The Indomitable Human Spirit

Public art can play such an important role in our lives, raising our spirits, making us laugh, bringing out the best in us, reminding us of who we are and the values we share, and sometimes art has this effect on us even when we don’t know the entire story. Here are a few stories of artworks in Slovakia and Poland that attest to the indomitable human spirit and make us laugh.

In the early 20th century there was a poor man, Ignác Lamár (nicknamed Schöne Náci), who was inspired by his grandfather a famous clown, to bring happiness to others. He experienced existential difficulties and great sorrows during his life, his younger lame brother was admitted to an institute and he lived alone since a child, and had to support himself. He found modest work in a theater, and later as a cleaner, but his desire was to give others joy, humor, love and laughter. He could often be found in one of the town’s many cafes, where citizens would buy him a pastry or coffee. For forty years he walked around the town in threadbare top hat and tails, bowing courteously, greeting women with the old fashioned greeting, “I kiss your hand” in German, Hungarian and Slovak, and handing them a flower. His life size statue (by Juraj Meliš, 1997) stands on Rybarska street between the main square and the opera, and he is raising his hat and beaming a greeting to all who walk by.

In 1805, Napoleon’s army besieged Bratislava (then known as Pressburg) without success. It attacked again in 1809, this time successfully, and Napoleon marched into the town. There is a legend about a wounded French soldier called Hubert who fell in love with a nurse from Bratislava, decided to settle there, and to produce a sparkling wine based on the French tradition. The Hubert company, dating from that time, now produces the most famous sparkling wine in Slovakia. Perhaps the Napoleonic soldier leaning on a bench on the Main Square (Hlavne namestie) is none other than Hubert?

At the corner of Panska and Rybarska brana streets, close to the main square (Hlavne namestie) is the bronze head and shoulders of Čumil (The Watcher by Viktor Hulik, 1997) emerging from a manhole. He seems to have come up from the darkness underground and become so entranced by the life he sees on the street that he just leans on the paving, rests his chin on his hands, and smiles a beatific smile. Is it fanciful to imagine this as a metaphor for the people returning to freedom, after being released from the darkness of the communist rule?

Wrocław (Breslau), Poland

Scattered throughout Breslau is a large population of bronze gnomes. They live their lives in full view but mostly overlooked because of their small stature (about 6 inches) and inconspicuous location. Guard with a standard (above left) keeps watch over the main square from an unobtrusive building niche.

Pigeon Keeper (above middle) has climbed on the back of a pigeon perched on a windowsill, as if ready to fly to spread the word if trouble erupts.

We get a sense of where these gnomes live, because Sleepyhead (above right) can be seen dozing against the wall of the entrance to his underground home, which is guarded by a heavy wooden door.

And we get an idea of some of the tasks these gnomes set themselves. On the pedestrian zone a series of large marble balls mark the plaza’s edge. The two Sisyphers are trying to dislodge one of these balls – one pushing from one side, while the other heaves on the other side.

Gnomes generally lead secret lives, unseen by humans. Why have they emerged into the light of day here in Breslau? Are they the symbol of the ordinary “little” people, those who are not prominent leaders or political figures, who now find it safe to make their presence known, and to take action in the public realm?

This is indeed, their true story. “Under communism gnomes became the absurdist calling card of the 'Orange Alternative' movement – an underground protest movement that used absurdity and nonsense to stage peaceful, yet subversive protests. Led by Waldemar ‘Major’ Fydrych, an artist and art history student at Wrocław University, the Orange Alternative wasn’t interested in political ideology as much as buffoonery. During communism, any anti-establishment graffiti or public art was quickly painted over by the militia; upon seeing fresh daubs of paint, the pranksters of the Orange Alternative painted over them again with...gnomes. From there gnomes became inexorably linked with the Orange Alternative and Wrocław…”

The gnome sculptures began to appear in the 1980s when Tomasz Moczek, a graduate from the Wrocław Academy of Fine Arts, was commissioned by the Wrocław City Council to create five gnomes. Over the years, these became so popular that local businesses commissioned more gnomes by different artists. They are now rumored to number nearly 180. There is even a special, dual-language (Polish and English) website dedicated to Wrocław’s indomitable gnomes.