Cultural history of Poland can be traced back to the Middle Ages. In its entirety, it can be divided into the following historical, philosophical and artistic periods: Culture of medieval Poland (from the late 10th to late 15th century), Renaissance (late 15th to the
late 16th century), Baroque (late 16th to the mid-18th century), Enlightenment (second half of the 18th century), Romanticism (from around 1820 until the suppression of the 1863 January Uprising against the Russian Empire), Positivism (lasting until the turn of the 20th century), Young Poland (between 1890 and 1918), Interbellum (1918–1939), World War II (1939–1945), People’s Republic of Poland (until the 1989 Autumn of Nations), and Modern.
Polish (język polski, polszczyzna) is a language of the Lechitic subgroup of West Slavic languages, used throughout Poland (being that country’s official language) and by Polish minorities in other countries. Its written standard is the Polish alphabet, which
corresponds to the Latin alphabet with several additions. Despite the pressure of non-Polish administrations in Poland, who have often attempted to suppress the Polish language, a rich literature has developed over the centuries, and the language is
currently the largest, in terms of speakers, of the West Slavic group. It is also the second most widely spoken Slavic language, after Russian and ahead of Ukrainian. Polish is mainly spoken in Poland. Poland is one of the most linguistically homogeneous European countries; nearly 97% of Poland’s citizens declare Polish as their mother tongue.
Polish art has always reflected European trends while maintaining its unique character. The Kraków school of Historicist painting developed by Jan Matejko produced monumental portrayals of customs and significant events in Polish history. Stanisław Witkiewicz was an ardent supporter of Realism in Polish art, its main representative being Jozef Chełmoński. The Młoda Polska (Young Poland) movement witnessed the birth of modern Polish art, and engaged in a great deal of formal experimentation led by Jacek Malczewski (Symbolism), Stanisław Wyspiański, Józef Mehoffer, and a group of Polish Impressionists. Artists of the twentieth-century Avant-Garde represented various schools and trends. The art of Tadeusz Makowski was influenced by Cubism; while Władysław Strzemiński and Henryk Stażewski worked within the Constructivist idiom. Distinguished contemporary artists include Roman Opałka, Leon Tarasewicz, Jerzy Nowosielski, Wojciech Siudmak, Mirosław Bałka, and Katarzyna Kozyra and Zbigniew Wąsiel in the younger generation. The most celebrated Polish sculptors include Xawery Dunikowski, Katarzyna Kobro, Alina Szapocznikow and Magdalena Abakanowicz. Since the inter-war years, Polish art and documentary photography has enjoyed worldwide recognition. In the sixties the Polish Poster School was formed, with Henryk Tomaszewski and Waldemar Świerzy at its head.
Artists from Poland, including famous composers like Chopin or Witold Lutosławski and traditional, regionalized folk musicians, create a lively and diverse music scene, which even recognizes its own music genres, such as poezja śpiewana. Today in Poland you can find trance, techno, House music, and heavy metal.
The origin of Polish music can be traced as far back as the 13th century, from which manuscripts have been found in Stary Sącz, containing polyphonic compositions related to the Parisian Notre Dame School. Other early compositions, such as the melody of Bogurodzica, may also date back to this period. The first known notable composer, however, Mikołaj z Radomia, lived in the 15th century. The melody of Bóg się rodzi by an unknown composer was a coronation polonaise for Polish kings.
During the 16th century, mostly two musical groups – both based in Kraków and belonging to the King and Archbishop of Wawel – led the rapid innovation of Polish music. Composers writing during this period include Wacław z Szamotuł, Mikołaj Zieleński, and Mikołaj Gomółka. Diomedes Cato, a native-born Italian who lived in Kraków from about the age of five, became one of the most famous lutenists at the court of Sigismund III, and not only imported some of the musical styles from southern Europe, but blended them with native folk music.
Poland has one of the strongest and best-respected heavy metal scenes in Europe, specifically the death metal scene. One of the biggest record labels of death metal in Poland is Empire Records. The death metal band Vader is considered the most successful Polish heavy metal act and have gained commercial and critical praise internationally. Their career spans more than three decades with many international tours. They are often seen as a huge inspiration on modern death metal. Both Behemoth and Decapitated have also found significant success both inside and outside of Poland. Both have toured extensively across Europe, America, and in the case of Decapitated, have recently toured Australia and New Zealand. Recently Indukti, Hate, Trauma, Crionics, Lost Soul and Lux Occulta have started to become well known outside of Poland. Though there is also a healthy and active grindcore scene, death metal remains Poland’s strongest and most successful genre in terms of heavy metal. There is a healthy black metals scene as well, led by Graveland, Darzamat, Kataxu, Infernal War and Vesania.
Since the arrival of Christianity and the subsequent access to Western European civilization, Poles developed a significant literary production in Latin. Conspicuous authors of the Middle Ages are among others Gallus Anonymus, Wincenty Kadłubek and Jan Długosz, an author of the monumental work on the history of Poland. With the arrival of the Renaissance, Poles came under the influence of the artistic patterns of the humanistic style, actively participating in the European issues of that time with their Latin works.
The origins of Polish literature written in the first language go back beyond the 14th century. In the 16th century the poetic works of Jan Kochanowski established him as a leading representative of European Renaissance literature. Baroque and Neo-Classicist belle letters made a significant contribution to the cementing of Poland’s peoples of many cultural backgrounds. The early 19th century novel “Manuscrit trouvé à Saragosse” by Count Jan Potocki, which survived in its Polish translation after the loss of the original in French, became a world classic. Wojciech Has’ film based on it, a favourite of Luis Buñuel, later became a cult film on university campuses. Poland’s great Romantic literature flourished in the 19th century when the country had lost its independence. The poets Adam Mickiewicz, Juliusz Słowacki and Zygmunt Krasiński, the “Three Bards”, became the spiritual leaders of a nation deprived of its sovereignty, and prophesied its revival. The novelist Henryk Sienkiewicz, who won the Nobel Prize in 1905, eulogised the historical tradition. It is difficult to grasp fully the detailed tradition of Polish Romanticism and its consequences for Polish literature without a thorough knowledge of Polish history.
In the early 20th century many outstanding Polish literary works emerged from the new cultural exchange and Avant-Garde experimentation. The legacy of the Kresy marshlands of Poland’s eastern regions with Wilno and Lwów (now Vilnius and Lviv) as two major centres for the arts, played a special role in these developments. This was also a region in which Jewish tradition and the mystic movement of Hasidism thrived. The Kresy were a cultural trysting-place for numerous ethnic and national groups whose achievements were inspiring each other. The works of Bruno Schulz, Bolesław Leśmian, and Józef Czechowicz were written there. In the south of Poland, Zakopane was the birthplace of the avant-garde works of Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz (Witkacy). And, last but not least, Władysław Reymont was awarded the 1924 Nobel prize in literature for his novel Chłopi (The Peasants).
After the Second World War many Polish writers found themselves in exile, with many of them clustered around the Paris-based “Kultura” publishing venture run by Jerzy Giedroyc. The group of emigre writers included Witold Gombrowicz, Gustaw Herling-Grudziński, Czesław Miłosz, and Sławomir Mrożek.
Zbigniew Herbert, Tadeusz Różewicz, Czesław Miłosz, and Wisława Szymborska are among the most outstanding 20th century Polish poets, including novelists and playwrights Witold Gombrowicz, Sławomir Mrożek, and Stanisław Lem (science fiction). The long list includes Hanna Krall whose work focuses mainly on the war-time Jewish experience, and Ryszard Kapuściński with books translated into many languages.