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Confrontations: Sessions in East European Art History



Naming East European Art

By confrontations, on 30 June 2021

The third in this series of Confrontations online seminars held on 23 June 2021 dealt with the recurrent question of the choice of terminology in naming artistic phenomena in Eastern European art. The central issue of what is to be gained, and what lost, in using art labels developed in the context of Western art history to refer to art practices and trends that emerged in the specific and different conditions of Actually Existing Socialism was explored with reference to a range of terminological variations associated with particular art geographies. The potential for multi-directional terminological borrowings emerged in discussion as a strategy to complicate the writing of comparative art history, by pluralising and rendering more heterogenous accounts of global art movements.

In their introduction, Maja and Reuben Fowkes brought up the ‘suitcase model’ of art transfers, pointing to the frequency with which the spread of artistic paradigms to Eastern European art scenes has been explained in art history through artist travel to Western art centres, often by literally referring to the exhibition catalogues of new art trends that they brought back in their luggage.  Taking pop art as a case in point, the complexity of the actual development of Eastern European versions of global art movements was explored, from the impossibility of reducing pop influences to a single source and the extent to which East European pop responded to changing social and technological conditions, to the ways in which artists turned the language of pop in critical or anti-capitalist directions. They also showed how recent survey exhibitions, both in the region and internationally, have sought to varying degrees to expand the understanding of pop art by reframing it as a global rather than Western phenomenon.

This week’s guest speaker was Miško Šuvaković, whose reflected on the methodologies of East European art history, including analysing with hindsight the approach taken in his co-edited book Impossible Histories: Historic Avant-Gardes, Neo-Avant-Gardes, and Post-Avant-Gardes in Yugoslavia, 1918–1991, which was published in 2003. He noted that while at the time the histories of the neo-avant-garde were ‘impossible’ because they were almost completely ignored, today the situation is reversed. He also explained that the focus on Yugoslavia rather than national art history met the expectations of the publishers, whose wanted a book ‘about New York, not the Bronx.’ By drawing attention to the way in which the authorities balanced Soviet and United States influence by alternating between visiting exhibitions from the two blocs, he emphasised through his presentation the hybridization of artistic phenomena in the Yugoslav art space.

Confrontations team member and leader of the seminar Alina Serban set out to explore how after the demise of the communist world in Eastern Europe, the writing of its own art history was fuelled by the desire of local and international scholars to find umbrella terms, some retrospectively applied, that would offer a readable translation of the processes of art-making in the region. She drew attention to the danger that by adopting the universality of Western idioms, in order to create a theoretical common ground, specific national traditions and self-historicizations could be overlooked, arguing for the coexistence of a multiplicity of readings of art terms. The question of balance also came to the fore here, between interpretations that take into account local conceptualisations and the those that enable the art of the region to become part of a global art historical discourse.

Among the Confrontations participants, Gregor Taul’s response pinpointed a series of terms that were current in the Soviet Baltics, but that have mostly fallen out of use in the post-communist period. These included the notion of the ‘synthesis of the arts’, which was regularly called for in party meetings, and ‘monumental decorative arts’, which had different connotations to public art, and ‘environment’, which carried also the sense of site-specific art. Dessislava Dimova’s intervention focused on conceptual art, and contrasting attitudes to the term in Bulgaria in the 1980s and early 1990s, pointing out that a lot of artists ‘refused to recognise their art through such terms’ and developed alternative formulations such as ‘end forms’ or ‘new forms.’ The debate then turned to how the discussion around so-called Western terms is changing, as new terms emerge outside of Western art centres and travel in all directions and the old terms are reshaped to encompass the plurality of non-Western art practices, while making visible their interconnections.

Artists’ Unions under Socialism

By confrontations, on 16 June 2021

The second of the online meetings organised for the Confrontations group held on 9 June 2021, the seminar on Artists’ Unions dealt with one of the key institutional structures of socialist artworlds. In their introduction, Maja and Reuben Fowkes laid out some of the decisive moments in the labyrinthine infrastructural histories of artists unions under socialism: the transformations of the immediate post-war period, the consolidation of communist power across the Eastern Bloc circa 1948-9, and the readjustments in the wake of Stalin’s death. They traced the effects of these turning points on socialist artworlds through the case of the Hungarian Artists’ Union, discussing the significance of its reduction from a from a mass organisation on the model of a trades union to a guild-like association of between 100 and 300 members under party control, but also its role as a liberalising force and representative of artists’ interests during the course of de-Stalinization, since by the mid-1950s the union was already campaigning on behalf of its members to the Ministry of Culture to demand the restoration and building of galleries, an increase in the number of art publications, more studios and foreign exchanges with Western countries, as well as a monthly stipend for painters. Further questions raised included the extent to which the new layers of socialist art bureaucracy established around 1960, such as the founding of the Studio of Young Artists, reflected a shift to more arms-length methods of political management, the strategies devised by artists to negotiate the structures of Actually Existing Artworlds of Socialism and the extent to which parallels can be identified with the role of artists unions in other East European countries, notwithstanding the specific historical context of the suppression of the 1956 Hungarian uprising against Soviet rule.

