Jacek Fedorowicz entertained Poland with his satire on radio and television for two decades. Today, he refuses to work for state-controlled media.
But his wit survives. Switching media, the deft humorist has left the airwaves, returning to the art of sketching that he practiced as a youth and becoming one of Poland's most celebrated political cartoonists.
His simple line drawings cleverly portray the current standoff between the Communist government and most of the rest of Polish society. Bare and a bit amateurish in design, Fedorowicz's sketches, now popular collectors' items around the country, are infused with an intelligence and slyness that rarely fail to bring a chuckle at the expense of the authorities.
A showman at heart, this performer-turned-artist admits to missing the kind of impact he enjoyed in the broadcasting business. But, like a number of other prominent Polish entertainers, artists and intellectuals, he continues to boycott the official media in protest against censorship and a general lack of political freedom.
"I don't perform because I don't want to, not because anyone forbade me," he said in an interview in his comfortable Warsaw attic apartment. "Everyone performing now performs for the authorities, for their interest. Every voice now is the voice of the authorities."
Censorship of the arts is not new in Communist Poland. It existed in the 1960s and 1970s when Fedorowicz was participating enthusiastically in government-run shows. What has changed since then, he said, further explaining his motives, is the level of awareness of Polish audiences.
"The basic difference between now and then is that previously, social awareness was at a much lower level, so you had to look for every opportunity to awaken it," Fedorowicz said. "During the Solidarity period, social consciousness made great strides.
"Since martial law, Polish society knows more about the system and the authorities than I would be permitted to say in a program. The best I can do, therefore, is demonstrably to stop cooperating with state-run television, radio and publications."
For Fedorowicz, the urge to perform dates from his youth. As an art school student in Gdansk, he recalled, the captions on his drawings got longer and longer until he began reading them as essays. This led to performances at a student theater and, soon after, a career in television.
Fedorowicz had a highly rated TV entertainment show in the 1960s which he likens today to a cross between Johnny Carson, "Laugh-in" and "Candid Camera." He moved to radio in the 1970s, reaching a peak of popularity during the 1980-81 Solidarity era with a Sunday morning program called "60 Minutes," a cabaret-style show of poignant and funny vignettes. It was aired immediately after regular weekly broadcasts of Sunday's Roman Catholic mass and, next to those services, ranked as the most popular radio program then.
"It was on radio that I achieved what I really wanted, the possibility to influence fellow citizens," the 47-year-old star said. "The peak of my work was during the Solidarity period. It was the only time in my life I could say what I wanted."
Asked what message he has tried to convey with his humor, he answered: "That democracy is better."
In a sketch, which he calls his favorite, done just after the December 1981 crackdown on Solidarity, Fedorowicz caught the bleak mood of the country then. The drawing shows a Zomo, a member of Poland's special motorized police force, holding a rifle and standing in place of a statue of King Zygmunt atop a tall pillar in Warsaw's Castle Square. The square, located in the capital's cobbled Old Town district, is snowy and deserted.
"The Zomo looks both frightening and ridiculous," observed Fedorowicz's wife, Hanna, a portrait artist. "I would say this is the situation of Poles in general -- frightening and also ridiculous."
In another of his better-known works -- a kind of tribute to Poland's numerous scribblers of opposition graffiti -- Fedorowicz shows a man holding a paint brush looking alarmed when discovered just after having scrawled the letters "S-O-L" on a fence. Around the corner of the fence is the word the man apparently was intending to complete -- not "Solidarity," as one invariably assumes, but "Solarium." The eye makes the connection after a moment's pause, breaking the tension of the picture and turning the joke on the government.
Fedorowicz frequently employs in his sketches the symbols and gestures of the political opposition. A self-portrait has his chin resting in his palm with two fingers spread across his cheek in a subtle V-for-victory salute commonly flashed by Solidarity union supporters. Above the portrait is the word "patience."
He also does caricatures of government figures and makes mocking references to official propaganda. One of his most popular works -- which pokes fun at the government's attempt to turn Solidarity leader Lech Walesa into a forgotten face -- is a portrait of the famous unionist bearing the caption: "Portrait of an unknown man with a mustache, second half of the 20th century."
His drawings of Walesa and his sharper stabs at the authorities were banned last year shortly after Walesa won the Nobel Peace Prize. But censors have approved for sale about 40 other Fedorowicz sketches. These include caricatures of his artist friends and some government officials of secondary rank. For instance, his likenesses of government spokesman Jerzy Urban and Minister for Prices Zdzislaw Krasinski are allowed, but those of Deputy Prime Minister Mieczyslaw Rakowski and Polish leader Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski are on the prohibited list. Still, even the proscribed pictures circulate widely through underground channels.
That any of Fedorowicz's works can be sold above ground suggests an attempt by the government to show that step-by-step liberalization is taking place in Poland and the policy of so-called normalization has progressed to the point where limited satire and ridicule can be countenanced by the authorities, even from an archcritic.
Nudged by friends, Fedorowicz agreed last year to begin displaying his drawings at public exhibitions around the country. He has prepared two sets for tour -- one for official shows, the other for presentation underground.
To reach as large an audience as possible, Fedorowicz prices his works inexpensively, from 100 zlotys (about 80 cents) to 600 zlotys for drawings with color. "The average cost is less than half a liter of vodka," he said. "I want an ordinary man to be able to afford these works."
He sells through state-run galleries in order, he said tongue in cheek, not to get any private shopowners in trouble by collaborating with him. He acknowledged that his reliance on state galleries may appear inconsistent with his rejection of state broadcast services, but he said some contact with the government is necessary to earn a living.
Since disappearing from the radio, Fedorowicz said some of his fans have worried about whether he is making ends meet. But he said that he "earns as much as I want to earn" from his art, though not so much, he added, to tempt him to invest in things the authorities might confiscate or destroy to be vindictive.
How long does Fedorowicz expect to go on drawing? "That depends on the situation," he answered. "I have only one plan: to be honest. The rest is unknown. In this place, it is impossible to have any plans."