While holidaying in Poland in 2005, British graphic designer David Hill was struck by the neglected Cold-War era neon signs spanning the rooftops of the capital, Warsaw. “I’d never seen anything quite like it before,” Hill told CNN. He suggested to a friend, the Polish-British photographer Ilona Karwinska, that she capture a “history that was being lost.”
Their six-month project transformed into a photo exhibition, a book, and turned the pair into Poland’s unofficial ambassadors of neon. The growing hype around their work revived Poles’ nostalgia of a forgotten art form. “We quickly became active in the preservation of neon signs,” Hill said. Shopkeepers began to donate unwanted signs to Hill and Karwinska, and the pair created a hotline to receive tip-offs on where to find decayed signs headed to the junkyard. Their growing collection, stored on friends’ balconies and garages, eventually needed a home, and in 2012 they founded Europe’s first neon museum in Warsaw.
Housed in a former weapon’s factory, Neon Muzeum showcases a subtle form of Soviet propaganda deployed across the Eastern Bloc. It also celebrates a period of creative expression that bloomed in the heart of one of Europe’s most oppressive political systems.
Poland’s dalliance with Communist-era neon began soon after Soviet Union leader Joseph Stalin died in 1953. His successor Nikita Khrushchev denounced Stalin three years later in a speech to Soviet communists, heralding in an era known as the “Khrushchev thaw.”It was a time of growing social unrest. In a bid to create a sense of socio-economic revival, and compete against the nocturnal glamour of major Western capitals, the communists launched a “neonization” campaign.
“It was part of a great state-sponsored cultural plan to give people the sense that everything was on the up,” Hill said. But unlike the mid-century neon displays of Paris or Las Vegas, which advertised everything from cigarettes to new gambling halls, the socialist neon signs were glorified community notices, announcing a commodity or service.
The Stalin-era gloom in Warsaw was wiped away with squiggly pastel flowers hanging off the side of a building — delineating an area where flowers were sold. A luminescent Syrenka, the mermaid of Warsaw, symbolizes a library as she sits on an open book. A gleaming “Berlin” signposted a shop selling East German textiles.”It was not about consumerism, they (neon signs) were there to inform, to educate and amuse,” Hill said of the signs that illuminated factories, shops and schools. “No brands, no logos, just symbols and statements.”
It may have been a Soviet state-sponsored project, but the campaign, which lasted until the ’80s, “was a period of relative freedom, where artists and designers and musicians could all express themselves in a way they hadn’t previously been allowed to,” Hill said. The best graphic designers of the time, like Jan Mucharski and Tadeusz Rogowski, were enlisted to create the new designs, creating a new form of Polish applied art. Their lack of familiarity in the medium meant “a lot of their designs are freer and not constrained by technical restrictions or limitations,” Hill said of the avant-garde creations.
“The new neon lightscape suggested life after dark,” David Crowley, a professor from Dublin’s National College of Art and Design, writes in Karwinska’s book “Neon Revolution.” “Shaking off Stalin, the Poles enjoyed a liberal period when modern art could be displayed and jazz, and satirical cabaret performed without attracting the attention of the censor,” he added.
By 1960, neon factories were producing 2,000 meters of neon tubes a month, and in the next decade the signs became prominent, permanent fixtures on rooftops around the country.But not everyone benefited from the Socialist messages modeled from glass and noble gases. The light from the dazzling signs often pierced through the heaviest curtains, disrupting the sleep of tenants, and its static sometimes interfered with radio and TV signals.
Residents had to live with it because “you weren’t allowed to complain,” Hill said. And beyond its buzzing glamour, people saw the signs as a cynical attempt to distract and placate the Poles during a time of economic stagnation and extreme repression. “They were being used to pretend things were great. And things were not great,” Hill said. Towards the end of the ’70s, Poland found itself in an economic crisis. “The first thing to suffer was the urban landscape and neon signs — they (the state) couldn’t afford to maintain them so they were neglected,” Hill said.
The neon lights were snuffed out in the ’80s as the communists switched their attention to a growing resistance movement.Martial law was declared from 1981 to 1983, and the period was dominated by power cuts and shortages. Poland returned again to its Stalin-era gloom. By the time Communism collapsed, and Poland became a democracy in the early ’90s, the signs had become a glaring symbol of the trauma of oppressive Soviet rule.
The first ministers of the day decided it was time to erase anything that reminded the country of that history. “And so they initiated the ‘great recycling scheme,'” Hill said, where neon signs, now deemed politically regressive, were unplugged and pulled down.By the turn of the 21st century, “these neon signs had absolutely no cultural value whatsoever,” he said. That changed with Hill and Karwinska’s work. The museum now ranks among Warsaw’s most popular tourist sites, drawing 100,000 visitors a year — including history-buffs and teenagers looking for a good Instagram shot.”Everybody looks good under the lights of a neon sign,” Hill said as a group of tourists took a selfie by the circus-like Berlin sign.
Hill said his job is done if they learn a bit of history while enjoying the signs’ glamorous glow, because what the museum really illuminates is a time post-Communist Poland nearly forgot.