• The Poet and His Red Bus (1981)

It’s true what they say.  You wait for ages, then three buses come along all at once.  After Szpilman and Winkler‘s happy vehicle, then Linke‘s tortured wreck, here’s another, angry red bus from Jacek Kaczmarski (1957-2004). Pianist, Painter, now Poet.  Kaczmarski was also a singer-songwriter who was one of the voices of the free trade union Solidarity (Solidarność) in the early 80s.

In 1981, Kaczmarski penned a song as a direct response to Linke’s painting.  Czerwony autobus, however, was not the only time that Kaczmarski turned to the visual arts for inspiration.  Over 60 of his 800 poems and lyrics were direct responses to paintings by artists as varied as Pieter Brueghel, Caravaggio, Goya, Hals, Holbein, Manet and Vermeer, with Polish artists such as Maksymilian Gierymski, Jacek Malczewski, Jan Matejko and Witkacy providing equally strong stimuli.  Kaczmarski’s output must have been one of the single most sustained creative collaborations between the visual arts, poetry and music.  Some samples of this interaction can be found on the Polish-language Wikipedia page: http://pl.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jacek_Kaczmarski.

His musical style belonged to both Polish cabaret and the protest movement, with non-Polish icons including Georges Brassens and Bob Dylan.  He was a mean classical guitarist and his vocal delivery was dynamic, expressive and urgent.  This can be heard on his recording of The Red Bus, where he is accompanied on the piano. It comes from Muzeum, the third album he made with Przemysław Gintrowski (also voice/guitar) and Zbigniew Łapiński (voice/piano).  Kaczmarski commented that:

“The programme of Muzeum came into being in 1981 and was based on selected works of historical Polish art. Its intention was to locate the experiences of the ‘Solidarity’ period within an historical perspective so that the listener would understand that he is a witness to a process and not to a one-off event.”

Kaczmarski’s published lyrics, printed below (there are some differences with the recording), make reference to  characters in Linke’s painting, characters who were just as real to Kaczmarski in 1981 as they had been to Linke 20 years earlier.  They were both a long way from the false dawns evoked by songs such as the original Czerwony autobus of 1952.

* The Polish Poet’s Red Bus – in English!, posted six days after this one, gives a corrected Polish transcript and a translation into English.


Pędzimy przez Polską dzicz
Wertepy chaszcze błota
Patrz w tył tam nie ma nic
Żałoba i sromota
Patrz w przód tam raz po raz
Cel mgłą niebieską kusi
Tam chce być każdy z nas
Kto nie chce chcieć – ten musi!
W Czerwonym Autobusie
W Czerwonym Autobusie
W Czerwonym Autobusie mija czas!

Tu stoi młody Żyd
Nos zdradza Żyd czy nie Żyd
I jakby mu było wstyd
Że mimo wszystko przeżył
A baba z koszem jaj
Już szepce do człowieka
– Wie o tym cały kraj
Że Żydzi to bezpieka!
Więc na co jeszcze czekasz!
Więc na co jeszcze czekasz!
Więc na co jeszcze czekasz! W mordę daj!

Inteligentna twarz
Co słucha zamiast mówić
Tors otulony w płaszcz
Szyty na miarę spluwy
A kierowniczy układ
Czerwony wiodąc wóz
Bezgłowa dzierży kukła –
Dziełem tych dwóch marszruta!
Dziełem tych dwóch marszruta!
Dziełem tych dwóch marszruta! – Luz i mus!

Za robotnikiem ksiądz
Za księdzem kosynierzy
I ktoś się modli klnąc
Ktoś bluźni ale wierzy
Proletariacki herszt
Kapować coś zaczyna
Więc prosty robi gest
I rękę w łokciu zgina!
Nie ruszy go lawina!
Nie ruszy go lawina!
Nie ruszy go lawina! Mocny jest!

A z tyłu stary dziad
W objęcia wziął prawiczkę
Złośliwy czyha czart
W nadziei na duszyczkę
Upiorów małych rząd
Zwieszony u poręczy
W żyły nam sączy trąd
Zatruje! I udręczy!
Za oknem Polska w tęczy!
Za oknem Polska w tęczy!
Za oknem Polska w tęczy! Jedźmy stąd!

• The Painter and his Bus (1961)

Only after I posted yesterday about Szpilman and his cheerful 1952 song The Red Bus did I remember a quite different ‘bus’ altogether.  When I was a student in Poland 40 years ago, I went to the National Museum in Warsaw and was bowled over by one particular painting, completed ten years earlier.  I bought a glossy black-and-white photo of it and put it up on the wall of my room.  I still have it.  It’s pretty gruesome and certainly intended to disturb, so why did I want to look at it every day?  It was because its subject matter still resonated and illuminated my first experiences of Poland.

Szpilman’s music and Kazimierz Winkler’s lyrics had painted a sunny picture of Warsaw under reconstruction in the early 1950s.  Such songs were intended to encourage Poles to look to a bright socialist future under the ‘benign’ gaze of Poland’s eastern neighbour, the USSR, and its leader, Comrade Józef Stalin.  The following year, Stalin died and the later 50s were witness to upheavals in East Germany, Poland and, bloodiest of all, Hungary.  Even the Soviet Union changed somewhat.

Creative artists felt that there were now possibilities for greater freedom (this varied wildly from country to country behind the ‘Iron Curtain’) as well as for criticism and satire of the authorities and their dogmas about the ‘bright future’. One of these artists was the Polish painter, Bronisław Wojciech Linke (1906-62).  Towards the end of his life, 50 years ago, he created his masterpiece, Autobus (1959-61).

Polish buses were still crowded and rickety in the early 1970s, but I never encountered one quite like this.  Linke’s pessimistic, dehumanised vision may seem nightmarish to us, but to its contemporary viewers its metaphors were all too real.  They knew these characters, these distortions, this life.