The guest lecture by Caterina Preda was based on her extensive research into the archives of the Romanian artists’ union, whose neglected institutional histories are vividly symbolised by an image she shared of a cupboard overflowing with disorderly dossiers. She also drew attention to the tendency of the artists’ union to adopt the quantitative methods of industrial or agricultural production under five year plans to measure artistic production in numbers of artworks per year. Attempting to quantify artistic production using such starkly materialist parameters seems slightly comic, but is it really so different from the statistics produced by the capitalist artworld to measure the rising value of artworks at auction? Emphasising the role of the artists’ union as an intermediary between artists and the state, she also laid out the complexity of the relationship between the artists’ union as such, and parallel and overlapping institutions with a more direct role in the commissioning of artworks. The question was raised as to whether the role of the artists’ union in promoting a nationalist version of socialism from the 1960s was specific to the Romanian case, or whether a renewed focus on national cultures was characteristic of the process of de-Stalinization across the Eastern Bloc. It also became clear from the discussion that further research is needed to establish the extent to which during the last decade of the socialist system such state art structures were able to function with relative autonomy.

Member of the core team of Confrontations and leader of this session, Tomasz Załuski, questioned in his intervention into the discussion certain ‘stereotypical assumptions’ about the functioning of artists’ unions. Namely, it is widely assumed that they were part of a regime of artistic control, created an opportunistic social contract with artists who collaborated in exchange for symbolic and material gains, and that they were characterised in their artistic outlook by traditionalism and conservatism. He proposed instead that a closer examination of in particular the Polish case reveals the pragmatism of artists’ unions in defending their members’ interests, the ‘positivity’ and ‘normality’ that such structures created for artists to work within, and their role as ‘agents of modernization.’ Rather than a one-sided view of the role of artists’ unions, he suggested that they should be positioned between the poles of ideology and pragmatism, autonomy and submissiveness, and conservative and progressive values and practices.

Amongst the responses by Confrontations research group members, Juliane Debeusscher brought up the complex situation around the role of East European artists’ unions in enabling the participation of artists in the exhibition and competition of the Joan Miró Prize in Barcelona in the 1970s. Asja Mandić spoke about the particular case of the Yugoslav artists’ union, which was established in 1947, after the founding of the artists’ unions of several of the federal republics of Yugoslavia. Playing a significant role until 1951, when the pendulum swung back towards decentralisation, the Yugoslav artists’ union notably produced four issues of the magazine Umetnost, whose pages reveal the trajectory of the search for a common artistic identity. Johana Lomová drew attention to the differences in the balance of female and male membership in applied arts and fine arts unions, raising the issue of the extent to which the relative exclusion of women from the more prestigious branches of the fine arts reflected the influence of patriarchal mentalities and power structures. Corina Apostol asked what kind of theoretical approach is called for in the study of the archives of socialist artists’ unions. Magdalena Moskalewicz shared further insights into the Polish artists’ union and its role in, for example, producing the national survey shows of the Stalinist period. She also put forward the notion that in contrast to countries like Hungary, there was no ‘doublespeak’ in the Polish artworld after 1955, when the official and unofficial artworlds coalesced. What became clear over the course of a lively afternoon of online discussion was how far the history of the artist unions of particular countries still awaits systematic research, as well as the potential of comparative approach in establishing the significance of their institutional forms and their complex relation to other bureaucratic bodies of the socialist artworld.

Exhibition Diplomacy

By confrontations, on 28 May 2021

The Confrontations group came together on 26 May 2021 for the first in a series of three online sessions focusing on themes and topics that cut across the geographical and temporal boundaries of Eastern European art history. Since we last met in Poland in early February 2020, when the global pandemic had yet to make itself felt in most countries, our twenty-strong international group of post-doctoral researchers and academics has come together for a number of public events and more social get-togethers. This meeting was an opportunity for more intensive critical and comparative discussions, as a stepping-stone for another live seminar pencilled in for the autumn.

The topic of the seminar was Diplomatic Exhibitions, considered as a branch of cultural diplomacy that flourished during the Cold War and approached by the participants from a distinctly non-West-centric perspective. Maja and Reuben Fowkes introduced the thematic focus and pointed to two decisive moments in the Cold War history of exhibition diplomacy. In the early post-war period, the United States despatched to Eastern Europe, and then abruptly recalled, the propagandistic exhibition Advancing American Art, while the advance across the exhibition halls of the Eastern Bloc of exhibitions of Soviet Socialist Realism signalled the temporary retreat of more pluralistic art styles. At the end of the 1950s, during the first wave of détente, the Cold War mechanisms of cultural diplomacy were formalised, with the Americans sending a mix of contemporary abstraction and historical realism to Moscow to foster mutual understanding, while the Polish exhibition at the first and only biennial of socialist countries indicated a reversal of artistic influence between Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.

