Sunday, 19 November 2017

Kolej grójecka by Bogdan Pokropiński

I could not believe my eyes when I was perusing the  used magazine stall on W-wa Śródmieście the other day - a mint copy of Bogdan Pokropiński's reference work, Kolej grójecka ('Grójec railway', WKŁ, 2002). This is the definitive book about the narrow-gauge railway line that once linked Warsaw to Nowe Miasto nad Pilicą via Mogielnica, Grójec, Tarczyn and Piaseczno, (which I've written about here).


For 30zł (there was receipt in the back of the book indicating an original purchase price of 63zł), I picked up a fascinating work full of photos (all b&w with just two colour plates), maps, diagrams, timetables and masses of history.

The book is a treasure trove of minutiae that will delight any Polish-reading anorak. I've learned many new facts about the line:
  • Warszawa Południowy, the narrow-gauge terminal which stood on the site of the present-day Metro Wilanowska transport hub, used to be called (W-wa) Szopy, until 1943. Now, Szopy (which means 'stables' or 'sheds') is the name of parts of Ksawery and Stegny north of al. Wilanowska between Puławska to the west and al. Sikorskiego to the east. Until very recently, still an area where people lived in shacks rather than proper houses.
  • There used to be a 4.5km branch line off the main Nowe Miasto-Piaseczno section that ran from Grójec to Jasieniec. It was closed to traffic in 1966 and the tracks were lifted in February 1970. The trained eye can easily spot stretches of the track bed in the fields between the south-eastern corner of Grójec, Krobów and Jasieniec.
  • Jasieniec used to be the southern terminal of the line between 1914 and 1915, when the line was extended by the Russian military from Grójec to Mogielnica. Under German occupation, passenger traffic was introduced onto the entire line (Warsaw-Mogielnica) after the Germans rebuilt it (the Russians destroyed everything as they fled in 1915).
  • The line was further extended to Nowe Miasto nad Pilicą in 1924. This was the 'golden age' of the Grójec railway. In 1937, you could board the train at Warszawa Szopy at 07:34 and be at Nowe Miasto at 10:30, calling at Grójec (08:56) and Mogielnica (09:51) along the way. (You can still trace the line on Google Earth if you check Layers->More->Transportation->Rail in the sidebar.)
  • As well as narrow-gauge steam engines, the line was served by diesel railcars before WW2, after initial proposals to electrify (!) the line were rejected. Several different types were in use to 1986, all but the very first (which served between 1924 and 1934) were Polish designed. After 1986, the 1,000mm-gauge line was equipped with Romanian built diesel locos, coaches and railcars. 
  • The line originally ran from Pl. Unii Lubelskiej (then Pl. Keksholmski) to Piaseczno, opening in 1898. This being the Russian Empire at the time, Puławska, along which the railway ran, was called ul. Nowoaleksandryjska, as the Russians had renamed Puławy Nowa Aleksandria.Under German occupation in WW1, Puławska was renamed again Feldherrallee.
  • The line probably would have been closed much earlier than was the case had it not been for the intervention of the Polish military. With the opening of a jet-fighter training base at Nowe Miasto nad Pilicą in 1954, a spur was built from the line to the airfield, and a Ministry of Defence siding built at Piaseczno for transferring aviation fuel into cisterns to be taken down to Nowe Miasto.
As my father told me over the summer, this railway line played an important in his family's survival through the German occupation of Warsaw after his father died. His mother, who hailed from Mogielnica originally, would travel out by train to buy meat from local farmers; she'd sell half and feed herself and her three boys with the other half.

Bogdan Pokropiński's book is essential reference for anyone interested in Warsaw's railway history. It's available online from the WKŁ website for 45zł. And if you're interested in the line, it's worth popping down next summer for a weekend trip from Piaseczno to Tarczyn and back - or to cycle alongside the track on a bike, when you're sure there's no train due.



