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Confrontations: Sessions in East European Art History



Archive for the 'Warsaw' Category

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.