At the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, Poland did not exist as a state, but was divided between Austria, Russia, and Prussia. Despite the attempts to break the Polish national spirit, subsequent generations have been striving for cultural and linguistic unity ever since. The key to overcoming this struggle was art and literature. In those terrible times, art lit up people’s hearts and rekindled hope by preserving patriotic and cultural patterns with metaphor and symbolism.
This doesn’t mean that Polish art has lagged behind the European avant-garde. Instead, it formed its own identity. The tradition of the Polish avant-garde dates back to 1917 when the first exhibition of Polish Expressionists was opened in Krakow, just a year before Poland regained independence. This initiated the blossoming of avant-garde trends in the interwar period and started a time of experimentation. A new perspective about art was formed and began to play a part in building a new society.
Builders of worlds
In 1918, after 123 years of partitions, the country regained its sovereignty. This act led to artistic freedom and a flourishing Polish art scene. Artists came from various, sometimes overlapping groups: Polish Expressionists; the Bunt Group; Art Formists, who were drawing inspiration from Cubists; Futurists and Expressionists translated into Polish; Cubists; Suprematists and Constructivists; Praesens, groupings of architects and artists similar to the Bauhaus; and De Stijl programs.
A special place in Polish art history during that time belongs to the a.r. group (“real avant-garde” or “revolutionary artists”), whose most well-known champions were Władysław Strzemiński, Katarzyna Kobro, and Henryk Stażewski. They all believed in combining various art forms in the service of society and developed theories about modern art that they pursued in their own way.
Composition, Henryk Stażewski (From the collection of Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs)
One of the greatest achievements of the group was their collecting of works by the most important artists of that time, with the aim of creating an International Collection of Modern Art. Today this is the core collection of the Museum of Art in Łódź. This action was met with great interest from the European avant-garde, leading many great artists – such as Fernand Leger, Max Ernst, Hans Arp, and Kurt Schwitters – to donate their works. Their collection represented many movements such as Cubism, Futurism, Constructivism, Purism, Neo-plasticism, and Surrealism. It was made available to the public on February 15, 1931.
As well as groups of artists, there were also artistic personalities who left their mark on subsequent generations of artists. The most important of them in the 1920s was Witkacy (Stanisław Witkiewicz-son) who created the artistic approach Pure Form. According to his concept, Pure Form combined formal elements in a painting that ultimately aimed to convey the “Mystery of Existence” and metaphysical anxiety. Witkacy was also one of the few avant-garde painters of that time who painted portraits to order. In addition to fantastical phantasmagoric and naturalistic portraits, the painter created deformed images of friends imagined by the artist while under the influence of drugs.
Polish art during times of totalitarianism
The development of the first wave of avant-garde artists was interrupted by the Second World War, however, the tradition and ethos of that time strongly influenced the work of Polish artists in later decades. The post-war generation of artists were often torn between trying to cope with wartime trauma and creating new values.
This situation was not helped by the political atmosphere. The country remained under the domination of the USSR from 1947 to 1989 – a time marked by the communist Polish Workers’ Party government, which saw censorship and the dominance of propaganda art.
In the 1950s, socialist realism prevailed, leading to a vision of the world that conformed to the ideological theories of Marxism and Leninism, which was used as the main propaganda tool. The most powerful painting motifs were the depictions of the working people and the workers’ movement.
Some artists could not cope with wartime experiences and were not fooled by the prevailing propaganda. The most famous figuratist of the 1950s was Andrzej Wróblewski, one of the greatest Polish post-war artists. Until the end of his short life, he remained a rebel looking for his own artistic path, which drifted between abstraction and figuration. His best known work is a series of paintings called “Executions” from 1949 about occupation experiences. While Wróblewski died in a tragic mountaineering accident at the age of just 29, the artist’s work went on to influence the new figuration seen in the 80s.
A lot of artists turned away from this regime of art and instead went back to the path begun by the pre-war avant-garde. Tadeusz Kantor was one artist who adopted this experimental approach. His work from the 1940s took the form of metaphorical painting, addressing the relationship between space and figure. Kantor’s paintings from this time were dynamic metaphorical compositions characterized by an economical use of cool colors. During the occupation, he founded the Underground Independent Theater, where he put on revolutionary theatrical performances. He flourished in the days of the Khrushchev Thaw, the period from the early 1950s to the early 1960s when repression and censorship in the Soviet Union were relaxed after Joseph Stalin’s death in 1953.
The second coming of the avant-garde
The impact of the Khrushchev Thaw on Polish art started in the second half of the 1950s and was marked by two trends: broadly defined expressive realism or social expressionism, and then a post-Thaw modernism that emerged during the late 1950s. Tadeusz Kantor was a key figure in this. In 1955, referring to the pre-war Artist Theater Cricot, he founded the Cricot 2 Theater together with Maria Jarema and Kazimierz Mikulski. Later he directed performances that became manifestos known as the Happening Theatre (1967), the Informel Theatre (1969), the Zero Theatre (1969), Impossible Theatre (c.1973), and the Theatre of Death (1975).
While his theatre performances were uniquely Kantor, for his painted works the artist was happy to draw inspiration from the latest trends in international art that he saw during his travels to places such as Paris and New York. On the basis of these experiences, he eventually gave up painting as such and started to create assemblages in the fields of Art Informel, Dadaism, and Conceptual Art.
Kantor’s work defined artistic trends in Poland during the 1960s and 1970s. His approaches were continued by artists such as Jarosław Kozłowski, Jerzy Rosołowicz, Władysław Hasior and Jerzy Nowosielski, Roman Opałka, Jerzy Bereś, Alina Szapocznikow,Magdalena Abakanowicz, and many more.
The lack of political criticism in Polish art during the 1960s and 70s, or at least the lack of explicit criticism of the system of power, is a very characteristic phenomenon. This is a distinct feature of Polish art and culture at the time compared to its central European neighbors.
In the 70s examples of feminist interventions in Polish art could be observed. However, the works of artists such as Maria Pinińska-Bereś, Natalia LL, and Ewa Partum, functioned outside the sphere of real women’s problems, meaning their criticism and visual expressions of patriarchal culture fell outside the social sphere and wouldn’t have an impact until much later on.
An important turning point of Polish art in a political context was in 1989. Art created at that time responded to political and cultural changes that took place in the country due to a wave of revolutions that started in Poland and resulted in the end of communist rule in Central and Eastern Europe and beyond.
It was not until the late 1990s that critical art appeared. This saw Polish artists explore the issue of corporality and its entanglement in power structures. Artists turned their attention to the body, using it as a vessel for “experimentation, an object exposed to constant innovation” and a “space within which we define our subjectivity”.
Artists who played with concepts of the body included Grzegorz Klaman, Katarzyna Kozyra, Zofia Kulik, Konrad Kuzyszyn, Zbigniew Libera, Dorota Nieznalska, Alicja Żebrowska, and Artur Żmijewski. Since 2000 and all the way up to today, many contemporary artists have re-evaluated the visual sphere, as well as concepts such as art, beauty, and aesthetics. Critical art analyzed the mechanisms of incapacitating the body through contemporary culture. For instance, through their creativity, they’ve used the body and adapted it to express unattainable ideals, training, and the embodiment of gender roles, as seen below in Zofia Kulik’s piece from 2007. Inspired by the previous 100 years of art in Poland, these days artists use methods seen in popular culture, allowing them to comment on reality and highlight the changes taking place within it.
By: Natalia Cetera/Google Arts & Culture