This time two years ago:
PIS, thinking wishfully about the village

This time four years ago:
An unseasonably warm autumn in Warsaw

This time five years ago:
Shedding light on an unused road

This time six years ago:
S2-S79 Elka from the air 

This time seven years ago:
Fish and chips in Warsaw

This time eight years ago:
Spirit of place - anomalous familiarity moments 

Saturday, 18 November 2017

Poznań's Stary Rynek

Many's the time I've been to Poznań on business, but I've not been to the Stary Rynek (Old Market) for many years - last time was about ten years ago or more, and at night. Given Poznań's status as one of Poland's great cities, it's high time to pay some attention to its historic centre.

Below: magnificent centrepiece of the Rynek is the Renaissance town hall, designed by Giovanni Battista di Quadra (who also worked on the cathedral in Płock). Built between 1550 and 1560, it was restored after WW2 having sustained serious damage.


Below: taking in the town hall looking east along the northern side of the square. Wrocław's old market square is similar in layout, but bigger.


Below: unfortunate... the Old Arsenal, destroyed during WW2, was replaced by a modernist building in the 1950s (outlined in yellow). It does not fit its surroundings at all and should be torn down. Better to have empty space that this ugliness, unlike many of Warsaw's post-war modernist buildings, it lacks any redeeming features. It screams 'provincial drabness'. Note also the three fountains that line the western edge of the square.


Left: on the corner of ul. Paderewskiego and ul. Sieroca. Lime green and white, this building has been tastefully restored, colours contrasting yet fitting in with surrounding architecture. Poznań seems to be a few years behind Wrocław, Gdańsk or Kraków when it comes to remonting its kamienice; quite a few are still behind scaffolding and nets.

Below: looking along ul. Świętosławska towards the Basilica (former parish church) on ul. Gołębia.

Below: the Royal Castle rises above ul. Zamkowa, linking it to the old market. The castle has been subject to a lengthy restoration, partially opened in April this year.


I must say that Poznań's historic centre feels slightly scruffier than Wrocław, Gdańsk, Warsaw or Kraków. Grafitti, peeling stucco, damp patches suggest that the city should do a bit more to clean up its act. The recently re-cobbled thoroughfares are particularly nice.

Economically, Poznań is a boom town, with local unemployment standing at 1.6% (end September); many shops and cafes have job ads in the doors; many businesses are seeking staff.

Below: although the heritage tram line has ceased working scheduled journeys for the winter, this one has been hired for a organised tour group. This is the Konstal N tram, manufactured between 1948 and 1956, once a common sight in many Polish cities.


Below: heritage loco, sadly stationary... an H. Cegielski Poznań-built Ty51 2-10-0 steam engine stands outside the Inea stadium, on ul. Bułgarska (not far from the GlaxoSmithKline factory and IT centre). The Inea stadium was one of four Polish hosts of the Polish-Ukrainian EUFA2012 championships (along with Gdańsk, Wrocław and Warsaw). The EUFA championships brought huge civilisational and infrastructural benefits to the cities.


Poznań certainly deserves a place on the tourist map of Poland, a great city of interest. For shopping, the award-winning Stary Browar mall is one of the finest in the country, built on a huge scale and architecturally stunning. Below: picture from a previous trip to Poznań. Using the original shell of the late 19th century Hugger brewery, the mall is now home to 210 stores and restaurants.


This time last year:
Brexit, Trump and negative emotions

This time six years ago:
Premier Tusk's second exposé

This time seven years ago:
Into Poland's former Heart of Darkness

This time eight years ago:
Powiśle - synchronicity of shape

This time nine years ago:
The last of the rampa na kruszywo

This time ten years ago:
Airport zoning to halt development in Jeziorki?

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Poland dreams of a superconnector hub

The Polish government recently dusted off plans (around since 2005) to build a central airport for the country, somewhere between Warsaw and Łódź. In this iteration, the plans are no longer for an airport, but for a 'communication hub', for intercontinental flights, high-speed rail and the motorway network. And the railway line connecting Chinese factories to Western European consumers.

The preferred location for this project is Baranów, some 40km west-south-west of Warsaw, about a third of the way to Łódź. The currently quoted cost of the Centralny Port Komunikacyjny (CPK) is 30 billion zlotys (about  £6.1 billion). The question is not really about whether or not Poland can afford it, but whether Poland needs it.

Wading through pages and pages of debate about the CPK on Skyscrapercity.com tells you more about the state of the political arguments than the economic ones. It's the lack of any serious analysis available, untainted by politics, that prompts me to write this post.

