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Damn! Who did that to you? That’s something my brother-in-law would paint better!

The history of the Warsaw Mermaid by Pablo Picasso

Portrait De Picasso, 1908
Portrait De Picasso, 1908

Born: 25 October 1881, Malaga, Spain

Died: 8 April 1973  in aged 91, Mougins, France

Name: Pablo Diego José Francisco de Paula Juan Nepomuceno María de los Remedios Cipriano de la Santísima Trinidad Ruiz y Picasso

Educated: Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando and by father José Ruiz y Blasco.

Art Movement: Cubism, Surrealism

The fact that Picasso visited Poland in 1948 is not so well known. The goal of this visit was Wrocław where the First World Congress of Intellectuals in Defense of Peace took place. The noble idea of the event, though devoid of any real meaning, was supposed to be for a protest of the elites against the political division of the world. The Congress, organized under the favour of Stalin, was supposed to fulfil mainly propaganda goals. He was agitating against the capitalist West.

Picasso was invited to this congress as a member of the French Communist Party.  As Teodor Toepliz wrote about Picasso and revolution: “Like millions of people in Europe, Picasso treated the end of the war as openness to intellectual development, cheerfulness, and joy. He expressed his faith in progress, justice and in the liberating power of cognition by joining the Communist Party”

Picasso himself commented on his accession to the KPF with a laconic printed declaration: “My accession to the Communist Party is a logical consequence of my whole life, my entire work. I can proudly say that I have never considered art as a pleasurable lifestyle, as entertainment. With the help of drawing and colour, I wanted, since it was my weapon, to keep moving forward in the knowledge of life and people, in order to liberate us every day with this knowledge. In my own way, I tried to say, what I think is the truest, most justified, the best and what has always been the most beautiful – the greatest artists know it well.”

Initially, Picasso was not eager for doing this trip. First, he had never flown before. He did not like travelling or leaving France. He did not have a passport. The courtesy of representatives of the Polish government was quite big, for instance, they promised medals made with his picture. In the end, he made the decision to travel. Maybe he also agreed, because he was promised accommodation in the most luxurious hotel – Bristol, or because the Polish government has prepared a private plane for the artist – the Soviet painted green Li-2.

Lisunov Li 2 Soviet AF Monino
Lisunov Li 2 Soviet AF Monino 1994
First World Congress Of Intellectuals In Defense Of Peace In Wroclaw
First World Congress Of Intellectuals In Defense Of Peace In Wroclaw
Pablo Picasso Stanislaw Lorenz In MNWarsaw
Pablo Picasso Stanislaw Lorenz In MNWarsaw
Pablo Picasso and poet Paul Eluard decorated with the Commander's Cross with the Star of the Order of Polonia Restituta
Pablo Picasso and poet Paul Eluard decorated with Commander's Cross with the Star of the Order of Polonia Restituta

For the organizers of the Peace Congress, the participation of a person like Picasso was of great propaganda importance. It is no wonder that they had a huge pressure on their heads so such a huge artist could appear at the Congress. Picasso was a living legend. For the organizers of the Peace Congress in Wroclaw, the artist was like the icing on the cake among other prominent figures invited to participate.

Among them were such celebrities of those times like:

Joliot-Curie (daughter of Maria Skłodowska-Curie), Paul Éluard and Fernand Leger, Sartre, Bertrand Russell, and Julien Huxley, Louise Aragon, dean of Canterbury Hewlett Johnson, Roger Vaillant. At the Congress, Picasso read resolutions regarding the poet and communist activist Pablo Neruda, imprisoned in Chile. Because of the arrest, the poet did not appear in Wrocław. According to the rumour, Picasso was accepted with such popularity in Warsaw that the offended and jealous Ferdinand Leger left Wrocław before the end of the Congress. In the French party, Leger was older than Picasso and he was offended by all the splendour that fell on Picasso. Artist was to stay in Poland for 3 days, in fact, his stay was extended to 2 weeks. He and accompanying writer Paul Eluard were taken to Krakow, Oświęcim, and Warsaw. Several accounts from this period tell us that Picasso was very interested in the situation of the country he knew mainly nothing about and in people he met.

Among other things, he received a distinction from the hands of Bronisław Bierut, the communist president of Poland. It was the Commander’s Cross with the Star of the Order of Polonia Restituta.

Osiedle Na Kole
Osiedle Na Kole in 1947
Osiedle Przy Pruszkowskiej. Photo Odkrywca Warszawy.
Housing estate at Pruszkowska Str. was built in 1931. Photo by OdkrywcaWarszawy.
House on Sitnika.str. 1. Photo by AniaiJurek
House on Sitnika.str. 1. Photo by AniaiJurek

However, Picasso himself donated to the National Museum in Warsaw a collection of ceramic plates made and painted by him.

His companions in Warsaw were the married couple of architects Helena and Szymon Syrkus. Privately, Syrkus’ were friends with Picasso. Those who were deeply interested in French architecture had many common topics with Picasso. Helena and her husband were members of the Polish section of Congrés Internationaux d`Architecture Moderne. In particular, Szymon was an enthusiast of Le Corbusier’s architecture. Both pursued their leftist social views by designing functional housing estates for the working class.

Among other things, in the years 1931-1935, they implemented a modern housing estate on Rakowiec at Pruszkowska St. in Warsaw. Personally, as a child, I was fortunate to live in one of these blocks with my parents.  I can honestly confirm that these apartments, although small, were very functional.

Syrkus couple used system solutions with the use of fixed segments of the kitchen and bathroom, which was an extremely innovative solution for those times. After the war, the Syrkus designed their greatest achievement – a housing estate in one of the districts of Warsaw – “Osiedle na Kole”.

In addition to the segment solutions, innovative technologies were also used, such as the construction of external walls made of foam concrete blocks, and a ready-made concrete face layer was used. The layout of the greenery was also designed. The construction began in 1947. In 1992, the estate was entered into the register of monuments.

Exactly this housing estate, the “Osiedle na Kole”,  been still under construction, on September 3-rd in 1948, was visited by Picasso and Paul Eluard. Helena Syrkus wrote in her memoirs that when Picasso visited their architect studio, he saw the plans of the  Osiedle na Kole and asked them to show it to him.

Warsaw Mermaid In Old City
Warsaw Mermaid In Old City
Mermaid by Picasso
Mermaid by Picasso
Warsaw Mermaid On Powiśle
Warsaw Mermaid On Powiśle in Warsaw

Apparently, he was delighted with the functionality and the idea of building recycling he liked the most. The debris from war damage was used for reconstruction. The almost completely destroyed Warsaw was raised from the ashes. New, modern ones buildings were erected in place of old buildings. After the housing estate was led by artists Picasso and Eluard, the architect, Halina Pągowska-Czyżyńska, was leading the construction project according to the Syrkus project.

In her memoirs, she wrote that Picasso was very interested in the technical issues of construction. He even wanted to sign up for the memorial book, but there wasn’t one on the construction site. He decided, however, that he would leave something from himself.

Picasso even wanted to draw something for Halina, but she did not want to bother the artist. She asked only for an autograph. A moment later, Picasso entered one of the tiny apartments of the estate and drew with charcoal a Warsaw mermaid on the wall of the kitchen niche. The Mermaid with a sword and shield is the coat of Warsaw. After finishing drawing Picasso said: Pour Vous Madame (For you Madame).

The drawing stretched almost from the ceiling to the floor, was measured like 180 by 170 cm. Known for his pacifist ideas, the artist did not want to draw a traditional sword, which the mermaid holds in her hand. He wondered what else it might be, so Helena would propose a trowel as a symbol of the construction and the workers’ movement. Unfortunately, she did not know how to say trowel is in French, so she came up with the idea to draw a hammer. And that’s how a mermaid with a hammer came into life, mermaid having a shield with the sun, a prominent bust, and supposedly a face of Halina.

