Polish culture in 2020: COVID-19 brought culture home

Culture usually gathers millions of people and generates massive income during live events and festivals, yet culture was one of the hardest coronavirus-stricken industries in 2020, not only in terms of financial losses, but also personal. Nevertheless, over this harsh year, Poland witnessed some remarkable moments related to the world of film, music and art, mostly in online form.

Most of the major Polish festivals, such as the annual Open’er Festival in Gdynia and the alternative Off Festival Katowice were rescheduled and are due to take place in 2021, with tickets remaining valid for the new dates. On the other hand, some cultural events, mostly from the field of film, took place online. Among them were the Kraków Film Festival, New Horizons International Film Festival and American Film Festival, as well as the 45th Polish Feature Film Festival, widely considered as the most important event of its type in Poland.

Animation wins Gdynia Festival

The main prize in the festival, the Golden Lions, was awarded to director Mariusz Wilczyński and producers Agnieszka Ścibor and Ewa Puszczyńska for the animation movie “Kill It and Leave This Town”. This production defeated the competition from various genres; the other nominees included, "Suicide Room. The Hater", directed by Jan Komasa, nominated for 2020 Oscars for “Corpus Christi”, "Never Gonna Snow Again", a Polish Oscar 2021 candidate directed by Małgorzata Szumowska, and "25 Years of Innocence. The Case of Tomek Komenda", a drama based on a notorious Polish murder case directed by Jan Holoubek.

Composer Hania Rani received the Individual Prize for the music in the film “I Never Cry”.

Cinematographer Joshua James Richards received the Golden Frog in the main competition of another renowned Polish festival, the Energa Camerimage Festival, for the film "Nomadland". Meanwhile, "Zieja", directed by Robert Gliński, took first place in the Best Polish Film category.

No Oscar for Corpus Christi

Jan Komasa’s Corpus Christi was one of the five Academy Award nominees for Best International Feature Film. The movie tells the story of 20-year-old Daniel who starts to dream about becoming a priest during his time in a youth detention facility. After being conditionally released, he is denied permission to apply to the seminary. As a result of unexpected developments, he decides to impersonate a priest in a small parish.

However, a Korean production Parasite scooped four main awards, including the most important one - for the Best Film.

Nevertheless, being in such an exclusive group can be considered a success and a springboard to further achievements. Bartosz Bielenia, who played a leading role in Corpus Christi, was named one of the European Shooting Stars 2020, while another work by Jan Komasa - Suicide Room. The Hater - won the Best International Narrative Feature award at New York's Tribeca Film Festival (held online).

It was decided that the Polish candidate for the 2021 Academy Awards will be critically acclaimed “Never Gonna Snow Again” by Małgorzata Szumowska. Let us hope that it will at least repeat the feat of Corpus Christi and, previously, the Cold War by Paweł Pawlikowski.

The Polish movie industry achieved yet another prestigious feat in December. Agnieszka Holland, a renowned award-winning film director, has been named the president of the European Film Academy (EFA), succeeding Wim Wenders after 24 years. She previously, served as the chairwoman of the EFA Council between 2014 and 2019.

Dorociński successful on small screen

Released on October 23, the Netflix original mini series “Queen’s Gambit” tells the story of a genius chess player Beth Harmon who makes her way to the top of the world’s chess ranking. It quickly became a world hit, having been watched by 62 million households around the globe within 28 days of its premiere. “Queen’s Gambit” was the most-watched series in 63 countries, including Poland. Perhaps a decisive factor behind the production’s success in our country was the charismatic role of Marcin Dorociński, who portrayed Vasily Borgov, a Soviet chess grandmaster and the ultimate opponent of Beth Harmon. Dorociński was praised for his role (demeanour, accent etc.) by film experts, which is proof the Pole gained global recognition and can expect to be offered further roles in international productions.

“I would like to thank you for the wonderful response to @thequeensgambitseries with my very modest participation. Thank you for all the messages, comments, congratulations and a plethora of good words. [...] I am very proud to be a part of this great project - described by many as one of the best series of recent years”, the actor wrote on his Instagram profile.

Poland hosted another Junior Eurovision song contest

After Viki Gabor won the Junior Eurovision 2019 in Gliwice, Poland, as a winning nation, organised it for the second year in a row. Unlike in the previous editions, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this year’s performances were pre recorded and broadcast by Polish Television TVP during the final event.

The host country was represented by Ala Tracz, but it was France's Valentina who won the 18th edition of the Junior Eurovision song contest. She won a total of 200 votes for her performance of the “J’imagine”. In the final, Valentina defeated young artists from 11 countries: apart from Poland, they came from Germany, Kazakhstan, the Netherlands, Serbia, Belarus, Georgia, Malta, Russia, Spain, and Ukraine.

National ensemble celebrates 70 years on stage

In this difficult year, the National Folk Song and Dance Ensemble “Mazowsze” celebrated the 70th anniversary of their first performance. During all these years, the ensemble gave over 9,000 concerts, went on foreign tours over 280 times, visiting 51 countries and 210 towns across Poland. Ever since, Mazowsze remains one of the most recognisable symbols of Polish culture.

The commemorative concert, in honour of the ensemble’s founders - Mira Zimińska-Sygietyńska and Tadeusz Sygietyński, took place virtually, due to the COVID-19 restrictions, on November 8.

The ensemble has always been a place for outstanding artists and extraordinary talents. Mazowsze has been captivating audiences all over the world by showing what, in the opinion of its members, is the best in Poland; the folklore, great costumes and music. The group's repertoire includes songs and dances from 42 regions of Poland, as well as popular folk songs from other countries.

Long-awaited Cyberpunk released

Widely considered the most anticipated game of the year, Cyberpunk 2077, developed by the Polish studio CD Projekt RED set a few records just hours after it premiered. According to PC Gamer, as many as 1,003,264 players played Cyberpunk 2077 simultaneously on Steam. This is more than twice the amount of the previous record for a single player game, held by Fallout 4, which was played by less than 473,000 people in 2015.

The production refers to the 1988 fictional game of the same title and the genres of William Gibson's science-fiction novels, presenting a hyper-capitalist and anarchic vision of the future. The first concept works on the production begun in 2012. Cyberpunk 2077 also features actor Keanu Reeves, who portrays a NPC character from the original game.

Nevertheless, the game received strong criticism regarding its many bugs and poor optimisation on old generation devices. Although CD Projekt issued a statement in which they apologised for the problems with the game, many gamers applied for the refund, offered by the PlayStation Store.

Record-breaking auctions

In June, a private collector paid EUR 1.60 mln for the “Portrait of Professor Doctor Karol Gilewski” by Poland’s renowned historical painter Jan Matejko, setting a country record in terms of the most expensive painting in the history of Poland's auction market.

Painted in 1872, the work was considered lost after the exhibition of Polish art in Vienna in 1915, until it was tracked abroad in 2015.

Meanwhile, a new record for a painting by a woman was set during the DESA Unicum auction on December 10, when another private collector bought one of Tamara Łempicka’s pieces for nearly EUR 1 mln. That acclaimed artist is the most expensive Polish artist in history and the third most expensive in the world. Her works are a part of rich collections of many celebrities such as Jack Nicholson and Madonna.

Perhaps the most iconic photo of modern times, the “Afghan Girl” taken by Steve McCurry, was sold for over EUR 62,000 at the auction held by Desa Unicum house, becoming the most expensive photograph sold at auction in Poland. The portrait of a green-eyed Afghan girl, hailed as the Mona Lisa of the 21st century, was not just a breakthrough in contemporary documentary photography, but triggered interest from around the world, once again, in the political and economic situation in Afghanistan.

This year, the Polish state managed to retrieve a couple of great paintings lost during World War II. Jacek Malczewski's painting “By the Piano” from 1877 was returned to the National Museum in Warsaw, along with the painting “Gryka”/ “Buckwheat Field” by Stanisław Masłowski. These two works are only the tip of the iceberg. According to the Culture Minister Piotr Gliński, as of October 2020, some 80 restitution processes were in place, while more than 500 items that have been classified as Polish wartime losses, have been recovered over the last five years.

Those, who passed away in 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic left a cruel impact on the world of culture not only in financial terms. Many acclaimed Polish artists passed away in 2020, including the worldwide acclaimed Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki, who died after a long struggle with disease at the age of 86.

A representative of the so-called Polish composers' school in the 1960s, Mr Penderecki would often be described by critics as a "great explorer of sounds", "an experimenter", "a spearhead of the musical avant-garde". In the 1970s, Mr Penderecki conducted the leading symphony orchestras in Europe, the United States and Asia.

Ewa Demarczyk rose to fame as a sung poetry performer and her interpretations of prominent poets from Poland and abroad, such as Bolesław Leśmian, Julian Tuwim, Krzysztof Kamil Baczyński, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Osip Mandelstam.

During her glittering career she performed on the stages of the world’s most renowned and prestigious halls, such as Olympia in Paris, Carnegie Hall in New York, Chicago Theatre, and Variety Arts Centre in London. She passed away in Kraków at the age of 79.

Romuald Lipko was a composer, instrumentalist, and, most of all, the co-founder of the famous Polish band Budka Suflera. He was the author or co-author of many hits of the band, such as “Jolka, Jolka pamiętasz,”(“Jolka, Jolka, do you remember”) “Takie tango,” (“Such a tango”) “Bal wszystkich świętych,” (“All Saints’ ball”) “Za ostatni grosz” (“For the last penny”). Mr Lipko died at the age of 69 after a long battle with cancer.

Emil Karewicz was a popular Polish actor during the communist era. Among his most recognisable roles was the Polish King Władysław Jagiełło in “Knights of the Teutonic Order”, a film adaptation of a book, Nazi German officer Hermann Brunner in the “More Than Life at Stake” series and another Nazi German officer SS-Obersturmführer in the film “How I Unleashed World War II.” Mr Karewicz passed away at the age of 97.

Piotr Machalica was a theatre and film actor associated with Teatr Powszechny in Warsaw. He starred in many popular Polish productions, he would also perform songs by Bulat Okudzhava and Georges Brassens. Mr Machalica died at the age of 65 due to COVID-19 disease.

2021: make or break for culture?

In the light of recent revelations regarding the COVID-19 vaccine, the prognosis for the development of culture in 2021 is somewhat brighter. It is certain, however, that even if the cultural events are organised with the participation of the audience, their size will be restricted to maintain safety measures, which means the potential income will be nowhere near that from before the pandemic.

Numerous festivals are suspended, with valid tickets but an unconfirmed date at the same time. It is possible then, that online platforms will stay with us for a bit longer, as a safe way of displaying latest productions to the wider public. Online concerts and festivals are naturally gaining in popularity, and with SARS-CoV-2 virus still evolving, a lot of people will be now reluctant to gather in larger groups. On the other hand, events held remotely cannot fully replace a live event on stage, even though the former seems to be more accessible for an ordinary person from any part of the world.

One thing is sure: despite global digitisation and expanding Internet access, another year like 2020 would be a huge blow for many fields of culture, not only for artists, but also for art recipients.