First things first. If a mega-airport is to be built, it must serve a mega-airline, one that flies hundreds of billions of passenger-kilometres annually. Airlines like Emirates, Qatar, Etihad and Turkish, are known as super-connectors, linking two very distant cities via their home hub airport. Turkey is in the process of building a brand-new super airport, to be the world's largest, with six runways, with the capacity to handle 150-200m passengers a year. This compares to London's Heathrow, which last year handled 75m passengers, or Warsaw's Okęcie, 13m passengers. Or indeed Dubai's 84m.

If Poland's CPK were to be economically viable, it would need to have the capacity to compete with Frankfurt (60m) and Schiphol (63m). Central Poland currently has four airports,'Warsaw' Modlin (3m) plus Łódź and Radom which taken together added a mere 250,000 passengers last year. So growth would need to be spectacular if a CPK were to serve the 40m the government says will be using it when opened in 2027.

Poland national carrier LOT (seasoned travellers say the initials stand for 'Late Or Tomorrow') has got back on its feet financially, breaking into profit last year. But still, despite a new fleet of Boeing 787 Dreamliners and many new routes, LOT is still a tiddler compared to the big players on either short-haul routes (where the low-cost carriers such as Ryan Air and WizzAir dominate) or on the long-haul routes, where the super-connectors rule.


Before a super-hub airport starts making financial sense, there needs to be an airline able to put it to good use. Without illegal state aid, without subsidies burning holes in taxpayers' pockets.

There is the argument 'build it and they will come'. I remember when the Złote Tarasy shopping mall in Warsaw was being planned, many people said that Poles were too poor for it, that people passing through Śródmieście were only interested in catching a train, that the edge-of-town malls such as Klif, Panorama or Promenada were located in more logical places for retailing etc. And yet Złote Tarasy proved to be a successful venture.

The CPK project is not just about the airport. An important part of the plan (yet not in the overall budget for the project) is the high-speed railway line that will go through it en route from Warsaw to Łódź, where the line will split into one to Wrocław and one to Poznań. Great! All in favour of that.

And the motorway... the two lanes of the A2 between Konotopa junction west of Warsaw and Baranów are currently under getting close to full capacity, so building a CPK will mean the A2 will have to be widened from the junction with the A1 at Stryków all the way to Warsaw.

Just 16km from Baranów passes the Skierniewice-Łuków railway line, used by the Chinese container trains that run from Chongqing Logistics City and on to Łódź, Duisburg and East Ham. Could this strategic railfreight line somehow be tied in with the CPK? If so, how?

Poland's economy grew by 4.7% year-on-year (preliminary estimates) in the third quarter of 2017. There's plenty of upside;  financial institutions that carry out forecasts are busy revising their 2017 and 2018 estimates upwards. By 2027/28, when the CPK is said to become operational, the Polish economy will have grown by a quarter or a third on where it is today, even by very conservative estimates. Will Okęcie and Modlin together be big enough to serve Warsaw? Or will Warsaw find itself where London is today - seriously lacking airport capacity?

In theory, the elements are all there, but I'm sceptical that a great economically cogent plan can be drawn up to capitalise on this potential will be drawn up. Delivering the airport and the links can be done - grands projets on this scale are nothing extraordinary in themselves, but ones that don't end up as costly white elephants require careful modelling and management. 

This time last year:
The magic of superzoom

This time five years ago:
Welcome to Lemmingrad

This time seven years ago:
Dream highway

This time eight years ago:
The Days are Marching

This time ten years ago:
First snow, 2007
[not even had first frost yet this year!]

Sunday, 12 November 2017

Warsaw-London-Ealing

Once again, backwards and forwards, the Warsaw where I live, the London where I was born and lived, catching that atmosphere...

Rather than get ofp the train at St Pancras, I continued for another three stops to change at Blackfriars Bridge station (below), for this splendid view of the Thames and the City of London, with Tower Bridge in the distance, the Shard to the right.


Change at Blackfriars for the District Line and straight through to Ealing Broadway. Below: Haven Green, the Baptist church in the distance, a view that's quite Edwardian in atmosphere, modern traffic regardless. In a year or two, the CrossRail (Elizabeth Line) project will be complete, and this will make Ealing Broadway an even more important transport hub.