The guest speaker at this meeting was art historian Mária Orišková from the University of Trnava, Slovakia, with a paper titled ‘From Hanoi and Havana to Paris and New York: Czecho-Slovak Cultural-Diplomatic Exhibitions during the Cold War.’ Making the distinction between the ‘Trojan horse’ strategy of ‘soft power’ and the more ‘altruistic’ approach of cultural diplomacy, her presentation illuminated the variety of exhibition trajectories of Czech, Slovak and Czechoslovak art in the post-war period. These ranged from the export of more marketable ‘national treasure’ shows to Western museums to more distant exhibition journeys to express ‘communist co-belonging’ with decolonising and revolutionary movements in the global South, based on the potential of a shared socialist vision that transcended other forms of difference.

Member of the core team and leader of the session on Diplomatic Exhibitions, Pavlína Morganová, then responded to Orišková’s paper, making the point that the ‘art war started in Prague in 1947.’ She contrasted the indifference to the poorly-attended exhibition Advancing American Art with the dozens of polemical responses to the exhibition of Four Soviet Painters that followed shortly afterwards, during the relative freedom of the period before the communist seizure of power in 1948. It was at such early Cold War exhibitions that the model of the diplomatic exhibition, with its political speeches and carefully curated displays, was established.

Further responses from members of the Confrontations group included a case study presented by Agata Pietrasik of Polish participation at the First Paris Biennial of Youth in 1959, in which the inclusion of abstract works, including an axial figure by Jan Lebenstein, gave rise to dramatically different critical responses in Poland and internationally. Daniel Véri spoke about the Great Book Theft of 1959 that saw hundreds of publications from an exhibition of French book illustration in Budapest disappear. Hana Buddeus shared insights into an even earlier example of exhibition diplomacy through the obscure history of the exhibition Stalingrad-Prague held in 1945, with Czech artists involved in the exhibition design, which included a destroyed German tank. Ieva Astahovska’s contribution dealt with the exhibition history of the show Twenty Realists from Soviet Latvia during the 1970s. Sandra Bradvić took the opportunity to ask Mária Orišková a wider question about her work on the curatorial histories of Eastern Europe, to which our guest speaker replied by drawing attention to the many formats of exhibitions and their multiple intersections across cultural diplomacy and curatorial concepts, complicating the nation-centric art historical narratives of modernism.

Travelling Methodologies

By editorial, on 8 March 2020

Maja and Reuben Fowkes

The third session of Confrontations saw participants journey between two cities in one country, Warsaw and Łódź, breaking the pattern of visiting pairs of art centres in neighbouring countries, namely Zagreb and Ljubljana in April 2019, and Prague and Bratislava the following September. This gave the group the opportunity to delve more deeply into Polish art history and to observe the differences between the state of art infrastructures and atmosphere of the art scene in the capital and in an important regional centre. In the contrast between the self-referential narratives of national – in this case Polish – art history and the informed transnational perspective developed by the Confrontations group, the contours of a novel methodology for the art history of Central and Eastern Europe could be discerned. A collective close reading of an early text by Piotr Piotrowski on Polish the art of the 1980s was the starting point for a crescendo of intensive discussion of the challenges of comparative art history. On the one hand, how did the rise of the Solidarity movement and the period of martial law in the early 1980s differentiate the course of artistic development in Poland during the decade, changing also perceptions of the political transformations around 1989? On the other hand, what do regional parallels reveal about the dynamics of the generational shift that accompanied the eclipse of the neo-avant-garde, the rise of neo-expressionism and the vogue for post-modern aesthetics and attitudes?

Dismantling the Master Narrative

By editorial, on 8 March 2020

Alina Șerban

The new edition of Confrontations brought us back to the starting question: How to write history on the local ground? This time the question was addressed in the Polish context during an intensive week spend in Warsaw and Lodz, where several proposals were formulated. The opening seminar, hosted by the Zachęta National Gallery of Art in Warsaw, reflected upon some methodological issues concerning the writing of Eastern European art history which opened a series of “debates” surrounding the reading(s) of national histories from a comparative and transnational perspective. This challenging operation appears to be even more demanding to the local art historians since such methodology dismantles the need for a homogeneous master narrative, allowing minor narratives to interfere, to divert and sometimes to completely change our gaze upon well-known stories of the postwar art.The group seminar led by Maja and Reuben Fowkes focused on the problematic: What does it mean to have a comparative art history and how to write it? They proposed to start from an analysis of several statements written by the Polish art historian Piotr Piotrowski starting with the 90s, all pointing to the necessity of rethinking the framework for considering the historical object and its temporalities. This means to follow actively the interactions and means of transfer, to review the inscribed dichotomies of recent art histories by allowing, in a horizontal manner and spirit, to create new synapses between specific narratives, to enlarge the map by including not just the canonized western positions, but also to introduce other zone of exchanges, other poles, within the Eastern European region and beyond. The re-reading of Piotrowski’s texts reconfirmed some of our current concerns in the field of East European art history, but also unveiled some absences. It was evident when analyzing his arguments that several potentialities lay within, and that several doors opened.