Within this cut-away red bus are symbols of a broken and divided society. From left to right, they include:

• the Driver, a mannequin made of wood grasping a cobwebbed driving wheel
• the Jew, facing away
• the Polish Army Soldier, helmet in his hands, standing next to a figure with a giant lemon for a head
• the gormless Worker making a common and rude gesture
• the Cosmonaut
• the trendy (= scruffy) Young Man with his gloved girl and her silver handbag, sitting on a missile
• the greedy Priest, with coins for eyes
• a naked Young Girl on her naked mother’s lap
• the faceless (in fact, bodiless) Bureaucrat, sitting neatly on a pile of paper
• the lecherous Old Man with the naked doll
• the Drunk in his czapka krakuska (Kraków cap) and white overcoat, his body a giant bottle of spiritus
• the queuing Woman, clutching a large loaf and bags of shopping
• and, last but not least, Generalissimus Stalin himself, with a prison window for a heart.

Most of them have their eyes shut.  And among them are ghoulish faces, a newspaper that screams with raised arms and clenched fists, pierced by the passengers’ handrail, and a gigantic beetle.  I can’t claim to have picked up all the references (any further observations gratefully received!), but its imagery remains as powerful as it did for me in 1971.

There is not much on this penetrating artist on the web, but the following links may be helpful:

http://polish-art.info/linke.html (some further images)
• http://englishwarsaw.blogspot.com/2011/02/on-bus-bronisaw-wojciech-linke.html  This is a blog entry (25.02.11) by ‘Pan Steeva’, with more Linke images interlacing his translation of the Polish Wikipedia article on the painter.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ms5Y0cDJ-3A  This is a strange concoction uploaded only last week.  It’s a freeze-frame download from a Polish TV ‘Kultura’ profile of Autobus made in 1998.  The commentary by the distinguished painter and graphic artist Franciszek Starowieyski (whose art has clear connections with Linke and whose posters had an even stronger impact on me in the early 70s) is discarded in favour of a performance of a Scarlatti sonata …  But this YouTube video, ‘Autobus.wmv’ (3’32”), does give some valuable close-ups of the picture.

See also my subsequent post about Jacek Kaczmarski’s powerful song Czerwony autobus (7.12.11) and another giving its Polish lyrics and an English translation (13.12.11), both with a YouTube audio link.

• ‘The Pianist’ (b. 5.12.1911) and his Red Bus

Thanks to an alert last night from a friend in Warsaw, I was reminded that today marks the centenary of the birth of Władysław Szpilman (1911-2000). Szpilman was well-known in Poland from the 1930s as a fine concert pianist and as a composer of concert music and popular songs, especially after World War II.  He recounted his extraordinary survival of the war in his memoir Śmierć Miasta (Death of a City).  The memoir was republished in English as The Pianist shortly before his death and turned into an award-winning, internationally popular film of the same title by Roman Polański (2002), with Adrien Brody playing the lead role.

I once sat behind the quiet, elderly Szpilman at a concert in Warsaw.  I regret not speaking to him.  Later, I wanted to reproduce the opening page of one of his songs – Jak młode Stare Miasto (Like The Young Old Town, 1951) – in my book Polish Music since Szymanowski (Cambridge, 2005).  But permission was refused by his family as they thought that some of his songs were not representative of his talents (and also perhaps because 1951 was the height of the socialist-realist push in the arts). Yet this hugely popular song had already been released on CD (‘Golden Hits of Socialism’ [!], Intersonus ISO84).  Such is the unpredictability of copyright permission.

In 2000, Polish Radio issued a 5-CD set of Szpilman’s performances and compositions (PRCD 241-245):

• CD 1: 19 songs (1952-91).
• CD 2: Szpilman as pianist – including in his own Concertino (1940), Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (1954), Schumann’s Fantasy in C Major (1960) and two pieces by Chopin, including the Nocturne in C# minor (1980) with which he both closed Polish Radio broadcasts in 1939 and reopened them in 1945.
• CD 3: Szpilman as a member of the Warsaw Quintet – piano quintets by Brahms and Schumann (1963-65).
• CD 4: Szpilman with Bronisław Gimpel (who also led the Warsaw Quintet) – violin sonatas by Brahms (no.3), Grieg (no.3) and Franck (1958-65).
• CD 5: songs for children including three extended ‘musical fairytales’ (1962-75).

One of Szpilman’s most popular songs was Czerwony Autobus (The Red Bus, 1952).  The recording on CD 1 above is particularly fine, not least because of its sense of good humour, considerably aided by Szpilman’s own swinging piano.  Search it out if you can.  That recording was made by the best close-harmony male-voice quartet of the time, Chór Czejanda (Czejanda Choir).  They also made another, longer recording with dance orchestra.  In the YouTube video below (Legendy PRL: Legends of the Polish People’s Republic), this audio recording is accompanied by shots of Warsaw buses in various ‘picturesque’ locations of the post-war socialist capital.  I’ve put my translation of the first three verses below.  Enjoy!


When at dawn I run like a wind through the streets,
The city like a good friend welcomes me,
And – honestly – I wish you all such happiness
As every day gives me in Warsaw.

On board, please!  No-one will be late for work,
We will go quickly, even though we’re surrounded by a forest –
A forest of scaffolding, which really does mean
That here time does not stand still.

The red bus rushes along my city’s streets,
Passes the new, bright houses and the gardens’ cool shade.
Sometimes a girl will cast us a glance like a fiery flower.
Not only ‘Nowy Swiat’* is new – here each day is new.

* ‘New World’, a beautiful old street in Warsaw, reconstructed after the war.  It appears at 2’01” in the video above.

[For more information, go to http://www.szpilman.net/]

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