Below: St Stephen's church, converted to flats, again, that Edwardian feeling is there - when Ealing was regarded as the Queen of the Suburbs.


Night falls on Ealing. Below: Mortimer Road


Below: Amherst Road by night.


Gallic touch in Ealing; a Citroen 2CV van on St Stephen's Road.


Flying back to Warsaw from Luton, afternoon sunshine brings out the vivid colours of the corporate logos. WizzAir flies four times a day to Warsaw, using Airbus A321s, capable of carrying 234 passengers.


Bonus shot, below: a shunter in the livery of Trakcja PRKiI at W-wa Okęcie station. As work is coming to an end here, these engines will become a historic sight.


This time two years ago:
With my father and brother in Derbyshire

This time five years ago:
In praise of Warsaw's trams

This time seven years ago:
Setting sun in the mountains

This time eight years ago:
That learning moment

Saturday, 11 November 2017

The ebb and flow of globalisation

Two snippets of news from the Nikon corporation that emerged last week suggest that globalisation is not a one-way street, and that it has its limits.

We learnt that Nikon is pulling out of manufacturing operations in China. Wow. The cheaper end of the Nikon camera range have been made in China for 15 years. The news suggests that a) Nikon is withdrawing from the point-and-shoot end of the photo market, where camera-equipped smartphones are big competition, and b) that China is becoming increasingly expensive as a manufacturing base.

The second piece of news is that Nikon is closing its sales operations in Brazil. A nation of over 200 million - the 'B' in 'BRICs-, is being told by Nikon that if they want a new Nikon camera they have to go abroad to buy it, or buy a grey import without an official guarantee or support. This suggests that global growth led by developing nations is not a given.

These two pieces of business news show that the forces driving global corporations over the past two decades or so are faltering. Set up a factory in a country with ultra-cheap labour and manufacture products cheaper than ever before so you can sell them into emerging markets and thus grow your global market share, ran the mantra. And the rich world too benefits, as rich-world companies make more profits, and things they sold cheaply to rich-world consumers can be sold even more cheaply with the increased economy of scale.

How many cameras do we need? Well, I have three Nikons (D3300, CoolPix P900 and CoolPixA) plus camera in my phone, and I will definitely buy a mirrorless full-frame Nikon as soon as Nikon makes one. But for most consumers who want an additional camera to the one in their phone, I suspect that one (proper) camera is enough. For it to be sufficiently better than the smartphone one, such a camera needs a high-quality zoom lens (or interchangeable lenses) from super-wide to super-tele, it needs a high shooting rate (three frames a second minimum), excellent low-light capability, and images offering high detail and dynamic range.

The smartphone is killing off low-end digital cameras - good, we have too much stuff, we can do without useless items around the house.

What does this mean for the Chinese people who made cheap Nikons? Not a whole lot. The factory was in Wuxi. No, I've not heard of the city either, but it has a population of 6.4 million. Bigger than Birmingham and Manchester put together. Bigger than Warsaw, Kraków, Łódź, Poznań and Wrocław put together. Wuxi has ten skyscrapers over 200m tall, three of which are over 300m tall. Solar technology, software development and electric mobility are taking over from precision manufacturing as the mani drivers of Wuxi's growth. Nikon's former employees will have little difficulty in finding new jobs in Wuxi.

Professional and advanced-amateur photographers in Brazil, on the other hand, will find it more difficult to buy a new D850 or D7500 camera, new lenses and accessories - the market will find a way, but the kit (and servicing it) will become more expensive.

Meanwhile in London, I pop into a Five Guys for a takeaway hotdog. I pay £4.99 and tuck in. It is good, taste-wise, this beef hotdog is outstanding. But it is tiny. Literally six mouthfuls and it's gone. A nice aftertaste. I'm left hungry but with less than 3,000 paces to walk, I'll not faint through lack of foot. A tiny little hotdoglet for a fiver. In other words 24 złotys. Now, at any Scottish restaurant in Poland for this price, I can buy two Big Macs, two medium fries and two medium Cokes (not that I would want to!), a Big Mac meal being 12zł.