Affective Art History

By editorial, on 4 March 2020

Dessislava Dimova

Luiza Nader, associate professor at the Institute of Art History at the University of Warsaw, talked about Wladyslaw Strzemiński’s series of works on the Holocaust, through the perspective of her methodology of “affective art history.” Strzemiński, considered the father of the Polish avant-garde, took part in revolutionary life in Russia and returned to Poland in the 1920s where he was active in many artistic fields and wrote important theoretical texts, most notably conceptualizing the system of Unism. The series of collages called “To my Jewish Friends” was produced between 1945 and 1947 and consisted of juxtapositions between newspaper cut-outs and ink drawings on paper. The two elements of the collages seem strikingly disconnected formally and the drawings could be hardly seen to represent a rational statement about the documentary images, on which they supposedly comment.

While Strzemiński was neither a participant nor a direct witness of the actual events of the Holocaust, he was an “observer” and in these works he dealt with the collective memory and response to the Shoah. Luiza Nader’s interpretation of Strzemiński indirect memory process, focused on the term “empathy” as part of her larger project of an affective reading of the history of art. In it affect is considered not simply as an emotion, but as a concept bridging intellectual, physical and emotional response. Nader develops her method of affective history of art as an “affirmative” approach, aiming to seek a way out of the impasse of negative categories such as catastrophe and trauma, which continue to dominate our political and cultural discourses.

Andrzej Wróblewski Foundation or…

By editorial, on 3 March 2020

… why Self-Organization can no longer be seen as an Alternative Art Current

By Sandra Bradvić

The Andrzej Wróblewski Foundation was founded in 2012 in Warsaw by Marta Wróblewska, Krystyna Łysik, dr Magdalena Ziółkowska, Wojciech Grzybała with the goal to develop, popularise, and contextualise the knowledge of Andrzej Wrólblewski’s life and work (b. 1927, Vilnius – d. 1957, Tatry Mountains).

The impressive work the founders have done since the inception – like providing organizational and academic support for all those interested in the research on the life and practice of Andrzej Wróblewski; extending conservation supervision; initiating and organizing of exhibitions and other educational formats; completing the archive; and publishing activities – reads like a public contract of a national institution. The Foundation further very thoughtfully holds all proprietary copyrights to almost all works created by Andrzej Wróblewski, which has enabled it to release the reviewed scholarly publication Avoiding Intermediary States (Hatje Cantz, 2014), which since stands for the main reference source with regard to the proper and standardized use of the artist’s work titles, which alone is a pivotal accomplishment.

It is precisely because the Wróblewski foundation is not a state institution, but a personal initiative which has though set very high professional working standards –supposedly the sphere of competence assigned to major national institutions–, which makes such an endeavor even more remarkable and why it can even be considered a role model, not only for the ‘alternative’ art scene and not only but especially for post-communist/post-socialist states, whose ‘official’ institutions –as it is well known–, still happen to struggle with finding the right concepts and methodological approaches as to how to create and mediate new narratives of their own art history.

To take an example, one could look at Bosnia-Herzegovina, where in 2011 seven major cultural institutions had to close their doors to the public. The reason: their unresolved legal status after the collapse of former Yugoslavia in 1991. A lack of substantial financial support on the one hand, but also the lack of ideas to envision new possible structural models, most of them got lost in transition from one to the other socio-political system and remained caught in the legal limbo until this very day.

Wojciech Grzybała

So the relevant question in this context would seem to be: can institutionally independent and self-organised artistic and curatorial collectives any longer be seen as an alternative current, when their counterpart, namely the art institutions, have largely become dysfunctional and inefficient as a site for the creation and establishment of working standards, as well as of their visionary structural, organizational and conceptual changes? No, I would claim.

The Wróblewski Foundation, while being concentrated on one artist only, yet at the same time demonstrating a wide range of activities and a far-reaching visibility and international recognition of both the work of Andrzej Wróblewski and of the foundation, seems to prove it.


Non-Public Collection Paradox

By editorial, on 3 March 2020

Ieva Astahovska

Our visit to Starak Family Foundation was both a direct continuation and quite sharp contrast to the previous meeting with founders of Andrzej Wróblewski Foundation: from a voluntary run institution that dedicatedly takes care of Wróblewski’s creative legacy, but doesn’t possess any art works and even doesn’t have its own office space, we came to a semi-public art collection venue, run by private collectors Anna and Jerzy Starak, who own one of Poland’s largest pharmaceutical companies.

