Thursday, 15 July 2010

Hotels - Europe IV – Wrocław

Wrocław, Art Hotel ($99.53, breakfast included)

For our one night in Wrocław, mainly as a break in the drive to Krakow, we decided to try another art hotel, this one not related to the first. The Art Hotel in Wrocław is recommended in all our guidebooks and in the New York Times recent article on Wrocław. Based on that Times article, we were tempted to spend more time in Wrocław until I noticed that all the attractions it mentioned seemed to be bars and restaurants in seedy corners, rather than art museums and historic sites.

Wrocław seemed to me at first to be exactly what I’d expected of Poland, depressed and worn with poorly dressed people who rarely smile. Compared to Dresden with its new and clean buildings, it seemed depressing, especially since Wrocław was a German city till after World War II, when the Germans were driven out and replaced by east Polish people from Lvov, which is now Lviv in the Ukraine. I imagine if the Germans had it now, it would be much further restored. But it does have its significant assets, and at the restaurant Lwowska, where we had delicious food from Lvov, the waiter was cheerful and very enthusiastic about his city.

The Art Hotel has a lovely façade with a very plain lobby and a nice enough breakfast room. Our room was tiny compared to the others we had had, but with two nice windows that open, and air conditioning. The furniture is modern style, sturdy, and blond. The bed was a bit firm, but again I fell asleep before I could worry about it. A fine bathroom with a shower, good fluffy towels and washcloths, soap and shampoo provided, but no bidet. Very close to the beautiful and enormous main square that is far prettier than the larger and more popular one in Krakow, the hotel provides easy access to one of the best sights in a city that is still full of crumbling structures and in much need of repair and renewal. The buildings on the square have the fanciful facades one associates with Renaissance and baroque art, while those in Krakow are more classical and straightlined.

Another appealing area is across the Odra River, past some islands where lots of people stroll in the evening, in the cathedral region. Hung from the frame of one of the bridges we found hundreds of padlocks. It’s the Tumski Bridge and lovers lock a padlock there and throw the key in the river, symbolizing their intent on lifelong commitment. The Cathedral merits a look for its dramatic gothic architecture, exterior gothic sculpture and baroque altars and fittings indoors.

Here I should mention that although I’m referring to visiting at least one church in each town, I actually visit almost every church I see, looking for architecture, sculpture, paintings, and sometimes stained glass. We visited two other churches in Wrocław; one is looking for a new organ (the last one, the biggest one in Poland, was destroyed in a 1976 fire) and another was near the cathedral and had a quite plain gothic interior. In Prague we went to both St. Nicholas churches and both are spectacular examples of late baroque architecture and interior embellishment, with abundant elaborate altarpieces and sculpture. While I occasionally skip a church in northern Europe, I go to all of them in Italy, because there’s always something to see. This practice does not work so well in the United States, although I do love the Tiffany windows at the Presbyterian Church in Topeka.

On our second day we decided to visit the National Museum of Wrocław, the art museum - even though it was not much recommended in the guidebooks - its collection dedicated to Polish and Silesian art from the 14th century to the 19th century and contemporary Polish Art. First we looked at the medieval tombs and stone sculptures on the ground floor, where Tom would later snap a picture of a bride and groom having their wedding portrait taken in the closed courtyard.

Then, on the top floor we found a large room displaying several major works by Magdalena Abakanovicz, the important Polish fiber artist. She is known for here large groups of headless figures made of fiber, sometimes cast in bronze (There's a group of them outside the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City.) These early works by her alone would be worth the price of admission, even if the museum were not free on Wednesday.

We were overwhelmed by quality and power of other modern and contemporary Polish works on view, thinking these artists should be better known. Most notable was Wladyslaw Hasior (1928-99) an important Polish artist represented here by several dark and gripping 1960s assemblages using found objects.

Jozef Szajna (1922-2008), a renowned stage designer who was a prisoner at Auschwitz and Buchenwald during World War II, is represented by the sculpture of multiple huge boots, each with a nail driven through it, titled Drang nach Osten, Drang nach Westen (Push to the East , Push to the West), 1987.

Alina Szapocznikow (1926-1973), trained as a sculptor after spending World War II as a prisoner at Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen and Terezin concentration camps. She represented Poland in the Venice Biennale in 1962 and the next year began making works incorporating casts of parts of her own body and depicting tumors that referred to the breast cancer that eventually killed her.

Polish Modernism seemed comparable to the better-known European and American abstract works. While the perfectly respectable paintings in the historical galleries were somewhat less inspiring, the medieval wood sculptures and the large sculpted and painted altarpieces taken from churches gave evidence of the city’s stunningly beautiful and rich religious past.

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