London has become absurdly overpriced, the result of global money pouring in from around the world, not all of it honestly gained. The money is pushing up housing prices to the point where locals can no longer afford to live in town. So the service sector is run by migrants willing to accept uncomfortably crowded living conditions in overpriced flats in Central London, or  migrants willing to accept long and expensive commutes into Central London from distant suburbs. One way or another, wages and high rents mean eating out in London is extremely expensive. And as I pointed out on this blog more than one, public transport in London is 13 times more expensive in Warsaw, despite wages being only three times higher.

The economy, powered by the invisible hand of the market, does not tolerate absurdity for too long. Mechanisms, be they political, regulatory or purely economic, are triggered by unsustainable absurdity. I'll leave the last word to Danny the Dealer from Withnail and I: "London is a city coming down from its trip and there's going to be a lot of refugees."

Things even themselves out in the end. The only question is how dramatically will it happen.

This time four years ago:
Leeds, a city made uglier by crooked developers

This time five years ag0:
Węzeł Lotnisko (now Węzeł W-wa Południe) - works continue

This time nine years ago:
To Lepiarzówka, on the Polish-Czech border 

This time ten years ago:
Its Independence Day



Thursday, 9 November 2017

Trumpkins, Brexiteers and the missing middle

It's been a year since that dread morning when I awoke, and in a replay of 24 June 2016, discovered that the Wrong Side Had Won. President Trump? The words sounded like an oxymoron and still do.

It now looks less and less likely that Trump will make it to the end of his first year as president let alone to the end of his term - for all the reasons we were being warned about during the election campaign. Trump's past is coming back for him - and in particular his campaign team's complicity with Russia. And we can see more clearly today how the social media, an effective amplifier for social discontent, was hijacked by an unfriendly power which could see its potential in magnifying social division.

And the same in Britain. The same phenomena - advertising, comments, Twitter trolls and Facebook campaigns instigated or amplified by the Kremlin and its band of 'useful idiots' forced an issue that few Britons really cared about before 2004.

Putin and his fellow KGB-related kleptocrats are failing to deliver social or economic progress to ordinary Russians, who look West to see how society could be organised - as a network, rather than an authoritarian hierarchy. Rather than deliver the reforms Russia needs, Putin instead is using sophisticated propaganda to diminish the west, by attacking the very roots of its success.

Strength and progress through teamwork, through trust, through the concept of win-win (as opposed to adversarial dealings), the superiority of the committee over the hierarch, of delegation, of bottom-up initiatives within a civil society, have proved more successful than totalitarian command-and-control. Just compare North Korea to South Korea, or Estonia to Belarus.

And the network model relies on balance, on compromise, on accepting diverse points of view, of moving two or three steps forward and maybe a step or two back, but generally moving in the right direction.

With the political discourse in the US, UK and indeed Poland being moulded the way it is, the middle ground is losing ground. I used to be sure that if you had a life in balance, acted pragmatically, shunning extremes - and indeed being attacked by ideologies from both sides - you were moving along the good path from barbarism towards civilisation, from the bestial towards the angelic.

But the Putin doctrine of dividing to rule makes this more difficult to achieve than ever. Take the Brexit debate. I have yet to hear any Brexiteer tell me how Britain's membership of the European club these past 43 years has made their life miserable (in the way that communism in Eastern Europe really did make people's life a misery). And I have yet to hear any Brexiteer offer a cogent plan for how the UK will become more prosperous after leaving the EU.

Brexiteers have become infused with an ideology - something quite un-British. It has become a matter of faith that somehow, free of the shackles of Brussels, Britain will once more achieve global greatness. Faith, belief - but no firm evidence-based proof or roadmap of how or when this will come to pass. Brexiteers spit on the EU using terms like 'unelected bureaucrats' (which bureaucrat was ever elected?) or 'EUSSR' (where's the EU's Gulags, Holodomor or Katyn? Where's its KGB?). Brexiteers rarely have the slightest inkling of how the EU works other than what they read in a newspaper published by some tax-dodging non-UK domiciled media baron.

