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The cold war miners whose art revealed hidden depths

Grupa Janowska were a small band of cold war-era Polish miners whose fascinating, symbolic and often surreal amateur art has gained international recognition. Four paintings by the group’s Leopold Wróbel sold recently for over £2,000 in our Saleroom 1 auction.

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Grupa Janowska were a small band of cold war-era Polish miners whose fascinating, symbolic and often surreal amateur art has gained international recognition. Four paintings by the group’s Leopold Wróbel sold recently for over £2,000 in our Saleroom 1 auction.

 

 

 

The grim industrial skyline of post-war Katowice, Silesia, might seem an unlikely backdrop for an avant-garde movement. However, when not deep in coal dust and tunnels, a group of miners turned artists discovered a rich seam of creativity by spending their free time painting in the community centre. 

With communist zeal, governments across the Eastern Bloc upheld that workers would be empowered rather than alienated by their labours, and to this end, devised a wide variety of artistic workshops to help citizens discover their inner artist, poet or musician – as long as their efforts toed the party line.

However, rather than safely sticking to the repertoire of industrial subjects favoured by their state-sponsored teachers; the miners had their own ideas. Their legacy is a startling array of colourful naïve works, all laden with hidden meanings that resonated with Silesia’s curious and ancient blend of Christian and pagan beliefs, as well as concealing a subtle critique of the state.

 

 

Cousins Leopold and Pawel Wróbel were two of Grupa Janowska’s prominent members, and a number of their works are remarkably similar in both theme and style. At first glance, the pair’s worlds are filled with brightly coloured houses punctuated by toy-town trees and houses. People are depicted going about parades and picnics seemingly care-free and jolly. Look again though, and the tall chimneys and pit wheels are dark and ominous in the distance, while many of the figures are faceless drones, or dressed as soldiers, fallen angels, devils and daemons.

The four Leopold Wróbel paintings sold in our auction are perfect examples of this enigmatic style. The scenes abound with puzzling cameos and strange costumes that belie the outwardly everyday events. Even so, the pictures still retain a cheerful atmosphere that makes them a pleasure to linger over.

 

 

Incidentally, Leopold’s talent for optimism extended beyond his canvas, as evidenced by his reaction to his paintings falling victim to nothing less than an international art racket. In the fiendish plan, Leopold’s paintings were purchased for low sums through official channels before being ‘stolen’ and spirited across the Iron Curtain to Vienna, whereupon they would be resold for sums unimaginable to the artist. Rather than feeling cheated and furious, Pawel was instead simply delighted that his art was regarded highly enough to attract the attention of thieves!

The paintings appeared in our November 20th auction and after keen bidding sold for a total of £2070 to an international buyer through our AJ Live webcast auction feature. It’s a very respectable total for what will doubtless prove excellent investments, not least due to the fascinating tale of ordinary men with extraordinary imaginations.