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
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
"The Czechs chose an artist, Vaclev Havel, as their
leader, and that went well enough," said Krystian Legierski, former
owner of Le Madame
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"
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