Polish artists have translated the move from communism to capitalism into a universal language,” claims art historian Andrzej Szczerski. “We’ve had an extremely difficult history, but it’s been fertile ground for culture, even under communism, when it flourished illegally.”
Poland’s entry into the European Union in 2004 opened up its art scene to the West while putting the country in a new relation with the countries to its east, from Armenia to Ukraine. This past July Poland assumed the six-month rotating presidency of the European Union for the first time. To mark the occasion, ambitious cultural programs took place in Brussels and other world capitals. Poland wants to make its mark and intends to be much more than an appendage of the Western art world.
Warsaw, a city that has found its edgy personality in postwar ugliness, today has numerous venues for contemporary art, including the Zacheta National Gallery and the baroque Ujazdowski Castle, which was entirely rebuilt in 1988. Additionally, there are 17 serious galleries and several alternative art spaces in the Polish capital. A museum of modern art, designed by Swiss architect Christian Kerez, is slated for construction, but no one knows when it will be completed. Meanwhile, the museum’s director, Joanna Mytkowska, is putting on shows in other spaces. “I think it’s better, freer like this,” says artist Dominik Lejman. “I hope it never opens.”
Funding for the museum is being delayed by bickering politicians, not all of them fervent admirers of contemporary art, but Mytkowska is adamant that Poland’s art scene is not provincial. “Our traditional art can’t compete internationally—we have two Rembrandts and one Leonardo in the entire country—but we have the loudest voice in contemporary art among the post-communist societies,” she says. A number of young Polish artists have already made names for themselves abroad, including the painter and sculptor Miroslaw Balka, who put a cavernous shipping container in Tate Modern in 2009; painters Wilhelm Sasnal and Marcin Maciejowski; and sculptor and performance artist Pawel Althamer, among others. Installation artist Monika Sosnowska attracted international attention at the 2007 Venice Biennale, filling the space of the Polish Pavilion with her architectonic sculpture 1:1.
A relic of the days when contemporary art hid behind closed doors is an apartment museum on the 11th floor of a grim concrete block near the site of the destroyed ghetto. The elevator is so small and throbs so ominously that most people prefer taking the stairs up to this modest flat where the conceptual artist Edward Krasinski, who died in 2004, used to live and work, alongside the older artist Henryk Stazewski.
The space, which is maintained by the Foksal Gallery Foundation and is open by appointment to visitors, was turned into an installation by Krasinski, with mobiles featuring friends’ faces and blue Scotch-tape interventions (the tape was his signature material). His friend Daniel Buren taped his own striped panels onto the windows. There is something deeply affecting about this place where avant-garde artists and critics gathered, where everything above and below them was forbidding and gray.
Today, this stifled past seems ages away. The younger generation of Polish artists is outspoken and confident. When asked if their country’s history weighs heavily on their work, some say they can’t get away from it, but others claim they don’t even read the newspapers and that it doesn’t affect them at all. According to Szczerski, many of the country’s most talented people have chosen to work in art and shun politics, which they regard as soiled.
“I grew up under martial law, when there was nothing in the shops and no gasoline in the petrol stations,” says Michal Wolinski, who edits the art magazine Piktogram and also puts on exhibitions. “Young people wanted to find a third way, and that involved smoking dope and organizing shows in private spaces.”
Last April, Ujazdowski Castle staged shows by Tomasz Kowalski and Miroslaw Balka, artists with diametrically opposed approaches to post-communist art. Like many of his generation, Kowalski, who was born in 1984, has decisively rejected politically committed art to embrace a new surrealism. In his introspective, theatrical pieces, fantasy and imagination predominate.
“Fantasy in Polish culture is not a way of escaping reality but of challenging it,” says Zofia Machnicka, cocurator of “The Power of Fantasy,” a major show at Brussels’s Bozar arts center, up through September 9. “We selected works that explore madness, militancy, and mythic heroism and others that imagine the environment in utopian terms.”
The other artist showing at Ujazdowski Castle was Balka, whose works can be seen as oblique meditations on the past. These are often rooted in the small suburb of Otwock, where he grew up. Its train went to the Majdanek concentration camp, 60 miles away, and Balka evokes the traces of the area’s Jewish past through allusive videos, sculptures, and installations.
“The narratives in Polish art aren’t always coherent,” says curator Stach Szablowski. “In the 1990s, artists blurred the borders between art and activism. Since then, many of these artists have been working in public-education programs and have lost their innocence. We went through a crash course in Pop art, when the language of advertising and consumerism was put through the wringer. Then we had Balka, who was the first artist to work on reconstructing nonexistent memories.”
Poland’s contemporary-art scene is not exclusive to Warsaw. Many of the country’s most successful artists live in Krakow, and Gdansk also has a lively scene, while the former textile capital of Lodz boasts the country’s finest collection of modern art. Describing itself as Europe’s first modern-art museum, the Muzeum Sztuki was started in 1931 with donations from such artists as Alexander Calder, Max Ernst, Jean Arp, and Piet Mondrian. In 1981, just before the introduction of martial law, Joseph Beuys drove up from Germany with a truckload of his art to give to the museum.
But alongside its international works, the Sztuki has a first-rate and growing collection of Polish art. The museum’s deputy director, Malgorzata Ludwisiak, says that Poland is bursting with creative talent because “so much fresh art followed the political changes.”
“My grandfather was in Warsaw during the uprising, and we grew up with his stories,” she says. “Our history is a burden, but since we joined the European Union, the world has opened up to us.”
Brigid Grauman is the Brussels correspondent for ARTnews. Her current project is a book on contemporary memories of the Belgian Congo.