitz.
I ask Anna what someone who didn’t know anything about Polish culture might learn if they picked up the book: ‘The general impression might be that Polish history was very difficult and that the lives of Poles were very complicated in the past. This is the clue to understanding our motivations and our mentality.’