Mingus on Wampuszyc, 'Mapping Warsaw: The Spatial Poetics of a Postwar City'

Author: 
Ewa Wampuszyc
Reviewer: 
Matthew D. Mingus

Ewa Wampuszyc. Mapping Warsaw: The Spatial Poetics of a Postwar City. Chicago: Northwestern University Press, 2018. 240 pp. $34.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8101-3789-9.

Reviewed by Matthew D. Mingus (University of New Mexico-Gallup) Published on H-Maps (September, 2020) Commissioned by Katherine Parker (Barry Lawrence Ruderman Antique Maps Inc., Hakluyt Society)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=55378

Mapping Warsaw: The Spatial Poetics of a Postwar City

In recent months, the contentiousness of space—and the ideological narratives reflected in our spaces/places—has come to the forefront of our contemporary political discussions. In the wake of the murders of George Floyd and Jacob Blake, and the subsequent waves of Black Lives Matter demonstrations throughout the United States (and much of the world), serious and important questions have been raised about to whom society should build its monuments and after whom society should name its streets and buildings. These, of course, are not new questions. And while Ewa Wampuszyc’s Mapping Warsaw: The Spatial Poetics of a Postwar City could have never anticipated the political moment in which we currently find ourselves, her book’s excellent treatment of Warsaw’s spatial reconstruction after the Second World War can certainly remind of us that the “spatiality of place is ever-changing” (p. 173), as well as offer us a fantastic historical example of how ideology constantly informs the creation and evolution of a city’s topography.

After a brief prologue and theory-heavy introduction, Wampuszyc’s Mapping Warsaw is presented in four chapters. Each chapter deals with a particular medium through which the space and geography of Warsaw was presented and represented to its residents. Chapter 1 focuses on the portrayal of Warsaw in photobooks after the Second World War with special emphasis on the 1949 publication of Warsaw, the Capital of Poland—the first photobook published under Poland’s communist government. Wampuszyc convincingly argues that Warsaw’s postwar space was reimagined through the production of selective photo-imagery that emphasized communist activism and resistance during World War II, and then also used that historical legacy to promote an idealized communist future for the city. For decades after the war, photobooks of Warsaw, in both image and text, followed the same standard narrative: from Soviet liberation to the triumphant return of Varsovians to the reconstruction and rebuilding of Poland’s capital city.

This transition from bombed-out city to a thriving urban center, rejuvenated by the ideological power of communism, is maybe made most clear in Wampuszyc’s treatment of newsreels, the subject of Mapping Warsaw’s second chapter. In it, she focuses primarily on the Polish Film Chronicle’s (PKF) treatment of Warsaw’s physical transformation during the first postwar decade. Informed by socialist realism, and clearly understanding their role as propagandists and ideologues, the filmmakers of the PKF worked to legitimize both Poland’s communist leadership and Warsaw as Poland’s communist capital. News reports featured important events and building projects in Warsaw (filmed to make it clear that that space—being in Warsaw—made the projects and events all the more important). The PKF’s cinematography worked to often ignore images of postwar rubble, or use that rubble as a symbol of a past that had been overcome by Polish workers in tandem with the communist government. Only after the 1956 “thaw,” when the Polish government became less interested in perpetuating direct propaganda, did the “carefully controlled language” of Varsovian newsreel narratives evolve out of its postwar “rhythmic predictability” and “socialist realist aesthetic” (p. 95).

As with the rubble and building projects presented in newsreels featuring Warsaw, Wampuszyc argues that movies, too, built a kind of “spatial iconography” (p. 97) that helped map out a collective identity for postwar Varsovians. In her third chapter, the author highlights four Polish films that take Warsaw as their setting: Treasure (1948), Adventure in Mariensztat (1953), A Matter to Settle (1953), and Irene, Go Home! (1955). All of these films took seriously the many challenges of rebuilding a Warsaw committed to communism (e.g., lack of adequate housing, women’s equality, traditional vs. progressive values, etc.), but all four also couched the tension that arose from these challenges in humor. Moreover, Wampuszyc gives detailed explanations as to how each movie worked Warsaw’s topography into its respective storyline, explicitly assisting in the creation of the city’s socialist spatiality.

