Piotr Piotrowski



Znaczenia modernizmu. W strone historii sztuki polskiej po 1945 roku. [Meanings of Modernism. Towards a History of Polish Art after 1945]. Poznan: Rebis, 1999, pp. 289.

The book is a study of postwar Polish art from the mid-forties till the present. The author concentrates on the problems of emergence and evolution of modernist ideas and values recognizable in the critical discourses and artistic practices of Polish art from the abstract and figurative painting of the 40s, 50s, and 60s through the neo-avant-garde of the late 60s and 70s, and finally, the most recent developments in the 80s and 90s. All the interpretations of postwar artistic culture have been based on the theories prevailing in the humanities today, which means that the work of art is not approached as an autonomous aesthetic form, but rather as a dynamic structure involved in various relations of power, social processes, and political tensions of the pivotal years of 1949, 1956, 1968-70, and the period after 1989.

Thus, the subject matter of the study is the interpretation of various problems of postwar Polish art arranged in a chronological order and aiming at an overview of art in Poland after 1945. Last time, a similar attempt was made almost twenty years ago.

The book begins with an analysis of the crisis of the idea of picture ( Realism and Surrealism: Modern Art after Bloodshed ), brought about in the late 40s by the experience of war horror. The analysis has been inspired by the psychoanalytic theories of Jacques Lacan and Julia Kristeva. In terms of history, the object of critical attention is the achievement of Tadeusz Kantor - both his underground theater of the war years and his later painting - and the art of Andrzej Wróblewski. The common context is the problem of war and its influence on the idea of work of art according to Kantor and Wróblewski, both of whom put forward a critique of the painting defined as a "screen" between the subject and the object, and made attempts to formulate a conception of art based on "repetition" rather than "representation."

The next part, Modernism and the Socialist Culture , focuses on the involvement of the art of informel in the political mechanisms of the "thaw" around 1956: the political strategies of both the regime established after the breakthrough of October 1956 and the artists themselves. The new authorities needed new legitimation so that, having rejected socialist realism as discredited by the Stalinist cultural policy, they endorsed modernism, trying to find allies among the intellectuals and artists who realized that modern art could function only with an approval of the communist party. Consequently, the price paid for that approval was political neutrality of art, convenient both for the authorities and abstract painters. The same strategy pertained also to the so-called Polish colorism or post-impressionism - a thoroughly conservative kind of art which, however, in the late 50s adopted some formal features of late modernist painting.

A short chapter called Figure and Body contains an analysis of the "reappearance" of the figure in the art of the so-called post-October period (particularly in the 60s), and both the political and historico-artistic significance of that process. The chapter focuses on the painting of the Cracow group "Wprost," particularly interesting art of Alina Szapocznikow, using her own body, as well as somewhat later art of Magdalena Abakanowicz.

The chapter on Neo-constructivism concentrates on Polish art referring, both in the formal and theoretical sense of the term, to the heritage of constructivism, and particularly on the artistic achievement and theoretical statements of Henryk Stazewski, the impact of the Elblag Biennale of Spatial Forms, the activities of Roman Opalka, the Foksal Gallery, etc. This kind of art is analyzed not only against the background of the Polish constructivist tradition, but also in the context of the historical studies on that tradition and their influence on the present. A key question of the chapter is the meaning of freedom implied by the neo-constructivist art in a specific political situation.

The next chapter, called Critique of Language - Critical Language , is devoted to art of the object (Wlodzimierz Borowski), conceptualism (Jerzy Rosolowicz, Jaroslaw Kozlowski), media art (Film Form Studio) and a few examples of artistic activity directly committed to politics ( Repassage group). The main issue under scrutiny is the socio-political significance of the conceptual actions and analyses of artistic language undertaken by the artists of the 70s - whether they were critical of the idiom of power, or predominantly continued the modernist system of values with its central idea of autonomy of art. The question implied by these considerations is that of the actual functions of the Polish neo-avant-garde of those times. The chapter ends with a description and interpretation of the achievement of Jerzy Beres, developing in the context of the traditional Polish mythology of independence, which dates back to romanticism, confronted with the reality of the so-called liberalization of the 70s, introduced by the faction of the communist party elite that seized power as a result of the 1970 workers' revolt in Gdansk.

An Outline of Alternative is an attempt to interpret the "independent" arts movement of the 60s and 70s, and to analyze the situation of Polish artistic culture in the times of the advent of "Solidarnosc," the martial law imposed by the authorities in 1981, and the following decade. The analysis focuses mainly on the so-called "third circuit," opposing the communist regime, but, on the other hand, keeping distance to the art of the culture of opposition, often exhibited in the 80s in Catholic churches. The questions asked in this chapter refer also to the lasting consequences of the artistic and political tensions of those times which are still relevant for contemporary art in the context of new historical conditions after 1989 (e. g. the art of Zbigniew Libera and Miroslaw Balka).

Finally, the chapter called On Framing is a kind of conclusion formulating a question about the contextualization of the historico-artistic study of modern and contemporary art of Poland against the background of East-Central Europe. It is also a polemic with universalism as a myth of postwar Polish culture; an attempt to determine a "frame" of artistic culture in Poland.

Translated by Marek Wilczynski

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