We should be in Poland now. Katowice, spending some time with beloved friends after Mark keynoted the literary philosophical conference they were putting together (which I had promised to submit a paper to but failed, being broken by work. So broken. But resting now). Still, we are on holiday, a holiday slipping through fingers stuck here at home. A holiday of writing. I thought perhaps I could return to some old blogs started and not finished, but it is not helping.
When in Warsaw — we were in Warsaw, another conference just before Christmas, a fascinating city I’ve still to write — we walked to the Neon Museum. When in Warsaw, in a time when travel was still possible, when movement beyond South Manchester a privilege but not an impossibility. The Neon Museum’s driving force has been the neon collector Ilona Karwinska along with David Hill, and it is marvelous. You can find English news coverage on CNN. We brought home this documentary Neon (2014) Eric Bednarski.
Mark watched it with me with good grace, I am fascinated by this idea of planning with light, of a unique time and a language that made to neonise a verb. I am a little in love with this way of designing a city, transforming this city completely rebuilt after Nazi destruction in WWII on massive Stalinist lines in grey concrete. A collective effort of collaborative design between architects, graphic designers, painters, engineers. The celebration of it in the pages of the magazine Stolica.
The time of neon was the time of the thaw after Stalin’s death in 1953, and a new emphasis on lightness, brightness, colour. Neon became both about bringing glamour to the city, but also provided a kind of a map, allowing the orientation of self in the city through light — you see the cow you know what street you are on. It reminds me of the saints that guard and guide you through the streets of Valletta. Warsaw’s idiom was full of modernity’s promise, associated with the bright lights of Times Square or Vegas. But in many ways it has more in common with the saints, expressively noncommercial, artisanal. It is a way to know and navigate a city, imagine the maps that Kevin Lynch might have uncovered here.
The process of creating neon itself is fascinating. Blow torches are used to shape the tubes, they rely on chemistry and the composition of gasses that somehow relate more to the mysteries of alchemy than modernity to me. And in Warsaw they were all unique, made for one specific place and time without standardisation.
My favourite thing about the film was the neon designer Piotr Perepłyś, without the smallest doubt. He embodied for me the joy of neon, the beauty of it, the way it felt (I paraphrase) to see something new shining there on any street ‘we could feel we were part of the world, part of Europe’. Neon imparted a new, a different kind of vitality to architecture, it gave it movement, light, energy. It transformed the grey (but oh, there is such a sense of the drab greyness of this twisted facade of communism). Perepłyś says something like ‘in that sad grey reality of ours, neon became a brooch, a jewel, gleaming down‘.
He designed with a pen and nib, a flowing hand, the best way to create the smooth lines and joined letters needed.
But the addition of gases to create shifting lights means that it is not (necessarily) a static art, but one that allows you to add a storyline, a narrative a joke.
Most wonderful. Because they did.
I love that the city designers of Warsaw’s different areas competed in neon. Yet even so it could be up to 3 years from design to building and putting it in place. A tortuous approval process ate up this time, which included the city council — the documentary contains an awesome document montage that gives a sense of the process.
And of course there are some great stories. Like the enormous flower bouquet that disturbed the sleep of the mistress of the minister, but complain as she might, it had gone through all the stages of approval and therefore it could not be removed.
This would all change. The mid 70s would bring economic crisis and (as everywhere) issues with energy. Many companies started leaving their neon unlit even before martial law was declared in 1981 in response to the solidarity movement. A new era began of military blockade, curfews and blackout with neons forbidden.
I can’t remember who says it but it is definitely true that ‘unlit neons are very depressing‘.
As letters fell, meanings became transformed in humorous ways. Yet this signaled the beginning of the end, and by 1991 the neons started to disappear, often actively destroyed as communist remnants.
Many remain scattered through the city — though nothing like their heyday which I would have loved to have seen. There are some amazing photographs here. I am glad this many have been saved, glad they are having something of a come back. The museum is wonderful, and well worth a visit, as is wandering the surrounding area.