In its public part, entitled Spectra Art Space, we visited the exhibition by painters Maria Jarema (1908–1958) and Andrzej Wróblewski (1927–1957) Substantial Realism. Both artists, living and working at the same time and place, in their final years had very different relations to the political regime and its demands in art, socialist realism, and finally the shift to much freer expression. Yet in this exhibition that is structured in thematic flows “Maternity, Modern Woman, Love, War” Jarema’s mostly abstract, associative and ambiguous compositions that were not shown during the 1950s and Wróblewski’s realist paintings – some of them surreal, others poignant, but all very intimate –, form not a juxtaposition but a parallel view of the after-war epoch that bears both war traumas, and also a longing for humanity.

We had also an exclusive possibility to see the non-public part of Starak Foundation’s art collection that is partly displayed in its office building and includes classics of Polish postwar modernism. Quite paradoxically – or maybe it’s not so strange in today’s neoliberal times? – it was the only place during our program in Warsaw where we could see the original works by such significant Polish modernist authors as Władysław Strzemiński, Henryk Stażewski, Erna Rosenstein, Wojciech Fangor and others. This permanent display left rather an odd impression – art works arranged between stylish designer furniture, indoor plant beds, glass walls and on the most different flat surfaces – seemed to serve for its owners and viewers for something between decoration and fetish. One can observe increasing role of private collectors also in many other East European art scenes, and inevitably it brings also subjective tastes and different understandings of art and its displays.

Polish Socialist Realism

By editorial, on 3 March 2020


Maja and Reuben Fowkes

A group seminar at Zachęta National Gallery of Art was an opportunity for presentations dealing with Polish art of the 1950s, generating intensive discussion of the local modalities of Socialist Realism and the career trajectories of individual artists.

Magdalena Moskalewicz addressed the historiography of Polish Socialist Realism through the story of painter Aleksander Kobzdej (1920-1972), a celebrated hero of Socialist Realist painting who transformed himself into a modernist abstract painter during the post-Stalinist Thaw. She drew attention to the ambivalence of the local scene towards an artist whose international visibility was based on his willingness to adapt to changing official tastes in art.

Agata Pietrasik’s discussion of Socialist Realism in Poland set out to challenge assumptions that the style was simply imposed from outside and above by an oppressive regime, complicating the picture by considering the agency of individual artists, as well as the relation of the doctrine to local art discourses and traditions. She also raised the issue of the longevity of paradigms as well as institutional structures established during the Stalinist period.

Magdalena Ziółkowska shared with the group her research into Andrzej Wróblewski’s visit to Yugoslavia in 1956, revealing the personal and intellectual as well as historical and political dimensions of his three-week stay in the company of art critic Barbara Majewska. Going beyond attempts to identify the stylistic influence on the artist of the journey – manifest in his subsequent use of colour, expressive forms and the appearance of themes that were absent in his earlier work – she placed their visit in the context of the rapidly evolving relationship between the cultural policies of Poland in the era of de-Stalinisation and the socialist modernism of third way Yugoslavia.

Cold Revolution

By editorial, on 3 March 2020

Tomasz Załuski

Joanna Kordjak, a curator working at Zachęta – National Gallery of Art in Warsaw, gave a talk about the project “Cold Revolution. East European Societies in the Face of Socialist Realism” she co-authors and co-organizes with Jérôme Bazin. It features a conference, which took place at the end of January, and an upcoming exhibition scheduled for October 2020. Its main purpose is to present the social transformations of the 1950s – such as industrialization, development of an industrial working class, urbanization and depeasantification, collectivization of agriculture, elimination of old elites, egalitarianism, social mobility and collective ownership of the means of production – through the perspective of a comparative, transnational, entangled history of architecture, visual arts and design in several East European countries: Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary, Poland, Romania.

This comprehensive project is to cover a wide range of thematic issues: complex chronologies of Socialist Realism, its pre- and post-histories, changing geographies of cultural exchanges during the 1950s (not only ones within the Socialist Bloc, or between the countries of the Bloc and Western Europe, but also between Eastern Europe and extra-European countries), visual celebration of labour and workers, proletarisation of art and design, development of cultural infrastructure and movement of workers as art creators, the heterogeneity of socialist societies – social structure of the peasantry and the working class, internal divisions within both groups and their mutual relations and, last but not least, the question of gender roles and national minorities. The conference and the exhibition clearly aim at making another step in the ongoing process of shifting the historiography of Socialist Realism from the paradigm of political history and questions of aesthetics to a complex interpretative framework of socialist modernizations – and it seems they stand a good chance of succeeding.

Socialist Exhibition Histories

By editorial, on 3 March 2020

Magdalena Ziółkowska

The lecture of Dr. Gabriela Świtek (Head of the Department of Documentation at Zachęta – National Gallery of Art) was dedicated to the history of Central Bureau of Artistic Exhibitions that functioned between 1949–92 as the main central organizer of travelling exhibitions of visual arts and architecture. For more than half of the century CBWA created the apparatus for national and international politics of exhibitions and conferences, promoting various movements and artistic tendencies, organizing individual exhibitions of Polish and international artists.

