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The humour and satire in Wroclaw's army of gnomes

Born out of a 1980s' anti-communist movement by a bunch of students, Wroclaw's gnomes and dwarves are more than just street art

Two gnomes pushing a marble ball. Photo: iSTOCKPHOTO

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It is very easy to dub Wroclaw in Poland a “European Cliché”. For one, it bears the oft-bandied about moniker of “Venice of...” (in this instance, Venice of Poland). This, on account of its 130 bridges that ford over the Oder river, connecting the 12 islands that make up Poland’s third largest city.

It also has a notoriously mispronounced name. An affliction that seems to plague most central European cities of its ilk. Yes, “vrohtzwahv” is how one must pronounce Wroclaw to sound like a local.

But what sets this university city located in south-west Poland apart is something truly unique and artistic. A veritable expression of the country’s socio-political underpinnings brought forth in the most unique and tongue-in-cheek way possible. All thanks to the initiative of group of students way back in the 1980s.

Big Little Voices

Scattered across Wroclaw and even farther into its suburbs such as Biskupice Podgorne are over 800, tiny bronze figurines and statues of gnomes and dwarves called krasnale in Polish. Ranging from around 8-12 inches in height, these tiny people—reflecting modern, everyday Polish life like going to the pub for a beer or simply sitting on a bench hammering away at one’s laptop—have a significance and purpose that belie their funny poses, portly figures and conical hats. Each an example of how humour and satire have always been two of the greatest weapons to fend off political and social oppression the world over.

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Locals say that from the early 1980s onwards students would often gather to protest against the then communist regime in Poland by defacing Soviet propaganda. They did this by painting over such propaganda with street art and graffiti. Particularly by painting gnomes, from whom they also “borrowed” the idea of donning orange conical hats while protesting. This protest is often referred to as the Orange Alternative with the gnome becoming the veritable symbol and mascot of the movement.

It would be years later, in 2001 to be more specific, to commemorate the Orange Alternative that the local authorities finally recognised the significance of the gnome in the city’s recent history. They unveiled the first, official gnome statue. An almost life-sized one called Papa Krasnal (or Father Gnome) standing atop a human thumb on a prominent spot along the city’s Świdnicka Street. A landmark where the group’s gatherings used to take place in the 1980s.

The gnome craze

Papa Krasnal became so popular with the city folk, that soon other gnome and dwarf initiatives started to spring up all over the city. Local business owners and shopkeepers joined the gnome craze and commissioned local artists and sculptors to make tinier, one-foot-tall bronze cast gnome statues that highlighted their trade. So, one can find a pierogi-scarfing gnome outside a restaurant and a be-stethoscoped “doctor dwarf” outside a GP’s clinic.

However, in 2005, the Wroclaw city council stepped in and ordered five “official” gnomes that were made by Tomasz Moczek, a local artist and graduate of the Wroclaw Academy of Fine Arts.

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The placing of these first five gnomes was done with a lot of deliberation. For example, the Fender is located near the University of Wrocław, in honour of the students who gave the Orange Alternative its gravitas. The Butcher stands in the Stare Jatki arcade, which is considered Wroclaw’s most picturesque medieval streets and is famous for its Slaughtered Animals Monument—a sombre tribute to the city’s livestock. And paying homage to the Oder is Odra the Washer, near Piaskowy Bridge. Interestingly, the name of this last of the original five gnomes is said to be related to Pracze Odrzańskie, a historic estate on the outskirts of Wroclaw.

Gnomes with a purpose

In June 2008, in a bid to pay homage to the Wroclaw Without Barriers campaign—which aims at drawing attention to differently abled people living in Wroclaw—a duo of differently abled gnomes was placed on the city’s Ground Zero of Świdnicka Street. They share space with W-skers, who is a gnome in a wheelchair.

Over the years, Moczek has gone on to create over a hundred gnomes. Interestingly, each has its own backstory, personality and name like Sleepyhead holding a spear. Who, as its name suggests, is said to have fallen asleep while they were supposed to be guarding a wee gate leading to a city within the city, simply called “Dwarf City”.

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Today, as the city’s de facto mascot, the krasnale have their own official government website (Visitwroclaw.eu) so that visitors get a further insight into their location and history. There are also a number of other gnome finding aids like a range of free locator maps (Wroclaw Dwarfs on the map on Google Maps) and walking tours (Freewalkingtour.com). There’s even an app (Wroclaw Dwarfs on Google Play) that pings every time one is close to a gnome. In fact, every September Wroclaw hosts the “Great Dwarf Parade” (Wroclaw.pl) that sees locals specially making tiny outfits and dressing up the gnomes in winter woollies like tunics, scarves and yes, those orange conical hats that started it all.

Raul Dias is a Mumbai-based food and travel writer.

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