The first issue of Budujemy Socjalizm, a local weekly revolving around the construction of Nowa Huta, features a gallery of model workers.
Portraits of mostly young people have been arranged around the central photograph showing Piotr Ożański, the legendary bricklayer occupying the role of a perfect labourer in collective imagination, building a town for himself – the place where he is going to live, and pursue the new ideals.
Next to him is a picture of Walenty Gil, another hero in the struggle for a new town. “Citizen Walenty Gil is a model worker heading the Gypsy team twenty-five strong, building Nowa Huta. His squad achieves on average 176% of the expected outcome.”
In the midst of thousands toiling on the construction site where the new town and the Combine are emerging, “Gypsy” squads will be named by the press as one of many groups carving out a new future for themselves in Nowa Huta. Their involvement validates the success of the policy followed by new authorities, capable of winning commitment of all kinds of communities to the reconstruction of the country, by every possible means from encouragement to coercion, and violence. Hence it comes as no surprise that characters like Gil would pop up on the pages of the local weekly from the very beginning, invariably accompanied by propagandist slogans. Their stories, as well as stories of peasants’ sons, economic migrants from the countryside, were meant to contribute to a social tale of economic and symbolic advance – “folk entered the central area” of the town they were building.
The figure of Walenty Gil, and the very process of creating a new form (town and man) constitute the departure point for Stach Szumski’s visual story of human fate becoming one with the fate of the new town. This is an account of going through a programmed transformation imposed by the state, but also of the individual will of people shaping their lives in a turbulent world. Raised up in Jurgów, a village in the Spisz region, a blacksmith who continued his family’s blacksmith tradition was relocated into the heart of the constructed myth of new man. Leaving and returning to his home place, plus whatever happens between, is the content that Szumski interprets in an alchemical spirit – as changes, melting identity to alter its form. Horizontal arrangement synthetises numerous episodes from the life of the Romani smith, seen by the artist as one capable of transforming himself. As a person thrust into the bigger historical picture, he reveals to us small pieces of social experience that tends to be hidden under layers of official ways of expression. The figure of a blacksmith with the power to reshape matter becomes the point of departure not only for an individual story, but also for the symbolic reading of the world as a constantly changing matter. Attributes typical of a rural smithy (nails, horseshoes, chains) that constitute the world at the beginning of the frieze return as completely new tools, items pointing at characteristic tasks in heavy industry whose objective is also to transform matter. Moving from a smithy to a foundry is not only a question of scale, but also a visual representation of the process of transformation of individuals and their surroundings. This is not an irreversible process as in the horizontally unfolding story time seems to be circular. Melted tools may be re-melted. Even though repetitions are never exact copies.
The story narrated by Stach Szumski is thus full of symbols, and hints to be decoded. On the one hand, it seduces us with its alchemical charm; but on the other it appears predatorily modern, and reduces reality to visually attractive forms without hesitation. Stylistically, the expressionist frieze is a reinterpretation of monumental paintings, ornaments and mosaics, panoramic propagandist tales, whose countless manifestations used to adorn social realist public space. It combines inspiration from the language of stencils, a synthesis of swift urban paintings with visual jugglery of elements associated with the 1940s and 50s propaganda.
The metaphor of smelting is central for Stach Szumski’s plastic forms, a process giving new shapes and functions to particular objects, demonstrating to us the whole transformation cycle. It sets the history solidifying in consecutive chapters of the frieze as scenes/symbols going. It is also a visual interpretation of the process of moulding a new identity, popular back in the 1940s and 50s. It actuates the dynamics of the entire composition, from details of tools to landscape which acts not only as background, but also a unity with man, changing in the same way, and reacting to his changes. Images of mountains in the vicinity of Jurgów provide a frame clipping together the beginning and the end of the story. Living at home, moving to Nowa Huta, and returning a few years later.
When the smithy of the “last Gypsy blacksmith in Spisz” became part of the open air museum in Nowy Sącz, the story seemed irrevocably over. The story of the past of a socialist town, and the story of a pre-modern countryside.