From Love to Drama: Emotions in Polish Art
Hatred, the pains of love, family tragedy or the traumas of war. This is a subjective review of Polish art that was either created under the influence of intense emotions, or strives to capture particular states of mind.
Hatred: Hubert Czerepok, Płot Nienawiści (Fence of Hatred)
Hatred is a feeling that has left miscellaneous traces around the streets of Poland. Nationalist, racist and homophobic slogans are now natural features of the urban and rural landscape, and aggression is becoming commonplace. Hubert Czerepok’s protest against this situation – in which hate speech is acceptable and human dignity is under attack – is what inspired his project for the Museum of the History of Polish Jews POLIN.
The installation Płot Nienawiści (2015) is a black-painted fence several metres in length, made of steel bars shaped into dozens of offensive slogans lifted from the streets of Poland. The words are distorted, rendering them barely legible: ‘Gypsy Hunters’, ‘Jude Raus’, ‘Poland for Poles’ and others attacking ethnic and sexual minorities, or fans of various football teams. Płot Nienawiści stood in Warsaw’s General Jan ‘Jura’ Gorzechowski Square, near the POLIN museum, for several months in 2015. Dr. Waldemar Kuligowski of the Contemporary Cultural Studies department at Adam Mickiewicz University commented:
Thanks to its materiality, weight and visibility, Płot Nienawiści demonstrates that the phenomenon [of hate speech] should not be ignored. It has the dark power not only to mar the streets, but above all to poison the imagination.
Love: Oskar Dawicki, Gloria Amore Victis
Oskar Dawicki’s work Gloria Amore Victis (2015) is dedicated to those who have suffered or are currently suffering due to love. In form and style it resembles a stone memorial plaque, yet shows a female bust turned to face the wall. Made during the 7th Festival of Art in Public Spaces, it is now mounted on a wall of the Lubomirski Palace in Lublin. The festival organisers wrote:
Dawicki is a self-confessed fatalist, a eulogist of failure and human weakness, but also an individualist and a romantic. Instead of glorious history, he introduces his own existential narrative. He is interested not in politically imposed historical remembrance, but poignant, everyday human solitude – to which this is a memorial.
Fear: Zuzanna Janin, Koniec, Rozdział 1: Podróż do Lęku (The End, Chapter 1: A Trip to Fear)
Zuzanna Janin’s work Koniec, Rozdział 1: Podróż do Lęku (2013) is an act of reconciliation with shame, fear, and feelings of oblivion and exclusion. This is a video of a journey to Russia, to the prison and penal colony where members of the Russian feminist punk band Pussy Riot were serving sentences for their performance at the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow, criticising the church hierarchy’s connections with politics and the secret services. Janin’s trip was also a personal one, as her grandparents and great-grandparents were exiled or incarcerated in Russia. In an interview with Katya Shakovska for obieg.pl, the artist said:
To me, it is important for my art to be political; it must aspire to change reality and contain critical thinking. My film shows a very emotional, profound journey into fears, phobias and local myths buried deep in my memory; ones I would like to defuse somehow. A Trip to Fear, to dispel my fears, myths – and Russophobia.
Love: Łukasz Korolkiewicz, Miłość (Love)
Homosexual love was a cultural taboo in Poland under the communist regime. It was banned in those days, and only has extremely limited rights today. In the sombre years of communism, Łukasz Korolkiewicz created autobiographical images by painting onto photographs of situations he had witnessed. Miłość (1977) is a dreamlike scene in which two men are seated at a well-laden reception table. One of them, playing a young lady, is naked except for a woman’s fur coat, and cuddles up to the older man dressed in a suit. In her book Hiperrealizm: Nowy Realizm (Hyperrealism: The New Realism) Ewa Kuryluk writes:
The artist takes delight in immortalising his friends, inadvertently comical in a debauched pose, as they briefly don decadent masks for the camera, accentuating the amateurish decor and discreet charm of department-store transvestism.
