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POLISH JOKES: MAREK RACZKOWSKI

 

By Colin Graham

WARSAW, 31 October 2006 —It is an odd fact in its way but the truth is that satirical cartoons are rarely funny. Turn to the opinion page of an average newspaper—where the sketches usually appear—and you are unlikely to collapse in a heap of mirth. Most cartoonists, at the end of the day, view themselves as provocateurs rather than humourists. Consider the Danish cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammed that caused such an international storm last year. No one would deny that they rammed home a point but few people would ever suggest that they were a laughing matter.

Marek Raczkowski, on the other hand, knows where most of us can be tickled, though he can jolt you intellectually as well. His illustrations in the weekly magazine Przekroj invariably lampoon an aspect of Polish life that is immediately recognisable—even to foreigners—but also provide some intriguing insights. Many of his themes recur. Emigration, religion, family and politics pop-up regularly, interspersed by absurdist digressions featuring aliens landing in Poland and the occasional ribbing of the country’s notorious football hooligans.


© Marek Raczkowski

But with the political heat rising every day, Raczkowski is finding that his art is having to take sides more resolutely than was perhaps the case a few years ago. Clearly on the left of the political spectrum, Raczkowski has placed himself firmly within the new anti-Conservative counter culture, which has battled with the authorities over the closure of the alternative club and arts centre Le Madame , the struggle to hold the gay rights Equality Parade march in Warsaw and the attempt to get far-right Education Minister, Roman Giertych, removed from office.

Normally content to foreground his work as his political commentary Raczkowski himself was thrust into the front line when he was arrested in August for ‘defaming national symbols’. Back in March, he appeared on Radio Tok FM along with fellow satirist and former Communist-era government spokesman Jerzy Urban, to discuss freedom of speech. At one point in the programme, Raczkowski revealed that he had taken part in a ‘happening’ which involved placing 70 tiny Polish flags into dog excrement lying around Warsaw’s streets.


"Which one of you drew this?!"
© Marek Raczkowski

His subsequent arrest earned him a spot on the front page of his own magazine, where an accompanying article gave an account of his experience at the police station. "The police were perfectly nice," said Raczkowski after his ordeal. "But they did have rather large pistols." This then led to courting from the ‘Green 2004’ party to persuade the cartoonist to become their candidate for Warsaw’s mayoral elections, being held on November 12th.

"The Czechs chose an artist, Vaclev Havel, as their leader, and that went well enough," said Krystian Legierski, former owner of Le Madame and a Green 2004 member. "And anyway Raczkowski is a symbolic guy, especially after the episode with the dog excrement." However, the cartoonist himself has proved reluctant to be wooed and has taken a typically sardonic line when speaking of his chances of becoming mayor.

"Sometimes I think "Why not?" and then at other times I reconsider," he said in early September. "If I saw a hundred people outside my house holding banners urging me to run then maybe I would do so."A few weeks later and Raczkowski had pretty much ruled himself out of the race.  "I couldn’t become mayor because I would lose all my fans and also because the president of Warsaw earns far less than a cartoonist," he said. "Besides, I would probably make a fool out of myself." The alternative, he says, will be to promote one of his main characters, Stanislaw z Lodzi (Stanislaw from Lodz) as a candidate, through a series of stunts designed to brighten up the political process and raise the profile of the anti-Conservative movement. "We might have difficulties registering him because he is made of paper," he said. "But we will engage in a series of ‘happenings’ which should attract media attention."

He added that the fact that Stanislaw comes from Lodz, not the capital, should not stand in the way of a successful campaign. "Some people say that they have a problem with [the current mayor and former prime minister Kazimierz] Marcinkiewicz because he is from Gorzow [in the west of Poland], but I think the most important thing is that the city is led by a wise man," said Raczkowski.

 
Stanislaw from Lodz:
"I never pay for sex"

"I can't afford it"
© Marek Raczkowski

Regardless of his ability or otherwise to lead Warsaw to better times, wise is an unsuitable adjective to apply to Stanislaw z Lodzi. In most of the cartoons he appears in he does so with his small son, with whom he experiences an almost constant breakdown in communication. One shows the boy lovingly at work drawing a picture of his dad, while the latter looks on vexed that he is being depicted as a blob of a torso with branch-like arms and twigs as legs. He then holds up a picture displaying a more flattering likeness. "That’s how you are supposed to draw!" he tells the kid, who looks as if tears are on the way.

Elsewhere it is the boy who gets the last word in. "How was your day at school, Piotrek?" Stanislaw asks as the child arrives home. "Once I have finished primary school, I am leaving this country!" he says.

The cuteness and mischief of children are frequent motifs in Raczkowski’s work, and it is evident from the cartoons and meeting him in the flesh that naughtiness is a trait he swears by. You wonder if anything he says can be taken at face value, because he seems to be constantly mucking about. But that is what sets him apart from a lot of other cartoonists, who are so eager to climb onto soapboxes and whose characters amount to caricatures, which Raczkowski says he will never stoop to producing. Deliberately thin on detail, his figures genuinely look like something from the cartoons we all grew up with as children. That he manages to combine sheer silliness with some serious political points, is a mark of someone who is very special in his field. But this should not come as such a complete surprise. After all, dissent and protest spring from that same well that gets kids into trouble: that of not wanting to do what you are told. Add to that the simple fact that being naughty is the funniest thing you can do and you end up with Marek Raczkowski.

 

A British  journalist based in Warsaw, Colin Graham writes on culture in Central and Eastern Europe.  He also gave an inside look at gay clubs in Warsaw and trendy clubs in St. Petersburg, Russia for Culturekiosque.com.



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