The research project initiated by Gabriela Świtek, in collaboration with University of Warsaw, aims at founding an online database dedicated to all archival sources of the exhibitions organized at the CBWA and introducing new methodologies in the field of the history of exhibitions’ history. In socialist Poland the “exhibition” was an important medium of cultural exchange between countries of the Bloc and the West, distributing the political vision of state culture, as well as establishing canons that influenced the local artists and critics. The role of this long-term interdisciplinary project is to analyze selected examples of exhibitions in relation to the broader context of the cultural politics, the connections of the pre-war avant-garde tradition and post-war modernism, as well as deconstructing ideological frameworks attached to them.

Karol Tchorek’s studio

By editorial, on 3 March 2020

Magdalena Moskalewicz

On Tuesday afternoon, we visited the workspace of the late sculptor Karol Tchorek (1904-1985) and his son Mariusz, a known art critic and co-founder of Galeria Foksal, who died in 2004. The space is currently under the care of Mariusz’s widow, the British artist Katy Bentall—hence the current name, the Tchorek-Bentall studio— and is the only artist’s studio in Warsaw with the official status of a heritage site, which means it is under the protection of the city conservator.

An established sculptor already in the mid-war period—he received the silver medal at the 1937 World Exhibition in Paris—Karol Tchorek moved into this location in the early 1950s. This is when the previous building he had occupied, and where he’d run an art dealership called “Nike’s Salon” during the War, had been torn down to make space for the Stalinist rebuilding of Warsaw. Tchorek effectively built the studio, which is attached to the back of a nineteenth-century tenement building, beginning with the tiled floor he moved from the Salon, and created the unique atmosphere that it has till today. When we visited, the floor-to-ceiling window shone winter light directly on the decorative tiles and the multiple sculptures that populated the room in all its niches and corners. Other artifacts, documents, and photographs as well as historical furniture both added to the impression of an active, creative space and simultaneously provided a historical narrative about the studio and its residents.

Hosted by the custodians of the studio, Renata Wagner and her daughter Agnieszka, our group engaged in a conversation about the rebuilding of Warsaw in the aftermath of the World War II and Karol Tchorek’s involvement in it (the artist authored, among others, the iconic figure of mother and child at MDM, Warsaw’s Stalinist residential-commercial district); about the significance of the “General Theory of Place” co-authored by Mariusz Tchorek with other members of Galeria Foksal in 1966; and about today’s status of the historical sites like this one, when reprivatization and neoliberal policies in urban planning remove many of them from the Warsaw city map.

Holocaust Memory

By editorial, on 3 March 2020

Daniel Véri

In Karol Tchorek’s studio a table is covered with material concerning the design and history of the so called Tchorek plaques. After the Second World War, people of Warsaw spontaneously started to commemorate in public spaces the various battles and executions that took place in the city during the Nazi occupation. A competition, organized in 1948, aimed to provide a standardized form for these initiatives.

The winning design was created by Karol Tchorek: on the memorial plaque a shield with a standardized inscription is placed in the middle of a Maltese cross, with an additional inscription below, explaining the specificities of each commemorated event. The general inscription translates as “This place is sanctified by the blood of Poles fighting for the freedom of their homeland.” The second inscription provides the details, including the number of victims, and also names the perpetrators, often worded as “Hitlerites”. Although according to the original concept for Jewish and Soviet victims a different type was designed, lacking the cross, in many cases the original form was used, with a shortened, standard inscription: “Honour their memory”. Many of these plaques are still scattered all around the city.

From the perspective of Holocaust-memory, they constitute an important, early initiative, even though their interpretation might be debated. On the one hand, the inscriptions separate “Poles” from “Jews”, thus creating an uneasy impression of Polish Jews being denied their “Polishness”. Yet on the on the other hand these plaques are rather straightforward, not shadowing the Jewish origin of the victims they aim to commemorate, as did for instance many Hungarian plaques at the time using the generalized expression: “victims of fascism”.

Power of Secrets

By editorial, on 3 March 2020

Corina L. Apostol

Karol Radziszewski “The Power of Secrets” at Ujazdowski Castle Centre for Contemporary Art in Warsaw is probably one of the best shows I’ve seen in Europe this year. It was a revealing experience having a special tour of the project with the artist himself and the art historian and critic Adam Mazur. The exhibition is the first large scale presentation of Radziszewski’s extensive art practice and it comes at a critical moment in Polish art history. The recent appointment of a director for the Center, Piotr Bernatowicz has been strongly criticized in Poland and abroad as a politically motivated decision that would go a long way to advance a far-right agenda in the arts. Indeed we experienced first hand the effects of Poland’s turn to the far-right even before we entered the exhibition when one of our colleagues was almost banned from having her baby with her, as Radziszewski’s work could only be viewed by adult visitors, given its queer subject matter. Nonetheless, after some tense negotiations with the guards, we were all allowed inside.