As later remembered Helena Syrkus, who was not present when drawing the mermaid:

– If only he would ask us where to place his wonderful signature! We would certainly advise him a large entrance hall, where his drawing would be viewed daily by all residents and where shows could be organized. You could even fix it, even glaze the entire wall. And so …

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Woman In An Armchair No.1 (The Polish Cloak) 1949 By Pablo Picasso
Woman In An Armchair No.1 (The Polish Cloak) 1949 By Pablo Picasso

After Picasso’s departure, people were wondering who to give away the apartment with, or indeed the work of a living legend. As a result of Picasso’s stays in Poland, there was, among others, the image of the “Woman in a Chair or at the “Woman in a Polish Cloak”. Picasso, fascinated by Polish folklore, to his girlfriend François Gilot bought in Krakov a sheepskin coat with folk motifs and then portrayed her in them. To mention more, he sent a number of prints to the National Museum in Warsaw.

Finally, flat No. 28 at the street Deotymy 48 (at present, J. Sitnik Street) was assigned to Franciszka Sawicka-Prószyńska. She lived there with her husband, who was ill after returning from the Nazi concentration camp. Because Franciszka worked in a community center, she was taught on how to take care of the Picasso mermaid. Tenants were proud of acknowledging their mission and opened the apartment doors to hundreds of visitors.

For them, it was a kind of social mission. At first, Mrs. Franciszka was proud of the task entrusted to her, she even made a guest book and asked the visitors to sign in it. In short, however, she got the prose of life. The interested people were lining up from 7 am and the number of visitors during the day could reach up to 400 people. Individuals, people from all over Poland, domestic and foreign delegations, working-class people, school trips. Apparently, even Bierut came to see the mermaid. Franciszka was so tired of the situation that she began to cover the mermaid with a rug or curtain so that she could rest for a moment.

According to Franciszka, it looked like this:

“In the winter time, visits were bringing mud to me, in the summer debris and dust from the ever-growing housing estate … I did not have the right to paint, renovate the apartment, which had black walls after five years … Do I like Picasso art, I do not like such questions. What was on the wall was not one of the masterpieces. Finally, my husband and I tried to not look at the mermaid, but it was difficult, because the mermaid, was on the whole wall. So we hung the curtain to at least for a day to have a normal room … The rebellion in me gradually increased… I decided to go to somebody, to do at least something about it…”

Dalia Banner

Franciszka also was writing a letter after the letter to the administration of the community with a request to transfer the Picasso’s work. The numerous commissions to decide how to move the work of Picasso was gathered but they did not bring any results. So Franciszka continued writing, this time with a request for permission to paint. In an application from 1952, she wrote to the administration mentioning that author is Picasso. After about six months, the answer came with permission to renew the flat and paint over the mermaid.

In August 1952, the renovation brigade entered the apartment. And as Franciszka continued telling us: “…painters came. They spread their ladders. One took a wall with Picasso. “Damn! – said the painter – who did this to you, my brother-in-law could paint it better!!”. And splashed the paint. That’s how there was no longer the mermaid by Picasso.

You can say that back then, the drawing of the famous artist has lost its life because of the ineptitude and stupidity of administration. Due to the impossibility of moving the drawing, there where other possible options to save the mermaid, such as organizing a Picasso’s museum in Warsaw and move the tenants to another flat. The mermaid would certainly be an additional attraction in Warsaw. It is also known that Picasso painted the second mermaid while being in Poland. This time a lot more modest. It happened during a solemn dinner at the President of the city, Stanisław Tołwiński. His wife asked Picasso to enter the family album and draw something.  The artist drew a mermaid with dimensions of 21 cm x 29 cm. Unfortunately, this mermaid also went missing with the album. It is being sought for by the National Museum in Warsaw. I keep my fingers crossed for success

About the Author:

I am a co-owner of BeArte Gallery, art marketspace based in Denmark. I have an art education and I paint myself. I am also a part-time paint teacher for artists amateurs. Communing with art and contact with the artists is what moves me in life. Without art, my life would be devoid of emotions, higher meanings. I believe that thanks to Art, each of us has a chance to touch an absolute.

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