Marcel Szytenchelm - Gallery of Great Citizens of Łódź

more than a year ago
While much of Łódź may still look like it’s ready to keel over (an ongoing task of revitalisation!), the main drag - ul. Piotrkowska - is something of a feast for the eyes; scrubbed, bevelled and back to its best this art nouveau masterpiece is, for many, the whole reason for visiting. Full of magnificent diversions it’s a street of intricate facades, of swerving rickshaws and hidden courtyards. It’s also a street of bars, where memories are forged and forgotten in equal measure. And it’s while crashing in and out of these aforementioned hostelries visitors occasionally find themselves bouncing into something hard and bronze – statues. You’ll find six in all, and they’re all the work of one man: Marcel Szytenchelm.

Actor, director and lover of all things Łódź, Szytenchelm hails originally from Gdynia, though found his family moving this way in his youth. And it’s to these days he traces his addiction to the city, bred and raised on a diet of long walks and tales from the tomes of Julian Tuwim. On finishing high school Szytenchelm pursued higher learning in Poznań and Warsaw, studying both theatre and acting. On completion of his studies he returned to Łódź, founding the ‘SŁUP’ Theatre in the process. Accolades followed swiftly, and in 1997 his work was recognised by way of a Golden Mask award for theatre. It was also in this year he decided to spread his wings, organising the first Tuwim Day to be held in Łódź; it proved such a success it was to become a regular event on the local calendar, and held approximately every couple of years since. Spurred by the success Szytenchelm organised Wladysław Reymont day the following year, with people dressed in period costume making their way to Lipce by steam train. This too was to become an annual event, and he was awarded gongs for service to the city. By this time our man was in his stride, and decided to go a step further and open a ‘Gallery of Great Citizens of Łódź’. This was to take the form of statues on Piotrkowska, dedicated to the great and good of (what was then) Poland’s second city. Following a design by Szytenchelm sculptor Wojciech Hrynkiewicz came up with a cast-bronze figure of the literary hero Julian Tuwim to be placed on Piotrkowska 104. Unveiled on April 10, 1999, it was a roaring success, with the bench Tuwim is sat on becoming a popular meeting spot for canoodling couples. And tramps.

Voted ‘Citizen of the Year’ by the locals our protagonist liked the idea so much he expanded on it, adding the figure of Artur Rubinstein to Piotrkowska 78 a year later. Weighing one tonne, and depicting the pianist dwarfed behind a winged piano, the sculpture created a storm. A music box was part of the parcel, with the insertion of a two złoty coin allowing visitors to choose a piano tune which would then be played. The tourists loved it, the critics hated it – not to say the residents who lived directly above the incessant fairground noise. Local art figures slammed the installation, citing amateur workmanship and shoddy proportions. Ewa Rubinstein, the pianist’s daughter, threw her toys right out of the pram, and at one stage threatened to boycott the city unless the statue was removed. Moved to voice her anger to the President and Prime Minister, she was eventually placated by the removal of the music box, though rumours persist of the statue's impending demise.

Szytenchelm, however, remained undeterred by the flak; on September 7, 2001 Wladysław Reymont’s trunk was unveiled on Piotrkowska 137, and the following year his growing arsenal of statues were added to by the appearance of ‘Three Factory Owners’, seated at Piotrkowska 32. Following a quiet spell our man returned in 2006 with the statue of director Stefan Jaracz at the very southern end of the high street, and he followed this up in 2007 with the form of an electrician lighting a streetlamp on Piotrkowska 37. And that’s not to say we’ve seen the last of Szytenchelm. Plans afoot include Władysłąw Jagiełło, the king who granted Łódź its city charter, political activist Rejmond Rembieliński, Władysław Strzemiński (founder of the Łódź Art Academy), as well as the figures of everyday heroes of the past such as an anonymous textile worker and a Jewish shopkeeper.

Critics have been quick to blast the kitschy nature of Szytenchelm’s work, but the artist remains unperturbed: ‘I am doing this for the people, those who don’t like it can honour Rubinstein or Jaracz in their own way’, he has been quoted as saying. And it’s a point worth considering; the same people who lampoon his work are the same people who have done nothing for Łódź. Few have done more to illuminate the city, and surely, one day, Marcel Szytenchelm will be honoured with his own statue.


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