What do you think of when you think of neon signs?
I don’t know for sure, but I bet if you thought about something, it wasn’t post-war communist Poland? You probably also didn’t consider it as a form of “street art” either?
Was I right?
I only recently discovered the amazing story and art of the post-war “Polish Neon” signs that found their place on the buildings of a rebuilt Warsaw in the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s. Thanks to some talented neon artists that went uncredited at the time, we can now enjoy the works of Jan Mucharski, Tadeusz Rogowski,Jan Boguslawski and a number of others in one place.
So, what is “Polish Neon”?
The term “Polish Neon” was coined by photographer Ilona Karwinska having discovered the crumbling yet monumental neon signs of Warsaw back in 2005. The photographer made it her mission to document what remained of these once grand signs belonging to the Cold War era, designed to illuminate the grey cityscape of Warszawa.
Before long, the signs in Warsaw and other Polish cities such as Krakow were to be removed, and likely lost forever.
But she had a plan – a museum dedicated to Neon.
But let’s take a few steps backwards….
The birth of Polish neon signs
During the period between the first and second world wars, neon signs illuminated the city of Warsaw before they were completely extinguished along with huge numbers of lives in the city by 1945.
It was only following the death of the communist leader Joseph Stalin that a new era of freedom (relatively speaking, of course) known as the Kruschev Thaw allowed more creative expression on the streets of Warsaw.
Why neon signs…and in a communist country?
The government of Poland at the time took inspiration from cities such as Hamburg, Paris and London, and took the decision to “neonise” the country when regulations around advertising were loosened and large scale work could be introduced.
Following conferences in Moscow and Czechoslovakia in the mid 50s, their attempt to reconcile consumerism and socialism was to begin. In short, neon signs were to be “the city’s symbol of cultural and economic prosperity”.
These signs were envisaged as decorative elements to the cityscape, merging harmoniously with their surroundings, and the architecture of the buildings they were positioned on.
The overall aim – to turn the grey city of Warsaw into a bright, modern, European city and “inform, teach, and amuse”.
But importantly, they weren’t seen as commercial, but rather a new form of Polish Applied Arts. The intervening 40 years saw the Golden Age of Neon unfold throughout Poland.
Warsaw’s Neon Museum
The museum can be found in the uber cool Soho Factory across the Wisla river in Praga, Warsaw’s flourishing creative district. The Neon Museum sits inside one of 8 post industrial buildings and now is home to some of the fantastic workmanship of the neon artists of the 20th century.
Cop some of my photos from inside the museum below to get a little taste of the variety Ilona has managed to salvage.
The co-creator of the Neon Museum is David Hill. Together David and Ilona built the foundations of the museum in 2005 with the photographic documentation project entitled ‘Polish Neon’.
The preservation and renovation of the remaining cold war neon signs also began during that project. Since then the museum collection has grown in size and now displays hundreds of fascinating and historically important electro-graphic symbols – the biggest single collection of neon signs anywhere in Europe.
Want to visit?
Walking from the centre of the Old Town is perfectly doable, albeit in around 50 mins or so, but it’s a really interesting walk through two very different areas of Warsaw.
I’ve recreated the route I took on Google maps below for you to follow if you’d like to visit, I thoroughly recommend it.
Praga is also a fantastic area for street art, many of the cities most impressive murals live here. On this route you can take in the incredible mural by 1010 on the left hand side of Anton Mackiewicza – worth the walk alone!
Check out my analogue photo taken on my suitably socialist Praktica MTL 50 from my recent visit!