During the years when Poland did not exist as a nation, Poles maintained their identity through their religion, language and artistic traditions. When Polish nationalism was forbidden, Polish writers frequently emigrated elsewhere or published their work in other countries. Authors also developed ways to avoid the attention of foreign rulers and their political censors by using symbols and hidden meanings that could be understood only by Polish readers. Poles understood, for example, that a novel about oppression in the Roman empire (such as Sienkiewicz's Quo Vadis) was not entirely about ancient history. Despite political constraints, Poland's writers have achieved international success. Four have won the Nobel Prize; since World War II, Polish theatre has grown in popularity and become well-known outside the country.

Musicians have also played an important role in maintaining Polish culture. Chopin is Poland's most famous pianist and composer. His patriotic tunes were said "to hide guns among flowers." Paderewski, a world-renowned pianist and composer, served as Poland's Prime Minister after the First World War. Jazz and folk music are also popular art forms. Polish folk music varies widely between regions, but some standard instruments include the fiddle, bagpipes, accordion and dulcimer.

From the wooden sculptures of Wit Stwosz in the 14th century to the stained glass of Wyspianski and the vibrant paintings of the Mlodapolska school, Polish art has used themes from Polish history, religion and cultural traditions. Folk art traditions are still very much a part of daily life in Poland. Painting, sculpture and wood carving are popular, as are decorative arts such as weaving, needlework, paper cut-outs and pottery.

Polish cities were heavily damaged during World War II, but restoration efforts have resurrected many buildings and streetscapes. Polish architecture shows the influences and adaptations of European styles through the ages, from austere Romanesque stone churches to the Baroque and Art Nouveau. Regional folk architecture has been preserved in skansens, open-air museums containing rural buildings, usually wooden barns, churches, mills and houses equipped with their original decoration and household tools.

Since the 1950s, Polish cinema has emerged as a vibrant art form. Award-winning films such as Andrzej Wajda's Man of Iron (Czlowiek z Zelaza), Roman Polanski's Chinatown and Krzysztof Kieslowski's Decalogue (Dekalog) play around the world.

  Did you know?
The Polish writer Jozef Korzenieowski, better known as Joseph Conrad, is one of the most famous writers in English literature, although he didn't speak a word of English until he was a teenager. Conrad's many books include Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim.