In the countryside of 1920s Poland, giant battle mechs stalk an alternate past
DIGITAL PAINTINGS by Jakub RózalskI
The idea behind Jakub RóZalski’s 1920+ series of digital paintings sounds at first like a gimmick, the kind of high-concept pitch Michael Bay might bring to a Hollywood studio: Giant steam-driven mechs! Flying battleships! Big weird war machines stalking the fields and forests of 1920s Europe!
Rózalski’s paintings certainly have all that. At times they deliver the thrill of scale and strangeness that the Transformers movies strive for—huge human-shaped assemblages of iron and armament towering over soldiers and peasants like ancient gods or giants sprung from the whispers of myth.
But there’s something deeper, more intriguing, going on. The scenes have a quietness to them that’s not merely the absence of an audio track. Though the specter of war imbues all the 1920+ paintings, Rózalski rarely depicts combat itself. Instead, a mothballed mech stands beside a veteran’s cottage, one massive arm now serving to support a clothesline. A spidery gun platform strides by the edge of a wood—the only witnesses a family of curious deer. Shepherds watch as a trio of walking tanks moves past their hillside, while their sheep graze on unconcerned.
Even in scenes of ongoing or impending battle, the viewpoint is outside the action, usually from the perspective of women working in the fields or a lone villager dumbstruck, perhaps, by the spectacle of the great machines. From that viewpoint, war is a natural disaster blowing through the lives of everyday people ignorant of the forces driving the conflict. The lucky ones go about their work while forces of destruction roll by in the distance; the unlucky see their villages trampled into the mud by marching mechs.
None of this is incidental. “I simply mixed everything that I like and love the most,” Rózalski wrote me from his home in Poland. “My favorite time period, the countryside and rural atmosphere, late 19th-century and early 20th-century realistic painting, wild nature and animals—and extraordinary giant machines.”
Rózalski is passionate about history, especially under-appreciated episodes of Polish history like the Polish-Soviet War (1919-1921), which followed directly on the heels of World War I. By merging images of traditional Polish life and landscapes with imaginary war machines, he hopes the 1920+ series tells “something of the history and culture of my motherland and Europe in an alternative and interesting way.”
Indeed, Rózalski never loses sight of the fact that humans drive the tale. “These are not robots,” he says firmly of the many machines in the paintings. “There’s always some human inside them.” In one scene, the operator of one of the smaller mechs has popped the hatch to pluck apples off of a roadside tree. In another, a mech crew has lit a fire under their parked machine, and one of their comrades returns with some rabbits to roast. In a painting called “Break Time,” a soldier urinates against a tree while one of his fellows smokes a cigarette and a mech towers behind.
Rózalski’s presentation of war draws from his country’s long experience as a borderland between the combative German and Russian states. Much of the heaviest fighting on the Eastern Front during World War I took place on Polish territory; hundreds of thousands of Polish civilians fled the war zone, and the battling armies left huge swaths of the country uninhabitable. Two decades later, Hitler’s invasion of Poland touched off the Second World War, and again Poles found themselves enduring attack and counterattack by opposing armies. Millions of Poles fought in those wars, and hundreds of thousands died, while in the countryside people hoped, as in wartime everywhere, that the fighting might pass them by.
The 1920+ project brought Rózalski a new level of fame. Not long after a brief piece about him appeared on the gaming site Kotaku in 2014, he received a number of invitations and proposals from the gaming world, including one from Jamey Stegmaier, founder of Stonemaier Games. Stegmaier offered to collaborate with Rózalski on the development of a board game based on his 1920+ paintings, and Rózalski signed right up. They called the game Scythe and launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise development funds. In just a few weeks they raised an astounding $1.8 million—far beyond their $33,000 target. The game debuted in stores in August 2016, received rave reviews, and won numerous awards. Asmodee Digital is developing a digital version of Scythe for release in 2018.
Rózalski is currently working with King Art games on a real-time strategy video game called Iron Harvest, set in his 1920+ world. Iron Harvest will be released for PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One in 2018. He is also developing a virtual reality game called The Ancients with Polish VR company Immersion.
Rózalski pursues these various projects from an “old wooden house, high in the forest, surrounded by wildlife”—far from the hustle and bustle of cities like Hamburg, where he lived earlier in his career. “I have my own studio and a dream place to work,” he says. It sounds a lot like a scene in one of his paintings—without, one assumes, the giant war machines.
—Robert K. J. Killheffer