Piotr Piotrowski



Sztuka wedlug polityki. Od „Melancholii” do „Pasji” [Art after Politics. >From “Melancholy” to “Passion”], Kraków: Universitas, 2007, pp. 259..

All the texts included in the present volume have already been published (see bibliographical note), although in some cases the original titles have been changed. Virtually by its nature then, the book is not a systematic presentation of Polish art of the 20 th century. Instead, I have concentrated on selected questions which, however, make a kind of mosaic of the period since the end of the 19 th century to the present. To speak ( nomen omen ) “graphically,” i.e. to refer to specific works of art, this is a narrative of Polish art from Jacek Malczewski's Melancholy (1894), a painting which marks a symbolic end of the 19 th century, to Dorota Nieznalska's Passion (2001), a work allegedly “offending religious sentiments,” for which the artist has been sentenced to six months of unpaid labor for the city of Gdansk by the district court, and in which, like in a focus, many problems of Poland at the threshold of the 21 st century seem to converge. The dominant of the present selection is the involvement of Polish art in politics. The title of the book, borrowed from one of the essays, conveys this message quite clearly.

The opening essay, “From Melancholy to the Harvesters,” presents a wide panorama of Polish art in the first half of the 20 th century, from Malczewski's Melancholy to the last paintings by Wladyslaw Strzeminski from the 1940s, including also the Harvesters. The main question discussed in this chapter is a shift in Polish artistic culture from nationalism through social commitment to its appropriation by the state after 1945. In the next text, called “ Drang nach Westen,” on the example of the graphic design of Józef Kisielewski's book, Ziemia gromadzi prochy (1939), I analyze the visual rhetoric of the Polish right-wing propaganda of the 1930s, in particular the visual framework of the so-called “western thought” developed by the nationalist circles. In that essay, I have focused on a strategy of the revision of Poland 's western frontier advocated by the right-wing parties against Germany and the Treaty of Versailles, and the political significance of Kisielewski's historical iconography and maps illustrating his book. The third text, on the achievement of Katarzyna Kobro, concentrates on that moment in her career when she decided to renounce the idiom of the avant-garde and returned, in the 1940s, to figurative female nudes. I have tried to analyze the meaning of that “return” and present a critique of a widespread thesis of the artist's “liberation” from the “impersonal” and “disembodied” kind of art in favor of her “gendered subjectivization.” My conclusion is that Kobro returned to the nude as a masculinist convention of representation, mythologized by modernism. Then, “The Rembrandt Award,” is devoted to the early work of Tadeusz Kantor. Analyzing Kantor's metaphorical painting from the late 1940s and early 1950s, I have attempted to demonstrate that precisely at that brief moment the artist revised his approach to “reality,” based in his theatrical activity during the Nazi occupation on the principle of metonymy, and pointed to the metaphorical paradigm of his later art: the object art, happening, Cricot 2 theater, and the painting of the 1970s and 1980s. “Between Colorism and Modernism” focuses on the art of Piotr Potworowski approached in terms of the aesthetics of reception. The key point of my analysis is Potworowski's return to Poland and the ensuing change of the implied audience of his painting, inscribed, as it were, in the very structure of his new works. While in England his implied spectator was, for the most part, an anonymous private collector, in Poland Potworowski addressed his paintings to the wide audience of large exhibition halls. What followed was the change of the size of canvasses and the artist's adherence to the modernist mode of the perception of art.

The next two essays refer to public art and its involvement in public debates. The starting point of one, “Auschwitz vs. Auschwitz,” is an analysis Oskar Hansen's design of the memorial of victims of Nazism, which won an international competition in 1958 but was never built. An immediate context of my analysis is the discussion of the representation of the Holocaust, while its final point is a critique of the “musealization” of the Holocaust, continued nowadays by contemporary artists, such as Zibigniew Libera. The other essay, “The Cross in Stalin Square,” analyzes the memorial of the Poznan June of 1956, erected in 1981 in Poznan in Mickiewicz Square (in 1956 called Stalin Square ). Interpreting that memorial, I have attempted to reveal the circumstances which excluded the development of the design by Anna and Krystian Jarnuszkiewicz and Marek Sarello, originally chosen by the competition jury, in favor of Adam Graczyk's design called Unity. I interpret Graczyk's Unity against the background of the ideology of “Solidarnosc” and its consequences for Poland after 1989.

A sequence of essays concerning contemporary artistic culture – the times after the fall of communism in 1989 – opens with a text on the work (and a monographic exhibition) of Zofia Kulik, From Syberia to Cyberia, shown at the Poznan National Museum in 1999. This analysis not only takes into account Kulik's achievement, but also – perhaps above all – the “pictorial turn” going on in contemporary art. The title essay of the whole collection, “Art after Politics,” analyzes the political paradigm of Polish body art after 1989. While its frame of reference is a critique of modernism and the changing status of the conceptual art, as well as a panorama of the body art in the 1990s and the political significance of the representation of the body in the works of Katarzyna Kozyra, Zofia Kulik, and Alicja Zebrowska, the main point is a diagnosis of the condition of Polish culture of the last decade of the previous century. The following essay, “The Sarmatian Sword and Historical Memory,” begins with an analysis of an incident which took place in the “Zacheta” National Gallery of Art in Warsaw in 2000, when Daniel Olbrychski, a well-known Polish actor, cut with a sword Piotr Uklanski's work of art, The Nazis. The incident serves as a pretext to discuss the approach of the Polish intellectual and political elite to the so-called critical art. In this context, I have asked more general questions concerning the memory of the Holocaust in Polish culture and the reserve with which the Polish audience takes the problems tackled by the critical art. Next to Uklanski's work, I have also analyzed the Warsaw exhibition of Christian Boltanski (2001), including billboards with eyes, whose meaning arises from the non-presence of the “traces” of the Jewish ghetto in today's Warsaw, and the Road to Fame by Shimon Attie performed in 1996 in Kazimierz, the former Jewish district of Cracow.

The last text included in the volume is “Agoraphobia after Communism.” Its theoretical context has been provided by the idea of the “radical democracy” of Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau and considerations on the public art of Rosalyn Deutsche. Both make an interpretive frame for a discussion of the political reactions to contemporary critical art in Poland. Next to Dorota Nieznalska's Passion, I have also analyzed a cover of Wprost weekly, showing Holy Mary with a gas mask on her face, the Irreligion exhibition, Katarzyna Kozyra's Blood Ties, etc. This is the background for basic questions asked about the form of democracy in Poland and the ideas of society and the state implied by the “culture war” of the turn of the 21 st century.

Translated by Marek Wilczynski

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