On the other hand, there's Jeremy Corbyn, who by normal standards is a students union Trot who's failed to grow up. In a normal world, he'd stand no chance of ever taking power. Today, his Labour party is ahead of the Brexit-riven Tory party in the polls. [Though as Tony Blair notes, under such circumstances, Labour should be 15-20 points ahead of the Tories, not 2-3.]

The middle ground is shrinking. Being reasonable no longer seems to be a viable strategy, rather like (invoking Godwin's Law) being reasonable towards Hitler was not reasonable. Once I could comfortably sit on the fence. Once I could style myself an extreme moderate.  Once it was: "The EU? Well, it has a lot of faults, I'm against the federalisation of Europe blah blah but all thing considered, better to have an EU and be in it..." But today I've become a fervent supporter of the European ideal from all the idiots and Russian agents of influence who wish to break up this force for stability and civilisation. Once I'd think of Barack Obama as a well-meaning by wooly-minded liberal who's dangerously naive about Russia. Today I see him as a Great Leader and Beacon of Humanity. Nuance has gone. The middle ground has dropped out of arguments.

The evil genius at work in the Kremlin has pushed the West to this pretty pass. By using the very mechanisms that make the West an open society, Putin has forced in voices intended to disrupt our way of life, to feed dismay, distrust and disbelief.

Rank-and-file Trumpkins and Brexiteers (not their organisers) are generally the less intelligent section of society. Their lives are full of discontentment; they have taken many wrong life decisions (beginning with not taking education sufficiently seriously) and are looking for someone or something to blame. Scapegoats include 'the elites' and immigrants - "the other".

To stir them up, Russia is using a sophisticated blend of propaganda. It is not saying (like it did in Soviet days) "look at us, we are the future, we have the answers". Rather, it is deflecting the world's gaze from Russia, and saying "look at you - the West is in decay, liberalism has failed". It does so by espousing right-wing and left-wing arguments at the same time, and using the targeting tools of the social media to spread dissatisfaction within different social groups.

When Ukraine was kicking off, the Russian trolls were simultaneously saying 'Ukrainians are fascists' and 'Ukraine is led by Jews'. the fact that these statements were entirely contradictory was irrelevant - they were targeted at entirely different target groups. The aim was to get the West's far left and far right to take an anti-Ukrainian stance.

If mankind has learned anything in these dark years - the darkest I've lived through since the end of the Cold War - by far - it is that Truth, Facts, Scientific Evidence are crucial. We can all spin narratives one way or the other, but we should cast aside ideologies and press on towards a search for forensically verifiable evidence, that stands up in a court of law, that stands up to peer review. We should strive for the highest standards, and question everything until we are sure it is right.

We should close our ears to moral relativism ("well you bomb children's hospitals too") and stick up for the right way - shunning pessimistic, defeatist voices.

There is a march of progress. Mankind is slowly, inexorably moving away from the reptilian, from the simian, evolving slowly towards a more beautiful future. Our way there will not be paved by voices of hate or jealousy.

I can only hope that the reign of Trump will be swiftly cut short by legal measures, and that the people of Britain turn their backs on Brexit. Neither Trump nor Brexit will do what they promised voters.

This time six years ago:
Bad news for Jeziorki's rat runners

This time seven years ago:
Death on the tracks

This time eight years ago:
From Łady to Falenty

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Return to Gliwice and its new station

Last time I was in Gliwice, the station was being remonted, with duckboards outside straddling pools of mud, passengers being diverted this way and that - bałagan, Panie. What a surprise when I stepped off the Pendolino from Warsaw this evening. The station is finished and looks great! Below: first impressions. The lighting levels fluctuate, rising then falling in intensity; interesting!


Below: I walk to the end of the platform to see the station name in lights - not the neon that Wrocław Główny has, nevertheless effective and confirming to a Polish standard for main railway stations.


Left: the stairs down to the tunnel that links the platforms and the main hall. Interesting use of metal tubing in conjunction with blue-tinted glass and light-grey concrete. Good signage and full support for disabled passengers. EU funds put to good use.

Below: the main hall, with that wonderful abstract mural which has survived the remont intact, remaining the focal point. As I wrote, along with Gdynia, one of the finest works of public art on PKP's network of stations, this photo hardly does it justice.