The artist acts as an amateur art historian, a collector of queer histories, and as a curator in this exhibition (the show also includes works by Ryszard Kisiel, Natalia LL, Libuše Jarcovjákova, Wolfgang Tillmans and the collective General Idea). The show opens with quotes and drawings from his childhood, combining fairy tales with fantasies and memories. The histories he is recuperating are very compellingly presented in the show, which mixes political events with intimate stories, private narratives, and public ones. Part of the exhibition is dedicated to queer heroines and heroes (Taras Shevchenk, Wojciech Skrodzki and Ewa Hołuszko) as well as other prominent figures from Polish history whose queer identities have remained hidden. These are shown as part of the Queer Archives Institute, an informal institution created by the artist focused on the ongoing research of queer histories in Central and Eastern Europe.

Radziszewski’s work can be thought of as a practice of self-historicizing and also part of a larger movement in our field to write overlooked or erased queer art practitioners and their stories into art history, which compels us to rethink what counts as art historiography. Due to the policing of queer lives and queer art in Poland it, unfortunately, seems that many significant works and artists will remain more private or hidden away in personal archives rather than in major museums in the country. Which is what makes “The Power of Secrets” even more significant today.

Church Art in the Palace of Culture and Science

By editorial, on 3 March 2020

Ivana Bago

First thing in the morning was the ideal time to visit the famous Palace of Culture and Science, built in 1955 on the model of the “Seven Sisters,” a group of skyscrapers built under Stalin in Moscow. We were there to visit the exhibition and storage spaces of the Studio Teatr Gallery, but we also used the opportunity to ride the elevator and get a 778-ft-tall bird’s-eye view of Warsaw. Following the tour of the Palace and the gallery storage spaces, where we had the privilege of seeing mannequins used in the theater plays of Józef Szajna, who also directed STUDIO Theater during the 1970s. This was also the time when the STUDIO Theater Gallery was founded, as we later learned in the presentation by the gallery director, Dorota Jarecka, held in the exhibition space.

The presentation on the history and the program of the gallery was followed by a seminar on Polish art of the 1980s in Warsaw, with Dorota Jarecka and Piotr Rypson. One of the central topics of the conversation was “church art,” or a series of exhibitions that took place in churches during the post-Solidarity 1980s – an exotic and surprising topic for all who had earlier not been acquainted with the phenomenon. Jarecka, an art historian and curator who did research on the topic, protested the term “church art,” finding it misleading: not all artists who exhibited at churches were religion, and the (Catholic) church today is not what it was in the 1980s. In Jarecka’s view, what is intriguing about the phenomenon is the way that artists negotiated the exhibitions with the church and parishioners, at the same time seeking to maintain the autonomy of art. Rypson, art historian, writer and witness of the era, disagreed to an extent, reminding us that there were artists who were also genuinely interested in Christianity, as well as alternative forms of spirituality, towards which a number of priests and parishes were also open at the time. Rypson himself was more drawn to alternative culture and told us very compelling stories about the Remont gallery, a student-run space that also housed punk concerts and distributed zines, as well as a number of other relevant spaces and events in Warsaw, and beyond.


Mapping Łódź Eighties

By editorial, on 3 March 2020

Juliane Debeusscher

Tomasz Załuski’s comprehensive presentation “Lodz in the 1980s – The Local is Networked” immersed us into the atmosphere of the local cultural scene of the decade. With the introduction of martial law on December 1981, artistic initiatives sought to explore a “third way” far from any political, religious and even artistic authority – and, possibly, ridiculing it. The idea of “embarrassing art” invented by Łódź Kaliska epitomises this attitude of anarchism, surrealism and self-mockery, promoting art as “unfruitful, insignificant, stupid, uninteresting, unconstructive, incoherent” (and so on…).

Particularly interesting to me were the critical discussion on the authoritative position and legacy of the neo-avant-garde of the 1970s and the emblematic phenomena of the “Pitch-In-Culture.” Understood primarily as a means of collecting money for alcohol (vodka) and food, it manifested itself through gatherings, performances, screenings and exhibitions in private locations, like the Attic (Strych) run by Łódź Kaliska. While many projects focused on black humour, absurdity and excess, they also reflected a sense of community, self-organisation as well trans-generational and transnational cooperation that could provide a ground for a fruitful comparison or dialogue with other Eastern European initiatives of that time.

Such communal experience was not devoid of agonistic dimension, as Tomasz remarked. No consensus around common principles, but rather a particular form of “atomization” – also evoked by Piotr Rypson in Warsaw – that allowed these practices to survive under martial law and even be continued in other forms after the system’s change in the 1990s.


