Contemporary Art in Poland has always provoked huge controversy and extreme reactions. Often misunderstood and used by right-wing politicians to favour their radically conservative views, it has electrified not only the art world, but also the general public – to such extent that damage to works or their removal were common, as were exhibition closures and protests in front of artistic institutions. Politicians, clerics, artists and critics – the whole country has been involved in the national discussion. There is always something much more important hidden behind accusations of profanity and that the artist is simply seeking notoriety. The works described in this article weren’t created to be scandalous, but rather to draw attention to significant issues and problems that are still present within Polish society
The growing interest in innovative Polish artists shouldn’t surprise anyone. As home to a rich legacy of avant-garde art, Polish artists fundamentally changed and re-evaluated artistic traditions during the 1980s. These examinations challenged not only classic avant-garde works, but also works of neo-avant-garde artists. Focused on the ideas and theories championed by German artist Joseph Beuys, Polish artists transformed the understanding of both painting and sculpture.
Cultural politics, political changes and the role of the Catholic church, along with traumatic historical events experienced by the nation, play a crucial role in ensuring the variety of contemporary Polish artists. As a result of all these forces, the country has a rich and often controversial stock of artworks exhibited across international and local galleries and art museums.
The work of artists who made their debuts in the ‘80s fundamentally changed and re-evaluated the artistic traditions that had been relevant until then. Firstly, it changed the avant-garde tradition which had – and continues to have – an exceptionally powerful influence on artists, predominantly thanks to the work of married couple Władysław Strzemiński (painter, designer and theoretician, 1893-1952) and the Katarzyna Kobro (sculptor, 1898-1952). The concept of ‘Unism’ in Strzemiński’s painting and of timespace rhythms in Kobro’s constructions were permanently etched into the classic European or “first” avant-garde. The main bastions of this classic avant-garde art in Poland have been represented by two institutions that are still operating in Warsaw today and which, upon their establishment in 1966, were closely linked to the renewal of interest in the avant-garde during the ‘60s, leading to the emergence of neo-avant-garde or “second” avant-garde.
The growing interest in innovative Polish artists shouldn’t surprise anyone. As home to a rich legacy of avant-garde art, Polish artists fundamentally changed and re-evaluated artistic traditions during the 1980s
Thanks to artists who debuted in the ‘80s, not only was the classic avant-garde re-examined, but rather new aspects were also revealed by the work of neo-avant-garde artists. Many young artists of that period, like sculptors Mirosław Bałka (1958) and Krzysztof M. Bednarski (1953), drew on the social theories of German sculptor Joseph Beuys, co-founder of the neo-avant-garde movement Fluxus, and the dramatic interpretation of their material. It was in 1981 that Beuys presented his collection of works entitled Polentranstport to the Łódź Museum of Art, which served to considerably intensify interest in his work.
It was also in the ‘80s, following a period of limbo brought about by the thrust of postmodernism during the late ‘70s, that interest was renewed in the work of the middle-generation Polish artists, linked to the neo-avant-garde of the 1960s, with an acknowledged international reputation.
The canvasses of Włodzimierz Pawlak (1957) used the work of Roman Opałka (1931), permanently resident in France, as a starting point for the painter’s dialogue. The black-andwhite canvasses of Ryszard Winiarski (1936), “painted” according to the rules of chance theory, became an important reference point for many young artists, like Jerzy Truszkowski (1961) and Robert Maciejuk (1965). The richly varied art of Krzysztof Wodziczko (1943), who works mainly out of North America and Western Europe, influenced the socially-orientated work of the young artists of the ‘90s.
The most pervasive – and perhaps accordingly most controversial – tradition in Polish art, that of the colourists, was also subjected not so much to alteration as to a kind of final acceptance in the work of succeeding generations of artists. The paintings of the Polish colourists of the inter-war years, members of the Paris Committee (such as Jan Cybis, Jozef Czapski, Piotr Potworowski, Artur Nacht-Samborski and Zygmunt Waliszewski) who were also pupils of Pierre Bonnard and the École de Paris, were condemned even before the war for their aestheticism, escapism and ostentatious pictorialism.
A huge role in the assimilation of the work of the colourists was played by one of Poland’s most important artists – painter Stefan Gierowski (1925).
A separate tradition of contemporary Polish art emerged in post-war artistic circles in Krakow, with the organising of the First Exhibition of Modern Art in Krakow in 1948, only to ultimately be concentrated around the Krakow Group.
An overpowering influence on this group was exerted by Tadeusz Kantor (1915-1990), an individual creative genius – an artist who was arrogant, provocative and avant-garde, but who also battled against what he ironically referred to as “The Official Avant-Garde”, a man like no other, because there could never be anyone else like him anywhere in the world of European art of the 20th century. The artists of the Krakow Group are primarily individualists who cannot be pigeon-holed with any group or into any -ism, though critics eagerly highlight their preoccupation with surrealism.
One special aspect of Polish art of the 1980s was its links with the Church. The 1978 election of Polish Cardinal Karol Wojtyła as Pope John Paul II strengthened the Church’s standing among artists and intellectuals, who had previously been far from firm believers. Such was the viewpoint of, for example, the artists of Gruppa. It must be noted, however, that this period was also marked by truly profound interest in the whole question of the sacred in art, and by deep spiritual changes to many artists, including the youngest.
Instead of politics, which – though not obvious in the works of the artists of the ‘80s – clearly defined them, the subject matter of art became civilisation as a whole
That is how the ‘80s became the decade of a return to traditional genres of painting, sculpture, architecture and crafts. And, in the Polish situation, it was also a return to truly free work – not free in terms of experimentation, but free of political ambiguity. In such a situation, the avant-garde ceased to be attractive as simply a formal proposition, as a concept of an artistic language, as an experiment acknowledging the new media reality. It became attractive because the young artists became aware of its significance and the possibilities it still offered in its attitude towards art.
The ‘80s, the decade of political resistance, ended with fundamental changes to the country’s cultural politics. They were not, however, welcomed without some ambivalence. On the one hand, of course, artists were given the opportunity to engage extensively and freely without fear of censorship. On the other hand, however, the political and economic changes at the end of the ‘80s had a huge impact on the already impoverished artistic milieu. This was lost when the free market arrived with democracy.
Polish art stopped taking an interest in current affairs, jettisoning almost entirely the experiences of the preceding decade (its attitude towards the Church, the return to traditional genres, a very distant but questioning attitude towards politics).
Between the media and the body – that could be a shorthand way of describing Polish art in the period from 1991 to 2000. Instead of politics, which – though not obvious in the works of the artists of the ‘80s – clearly defined them, the subject matter of art became civilisation as a whole. The specifically Polish context is virtually absent from Polish art. The devaluation of ideas about social cohesion, the painful price paid for the building of democracy, liberalism with its concept of unlimited freedom, the impoverishing of artistic milieus following the introduction of free-market principles, the lack of any kind of cultural policy of the state – all this has done little to encourage artists to participate in current events or deal with them in their own art. This also points to a new perception of the role of the artist and perhaps even a new sensibility that differs from the traditional.