The final—and, arguably, best—chapter of Mapping Warsaw examines Warsaw’s Palace of Culture as a palimpsest of competing narratives “superimposed on one another” (p. 139). From its origins as a glorified gift from Stalin to its later presentation (through the short film Warsaw 1956) as an out-of-touch juxtaposition to the everyday life of typical Varsovians, the Palace of Culture has come to represent many different ideas to many different Poles. This final chapter ends with a fascinating discussion of author and film director Tadeusz Konwicki’s influential attempts to shift discourses centered on the Palace of Culture toward broader critiques of “communism, messianism, and ideology (in general)” (p. 169). Through the examples of his films Ascension (1967) and Lava (1989), as well as his literary work A Minor Apocalypse (1979), Wampuszyc brilliantly exhibits how the meaning of a space—and the buildings meant to occupy and shape that space—can be coopted and redefined.

While many images are incorporated into the text of Mapping Warsaw—including some very helpful original visual aids created by the data services librarian Lorin Bruckner—at times I could not help but wish for more, particularly when a photograph or painting was discussed in detail. I realize, of course, that the negotiations between an author and publisher regarding the use of and permissions related to imagery are fraught with many considerations. But the discussions of Aleksander Kobzdej’s painting Pass the Brick (p. 27) and the photospread from Warsaw 1945-1970 (p. 42) could have perhaps been more effective had those images been allowed to accompany the text.

In her fterword, Wampuszyc acknowledges that, still today, Warsaw struggles with the “de-socialization of [its] landscape” (p. 171). As I alluded to at the beginning of this review, it was impossible for me to read this book without being constantly reminded of the current effort by antiracist and anti-imperialist activists to remove statues, flags, and other icons meant to glorify the American Confederacy, slave owners, and purveyors of genocide. Mapping Warsaw makes clear the importance of spatial narratives in shaping collective identity and the enormous effort required, in Poland and elsewhere, to reclaim and reorient those narratives. In this sense, then, while Wampuszyc’s work is a welcome contribution to the interdisciplinary “spatial turn,” it also offers broadly applicable historical lessons for our current political moment.

Citation: Matthew D. Mingus. Review of Wampuszyc, Ewa, Mapping Warsaw: The Spatial Poetics of a Postwar City. H-Maps, H-Net Reviews. September, 2020. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=55378

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

Colleagues, please note that there was an error in the first paragraph of the review of Mingus on Wampuszyc, 'Mapping Warsaw: The Spatial Poetics of a Postwar City'. It originally stated that Jacob Blake was murdered. Blake was not murdered. He was shot seven times in the back by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin, but he is very much alive. This was an oversight and mistake made by the reviews editor, not the review author.

A corrected review follows below:

Mapping Warsaw: The Spatial Poetics of a Postwar City

In recent months, the contentiousness of space—and the ideological narratives reflected in our spaces/places—has come to the forefront of our contemporary political discussions. In the wake of the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent waves of Black Lives Matter demonstrations throughout the United States (and much of the world), serious and important questions have been raised about to whom society should build its monuments and after whom society should name its streets and buildings. These, of course, are not new questions. And while Ewa Wampuszyc’s Mapping Warsaw: The Spatial Poetics of a Postwar City could have never anticipated the political moment in which we currently find ourselves, her book’s excellent treatment of Warsaw’s spatial reconstruction after the Second World War can certainly remind of us that the “spatiality of place is ever-changing” (p. 173), as well as offer us a fantastic historical example of how ideology constantly informs the creation and evolution of a city’s topography.

After a brief prologue and theory-heavy introduction, Wampuszyc’s Mapping Warsaw is presented in four chapters. Each chapter deals with a particular medium through which the space and geography of Warsaw was presented and represented to its residents. Chapter 1 focuses on the portrayal of Warsaw in photobooks after the Second World War with special emphasis on the 1949 publication of Warsaw, the Capital of Poland—the first photobook published under Poland’s communist government. Wampuszyc convincingly argues that Warsaw’s postwar space was reimagined through the production of selective photo-imagery that emphasized communist activism and resistance during World War II, and then also used that historical legacy to promote an idealized communist future for the city. For decades after the war, photobooks of Warsaw, in both image and text, followed the same standard narrative: from Soviet liberation to the triumphant return of Varsovians to the reconstruction and rebuilding of Poland’s capital city.

This transition from bombed-out city to a thriving urban center, rejuvenated by the ideological power of communism, is maybe made most clear in Wampuszyc’s treatment of newsreels, the subject of Mapping Warsaw’s second chapter. In it, she focuses primarily on the Polish Film Chronicle’s (PKF) treatment of Warsaw’s physical transformation during the first postwar decade. Informed by socialist realism, and clearly understanding their role as propagandists and ideologues, the filmmakers of the PKF worked to legitimize both Poland’s communist leadership and Warsaw as Poland’s communist capital. News reports featured important events and building projects in Warsaw (filmed to make it clear that that space—being in Warsaw—made the projects and events all the more important). The PKF’s cinematography worked to often ignore images of postwar rubble, or use that rubble as a symbol of a past that had been overcome by Polish workers in tandem with the communist government. Only after the 1956 “thaw,” when the Polish government became less interested in perpetuating direct propaganda, did the “carefully controlled language” of Varsovian newsreel narratives evolve out of its postwar “rhythmic predictability” and “socialist realist aesthetic” (p. 95).

As with the rubble and building projects presented in newsreels featuring Warsaw, Wampuszyc argues that movies, too, built a kind of “spatial iconography” (p. 97) that helped map out a collective identity for postwar Varsovians. In her third chapter, the author highlights four Polish films that take Warsaw as their setting: Treasure (1948), Adventure in Mariensztat (1953), A Matter to Settle (1953), and Irene, Go Home! (1955). All of these films took seriously the many challenges of rebuilding a Warsaw committed to communism (e.g., lack of adequate housing, women’s equality, traditional vs. progressive values, etc.), but all four also couched the tension that arose from these challenges in humor. Moreover, Wampuszyc gives detailed explanations as to how each movie worked Warsaw’s topography into its respective storyline, explicitly assisting in the creation of the city’s socialist spatiality.

The final—and, arguably, best—chapter of Mapping Warsaw examines Warsaw’s Palace of Culture as a palimpsest of competing narratives “superimposed on one another” (p. 139). From its origins as a glorified gift from Stalin to its later presentation (through the short film Warsaw 1956) as an out-of-touch juxtaposition to the everyday life of typical Varsovians, the Palace of Culture has come to represent many different ideas to many different Poles. This final chapter ends with a fascinating discussion of author and film director Tadeusz Konwicki’s influential attempts to shift discourses centered on the Palace of Culture toward broader critiques of “communism, messianism, and ideology (in general)” (p. 169). Through the examples of his films Ascension (1967) and Lava (1989), as well as his literary work A Minor Apocalypse (1979), Wampuszyc brilliantly exhibits how the meaning of a space—and the buildings meant to occupy and shape that space—can be coopted and redefined.

While many images are incorporated into the text of Mapping Warsaw—including some very helpful original visual aids created by the data services librarian Lorin Bruckner—at times I could not help but wish for more, particularly when a photograph or painting was discussed in detail. I realize, of course, that the negotiations between an author and publisher regarding the use of and permissions related to imagery are fraught with many considerations. But the discussions of Aleksander Kobzdej’s painting Pass the Brick (p. 27) and the photospread from Warsaw 1945-1970 (p. 42) could have perhaps been more effective had those images been allowed to accompany the text.

In her fterword, Wampuszyc acknowledges that, still today, Warsaw struggles with the “de-socialization of [its] landscape” (p. 171). As I alluded to at the beginning of this review, it was impossible for me to read this book without being constantly reminded of the current effort by antiracist and anti-imperialist activists to remove statues, flags, and other icons meant to glorify the American Confederacy, slave owners, and purveyors of genocide. Mapping Warsaw makes clear the importance of spatial narratives in shaping collective identity and the enormous effort required, in Poland and elsewhere, to reclaim and reorient those narratives. In this sense, then, while Wampuszyc’s work is a welcome contribution to the interdisciplinary “spatial turn,” it also offers broadly applicable historical lessons for our current political moment.