By editorial, on 3 March 2020

Constanze Fritzsch

A local art history and mapping of the art scene of a single city can be very problematic because of flattened art history that proposes only a very narrow narration. Nevertheless, as in translocal, comparative art history the scale plays an important role, the art history of a region or a city may permit a comparison that otherwise would not be possible as in the case of Poland and GDR. A Polish, East-German comparison is especially challenging because of the lack of significant translocal exchanges or networks as well as different chronologies due to different socio-political settings. The presentation of the Łodź art scene of the 1980s by Tomasz Zaluski provided a common ground for parallels of the art scenes of Łodź, Leipzig and Dresden beyond a strict chronology and without neglecting the very specific context. Parallels can be drawn and studied between the necessary irony and sarcasm to deal and face an over-ideologized everyday life and a disastrous economic situation in the exhibitions of the Eigen + Art Gallery or the performances of the Auto-Perforations-Artisten. As a result, in parts of all three art scenes the art practices are characterized by a disillusionment with the socialist project and a network of private initiatives, as the production of Super film in Dresden or the different groups around A.R. Penck shows. Moreover, the church serves not only as a host for art events, but also as a spiritual resource and biographical background for artists like f. e. Else Gabriel (member of the Auto-Perforations-Artisten) as well as a platform which would allow a forum to debate and communicate. This analyze of similarities can be embedded in a Europe-wide art history of tendencies, characteristics and issues of the art of the 1980s.

Sounds of the Underground

By editorial, on 3 March 2020

Johana Lomová

In his talk Daniel Muzyczuk (a curator at the Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź) presented research behind two exhibitions that he had prepared together with David Crowley. Sounding the body electric mapped connections of sound and visual culture in Eastern Europe, and Notes from the underground concentrated on the underground culture where music and visual arts has merged. A few important issues came out during the presentation. Besides the regional interest of both curators in Eastern Europe that included Russia (St. Petersburg has a special place in their research), we have been introduced to a different time frame for research of culture under socialist politics as the second mentioned exhibition ended in 1994. In this way Muzyczuk and Crowley were able to show how the underground culture reacted to a new political regime. A rather provocative thesis of connection between neoprimitivism and right-wing radicalism opened a discussion and our attention was drawn towards a concept of overidentification, politics of self-representation and other. The blurriness of the boundary in between official and unofficial art (or rather the uselessness of this division) was illustrated by the fact that a number of nonconformist artists did have an artistic licence.

Deterritorialising Modernity

By editorial, on 3 March 2020

Asja Mandić

After the group seminar and thought-provoking presentations in Museum Sztuki/MS 1, the group headed to the newest museum branch, MS 2 for a guided tour with Joanna Sokolowska who showed us the museum collection through the Atlas of Modernity exhibition.

The venue, located inside Manufactura, the former 19th century factory complex, now the city’s main touristic hub, associates the museum to the world of spectacle, entertainment and leisure culture of the post-industrial consumer society. Enveloped in the redbrick, it does retain the image of the mill factory, nevertheless the interior gallery spaces are somewhat conscious of the modern white cube. Atlas of Modernity reflects a similar mode. Modernity, the ideas about it and the experience of modernity in the 20th century art as well as its traces in recent artistic practices, as the main conceptual framework of this show, directs presentation of national as well as international pieces from the collection. Rather than providing an historical overview of modern art in Poland, the exhibition pinpoints several themes, like the points in an atlas or a map, among which are machine, progress, capital, revolution, emancipation, but also autonomy and the self. Arranged in a manner to correspond to this web of ideas or fragments of modernity, the works from various media, time periods as well as stylistic features, make very interesting juxtapositions.

This inspiring museum visit brought us back to some questions addressed in our previous discussions, such as relationship between socialism and modernisation, issues of socialist modernity… as well as to the notion that “socialism and modernity do coexist”. (Tomáš Pospiszyl)

Galeria Wschodnia

By editorial, on 3 March 2020

Hana Buddeus

After an intensive day spent at Muzeum Sztuki, we were happy to go out and experience the reality of the post-industrial atmosphere of the city of Łódź. During a visit to the Galeria Wschodnia, we were presented with an opportunity to zoom in on the image of the 1980s Łódź art scene, which we had been introduced to through the presentations that morning.

The gallery – established in the early 1980s and one of the oldest artist-run spaces in Poland – is still situated in the same location, an old apartment building on Wschodnia street. It consists of two gallery rooms, a guest room used by artists in residence, and a kitchen, the place of social interaction, under the reign of a cat, Benek, who has experienced the gallery’s entire long history. Adam Klimczak, one of the two artists who has run the space from the very beginning, was kind enough to not only show us the current exhibition but also let us enter the kitchen, where he recounted some of the adventures connected to the place. A recently published book Galeria Wschodnia. Dokumenty 1984-2017 / Documents 1984-2017, edited by Tomasz Załuski, confirms (and reassesses) the historical importance of the space.