An artist’s take on a nationalist march in Poland perfectly captures Europe’s anxieties

Creating a portrait of the times.
Creating a portrait of the times.
Image: Ada Zielińska
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Commemorations of the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I and of the independence of European nations that emerged from the conflict have been marked by divisions. In Poland, an artist’s depiction of a nationalist march perfectly captured the political anxiety over these rifts.

Photographer and artist Ada Zielińska staged the dramatic image, getting the result by combining two shots of the same scene. One highlights the Warsaw city center flooded with marchers holding red, smoking flares. That street scene is visible from a cozy hotel room, where a young woman sits, watching through the window in a different exposure of the same frame. Among the marchers were nationalist and far-right groups.

Zielińska (full disclosure: a friend of the writer’s) posted the image on Facebook and Instagram, and it quickly went viral, published by many major Polish publications.

Her aim was to show “two Polands,” but she leaves the interpretation of what that means exactly to her audience, she told Quartz. She does not want to discuss politics. One thing she does say is that what she saw, the crowd singing the national anthem and chanting “Pride, Pride, National Pride,” made for a scary scene, although perhaps somewhat justified by the holiday, she told Vogue Poland.

Here’s the full, uncropped image:

Image for article titled An artist’s take on a nationalist march in Poland perfectly captures Europe’s anxieties
Image: Ada Zielińska

The breadth of the comments show that Zielińska achieved her goal. Some viewers say they see “a wonderful independence march, the power of Poles,” while others say it’s a “symbol of how the left tries to manipulate the people.” Another writes: “This is how an individual today feels among the hysterical storm of any crowd.”

The march had been a controversial event. Initially banned by the city’s authorities, a court lifted the order. In the end, dignitaries from the ruling right-wing Law and Justice Party walked ahead of the nationalists, in a march divided into two. As the New York Times reports, several hundred yards behind the Polish president who was calling for unity, members of far-right factions chanted “White Poland” (a Polish writer also spotted a Confederate flag in the crowd). About 250,000 people, many ordinary Poles, took part in the march, according to police estimates.

Members of the political opposition avoided the march, underscoring just how polarized the country is, now split roughly into two camps: the conservative and Euro-skeptic vs. the liberal, pro-European.

A similar division was reflected in ceremonies in Paris marking the anniversary of the war’s end.

“Patriotism is the exact opposite of nationalism,” said in a speech in Paris French president Emmanuel Macron.”Nationalism is a betrayal of patriotism. By saying ‘our interests first’,’ who cares about the others,’ we erase what a nation holds dearest, what gives it life, what makes it great and what is essential: its moral values.” Present during the remarks was Donald Trump, who has recently described himself as a “nationalist.”

Zielińska had the idea for the photo before the march, knowing that the capital will look as if ablaze. Similar images emerged from last year’s nationalist march. She rented a carefully chosen hotel room, and re-arranged the furniture. She also told her friend, the foreground’s subject, to wear her favorite sweatshirt.

“I wanted contrast calm and chaos, which I was expecting to happen below.” The friend in the image is “one of the calmest people I know.” She was inspired by the photographs of Canadian artist Jeff Wall, who once rented an apartment and hired a woman to live in it, observing her through a camera while waiting for the perfect shot. Zielińska’s image superimposes two shots, one of the foreground and one of the background. She did this because of lighting constrictions, she said.

Footage from the room shows that the actual scene was not far-off, although the contrasting light gives it a more stark, dramatic effect.