Grief: Aleksandra Kubiak, Śliczna Jesteś Laleczko (You’re a Cute One, Sweetie)
Aleksandra Kubiak’s Śliczna Jesteś Laleczko (2016) is an incredibly personal, moving and bold video performance. In front of a live audience, the artist experiences tragedy, trauma, shame and yearning for her mother, who died a tragic death. Together with the actress Elżbieta Lisowska-Kopeć – invited to play the mother – Kubiak reminisces about how she used to be, how she behaved, and how she looked. From these seemingly innocent conversations, painful childhood experiences come to the surface. This therapeutic process is a means of artistic experimentation intended to help the artist work through her fears and recuperate at last.
Anxiety: Natalia LL, Erotyzm Trwogi (The Eroticism of Terror)
The theme of Natalia LL’s series of photographs Erotyzm Trwogi (2004) is the feeling of transience, coupled with dread of old age and what may lie ahead. In the series, this legend of Polish neo-avant-garde and conceptual art, engaged in the international feminist art movement, has her face covered by a gas-mask, her body encircled by vacuum-cleaner pipes. In an interview with Emilia Dłużewska for wyborcza.pl, the artist said:
I started on these works before the attack on the World Trade Center. We live in turbulent times and have little control over what that turbulence might bring. That’s why I’m calling for love. (…) Acceptance of old age, infirmity and dying can be beautiful too.
Melancholy: Jacek Malczewski, Melancholia
This key work of Polish and European 19th-century art, regarded as Jacek Malczewski’s manifesto, depicts melancholy and apathy accompanied by feelings of strength and creative inspiration. Melancholia (1894) brims with signs, symbols and myths that refer to Polish history as well as the place and role of the artist.
The painting shows a dreamlike studio, filled with a bustling pageant of figures – peasants with scythes, and insurgents – evoking the times of national subjugation and several armed uprisings which ended in defeat. In turn, the black figure of Melancholy outside the window refers to the apathy into which the nation had been plunged, but may also be interpreted as an allegory of the creative process – melancholy moods being an integral aspect of the artistic personality. In the painting, the artist at his easel is engaged in a dynamic act of creation, which specialists consider to be an embodiment of strength, and a call for action.
Sorrow: Jarosław Modzelewski, Strzemiński Opłakujący Malewicza (Strzemiński Mourning Malevich)
Sadness, sorrow and despair are emotions we feel when we lose someone close to us. Jarosław Modzelewski, one of the leading neo-expressionist artists, created this large-format painting depicting the death of one of the most important avant-garde artists – Kazimir Malevich, being mourned by Władysław Strzemiński – a pioneer of the constructivist avant-garde in Poland. Born in Minsk, Strzemiński moved to Poland with his wife Katarzyna Kobro after World War I. He met the painter of the famous Black Square while studying under him in Moscow, then they worked together at the art school in Vitebsk. Strzemiński was not present when Malevich died in 1935, nor did he attend the funeral, since he was already living in Łódź. Modzelewski’s Strzemiński Opłakujący Malewicza (1985) is therefore metaphorical. In an article for Culture.pl, Karol Sienkiewicz wrote:
A fascinating aspect of this unusual painting is the question of absence – Strzemiński’s bodily imperfection and handicaps (he is missing a leg and an arm), and also the loss of a friend and artist. The duality of male figures – the two famous painters – is quite typical of Modzelewski’s works from that period, and remains rather mysterious.
Trauma: Władysław Strzemiński, Moim Przyjaciołom Żydom (To My Friends, The Jews)
Directly after World War II, Władysław Strzemiński began work on a series of collages, Moim Przyjaciołom Żydom (1945). These were Indian-ink drawings onto which the artist affixed photographs from the ghetto, the mass transports, a concentration camp, and the uprising. They are an attempt to relate personal traumas contained in the drawings to objective wartime experiences represented by the photographs. In an article for Culture.pl, Magdalena Wróblewska wrote:
In these collages, the combination of photography and drawings appears awkward, as if forced and primitive. Their inconsistent form betrays the artist’s inability to imagine an adequate, cohesive way to epitomise the Holocaust, or devise an intermediate formula between artistic drawings and documentary photography. Neither convention is sufficient.
Originally written in Polish, translated by MB, Jan 2018
Sources: culture.pl, zacheta.art.pl, post.at.moma.org, obieg.pl, wyborcza.pl, 31 Aug 2017