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Confrontations: Sessions in East European Art History



Travelling Methodologies

editorial8 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?

Polish Socialist Realism

editorial3 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.

Power of Secrets

editorial3 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.