“Deer in the rut,” dwarves populating the garden, and the word “Leper” – what connects them? The foremost association is kitsch! This well-known term found its way into the Polish language from German (der Kitsch). Munich art critics from the latter part of the 19th century originally coined it to describe shoddy, insipid landscape paintings lacking artistic merit, which were eagerly purchased by nouveau riche individuals to adorn their living spaces. Presumably shortly thereafter, this word infiltrated our language. In 1902, the second volume of the Dictionary of the Polish Language, edited by Jan Karłowicz, Adam Kryński, and Władysław Niedźwiedzki (the so-called Warsaw Dictionary), was published, and it included the entry “Kitchesis,” defining it as ‘a poor, subpar painting created for sale.’ In Stefan Żeromski’s novel “Charitas” (initially published in 1919), we encounter the phrase: “He did not know whether to paint over his completed work as kitsch…”. Aleksander Brückner, in the Etymological Dictionary of the Polish Language (published in 1927), mentions that the term “kitsch,” denoting a ‘poor picture,’ was recently adopted from the German “Kitsch.” Please note the comment, “taken over freshly.” Brückner mainly dealt with archaic language, so for him, a word that had been present in the Polish language for approximately forty years was considered “freshly adopted.” It is essential to acknowledge that, until then, “kitsch” had solely been used in reference to paintings. In Witold Doroszewski’s dictionary, published after the Second World War (1958-1969), “kitsch” is defined as ‘a poor, worthless picture, or literary work.’ This marks an expansion in the word’s usage to encompass more forms of art. The dictionary edited by Bogusław Dunaj (published in 1996) takes it a step further by including films as something that could be considered kitsch. In Dunaj’s dictionary, kitsch is described as devoid of artistic taste, designed to be easily understood, and aimed at average, undemanding consumers; otherwise, it is considered subpar.
Fast forward to the 1970s. As a student of Polish studies at the Jagiellonian University, I had the privilege of attending lectures by Stanisław Lem. The renowned writer, who was not a full-time academic, was invited to deliver a series of lectures. These lectures were held at the building on Gołębia 20 and were so popular that the room could scarcely accommodate all those who wanted to attend, with some resorting to standing due to the lack of space. Stanisław Lem, dressed in a black polo sweater, couldn’t resist a humorous quip: “Now you can experience for yourselves what awaits Earth’s inhabitants – overpopulation.” During one of these lectures, while not missing a beat, he pulled a small box from his pocket and deftly placed a lozenge or candy into his mouth. Of course, he couldn’t resist adding, “I don’t want you to think that I’m so ahead of my time that I eat my meals this way.” After fifty years, I can recall only fragments of the lectures’ content. But one phrase by Lem remained etched in my memory: “Kitsch pretends to be something better than it actually is.” Indeed, imitation, the creation of illusions, and ostentation are some of its defining characteristics.
Examples of descriptions of kitsch interiors can be found in literary works. For instance, in Zofia Nałkowska’s “Granica,” we read about the apartment of Mrs. Kolichowska, crammed with heavy, over-ornamented oak and walnut furniture, plush carpets, doormats, couches, ottomans, and napkins. The living room is particularly overcrowded, with the entire former leather notary’s office incorporated into it, featuring a large desk and a bear fur carpet. The room is adorned with various items, from lamps with tables and silk lampshades to kerosene lamps converted into electric ones, black turned poles, embroidered and painted screens, jardiniers housing massive philodendrons and ficuses, and paintings in thick gilded frames, most of them originating from old Zachęta draws. All of this is multiplied and reflected in two floor-to-ceiling mirrors. The space is further adorned with countless framed photographs. Gabriela Zapolska, in “Morality of Mrs. Dulska,” describes Mrs. Dulska’s living room with artificial palm trees and embroidered landscapes behind glass, encapsulating the essence of kitsch.
Lastly, in “The Promised Land” by Władysław Stanisław Reymont, the huge living room is illuminated by four windows and features a stucco ceiling thickly gilded. It is overwhelmed by furniture, an abundance of paintings, candelabra, columns, sofas, and chairs that have never been used. Small gilded offices, resembling chocolate boxes, are filled with trinkets, empty jardiniers, and ceremonial marble decorations.