Below: outside, the station structure has been retained, the facade cleaned up and beautifully illuminated. Last time I was here, temporary wooden roofing was placed above the walkways to protect passengers from falling debris.


The civilisational changes happening across Poland are raising the quality of people's everyday life;we must appreciate this; it did not happen because the Big Man deemed it be so.

This time last year:
Poles and Brits go shopping differently

This time two years ago:
Reanimated - my father's car 
[Still on the go, with new MOT]

This time three years ago:
Defending Poland against hybrid warfare 

This time four years ago:
Another office move

This time six years ago:
PiS splits again - Solidarna Polska formed 

This time seven years ago:
Tesco vs. Auchan

This time ten years ago:
My father's house


Saturday, 4 November 2017

Loving Vincent - review

This a remarkable film, on a number of counts, and must be seen.

It is the first animation to be made up of oil paintings - 65,000 frames based on 853 oil-on-canvas paintings, photographed to make the feature-length film, the work of over 100 artists. Each one either took a Van Gogh painting as a starting point, or created a new image based on his style (perspective, brush-strokes, colour work) and made them move. The visual result is amazing. The viewer is transported into a world of Van Gogh's paintings come to life; an other-worldly, a dream-like departure from reality into the painter's point of view.

Loving Vincent explores mental illness and its link with artistic greatness. Truly great artists are rarely neurotypical. Van Gogh suffered from multiple mental disorders, including Asperger's syndrome and schizophrenia. He was an obsessive-compulsive painter, resulting in a prolific output. Like his brother Theo, Vincent was also suffering from syphilis, not surprising given the ubiquity of prostitution in late 19th century France. The ever-changing mental state of the artist is a thread running through the film, commented upon by many of the film's characters, most of whom he had painted in real life.

The film's narrative is presented as a whodunnit, with one of Van Gogh's subjects, Armand Roulin, tracing his final weeks, meeting other people from Van Gogh's life (and other subjects of portraits) to establish the circumstances of his death. This has puzzled historians for decades. The fact that the gun used was never found, nor were his painting materials on the day, and the deathbed confession of a local man who claimed to have taunted Van Gogh (though never shot him), provides a pretext for investigation. The film faithfully shows the different theories surrounding Van Gogh's death, leaving them open to the viewer's interpretation.

Seen through the eyes of the lazy, alcoholic son of the local postman from Arles than Van Gogh befriended (and painted), it is also a story of redemption. Armand Roulin's mission (to deliver a final letter from the dead Vincent to his brother Theo), changes his life for the better as he realises that Van Gogh was far more than a madman. Armand travels to Paris, then on to Auvers-sur-Oise, where the artist spent his last few months. Here he hears differing accounts of Van Gogh's life and death.



Some great insights into human creativity emerge. The character of Dr Gachet, who treated Van Gogh and who understood him well, is portrayed as a failed artist who recognises the genius within his patient, whose frustration at having tried and failed at odds with Van Gogh's natural talent. And Gachet's daughter, who notes that Van Gogh had incredible powers of observation, able to see nature in the smallest detail, and record it. The film, likewise, has great depth and insight.

Another film of recent years springs to mind - Mr Turner, with Timothy Spall in the title role as the great British artist. Again, what makes the film work is the dissection of the artistic drive - and the fact that J.M.W. Turner was not a neurotypical individual.

This Polish-British co-production brings out the best features of both nations; Polish deep work harnessed to British team work. The ability to focus intensively for long periods of time, coupled to the networking abilities of organising cross-disciplinary skills from the worlds of film finance and art. Co-written and co-directed by Hugh Welchman (Oscar for the 2006 animation Peter and the Wolf, made in Łódź) and accomplished animator, Dorota Kobiela.

Loving Vincent represents the best of Europe. A Polish-British film about a Dutch painter who lived and worked in France. The jam-packed cinema in Warsaw suggests this film will do well commercially as well as critically. More than a biopic, it is a work of art in its own right, inspired by a great story of human artistic endeavour, a journey deep into the creative mind.

This time four years ago:
UFO credibility test

This time five years ago:
Junction ready for road to unbuilt sports centre

This time six years ago:
Park nad Książecem - Vistula escarpment, beautiful autumn

This time nine years ago:
Obama wins US presidential election