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Confrontations: Sessions in East European Art History

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Affective Art History

editorial4 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.

Non-Public Collection Paradox

editorial3 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.