Flights of Fancy: Polish Visual Arts in 2019
#photography & visual arts
full-width, Flights of Fancy:
Polish Visual Arts in 2019, 'Flight' by Roman Stańczak, Venice Biennale, 2019, photo: Weronika Wysocka / Zachęta Gallery, center, roman_stanczak_lot_wenecja_fot_w_wysocka_zacheta-3.jpg
A breakout of independent galleries, ecological topics, Grażyna Kulczyk's Swiss museum, the paintings of Karol Palczak, the debut of Agata Słowak, and finally Roman Stańczak's upturned airplane. Polish art this year was varied – as varied as the reality we live in.
Don't burn down the museums, build your own
On 2nd January 2019, Museum Susch opened its doors to visitors. After losing her battles with the city authorities of Poznań and Warsaw, Grażyna Kulczyk, Poland's most famous art collector, shut up shop (read: a modern art collection worth many millions of euros) and moved out to where all the rich people like to meet up – the Swiss Alps. There, in the small postcard-perfect town of Susch, is where she created the museum she was unable to in Poland. Designed by Chasper Schmidlin and Lukas Voellmy, the institution's headquarters are housed in a discretely-adapted complex including a 12th-century monastery and brewery, with cave-exhibition halls effectively taking a bite out of the belly of the mountainside. Hidden in the Alpine quiet, the place reminds one more of the home of a James Bond villain than classic museum architecture, which is an overall positive and enlivening effect.
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Bazaars & second-hand shops
Private initiative, on a smaller scale, has also resulted in the form of independent galleries by the Vistula, often founded and run by artists. A few years after the opening of the galleries Potencja (Kraków), Stroboskop (Warsaw) and Miejsce przy Miejscu (Wrocław), another gallery boom has arrived, begun last year by Maja Demska, who quit the ING Polish Art Foundation to sell art at a bazaar. Nothing in the films about the mythical beginnings of Polish capitalism began with a camp bed, earning big money with one's own pavilion at Bazaar Namysłowska in Warsaw, and going from alternative to mainstream. This year, Groszowe Sprawy became part of the Warsaw Biennale programme, inviting collaborating artists such as Marta Krześlak, who on Children's Day (1st June) turned the concrete terrace of the pool neighbouring the bazaar into a fairytale-like colourful lagoon.
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This year we also observed the development of other initiatives. One of the most curious new points on Wrocław's map came to life thanks to the collective of young artists from JEST Gallery, located in the building of an old theatre school. Inviting the most interesting young artists, like the Łaski colletive or Emilia Dudziec, JEST distances itself from the programmes of other newly-created Wrocław galleries that are richer but more reserved such as OP ENHEIM or Krupa Gallery. In the desertifying landscape of Kraków, one of the last bastions for gallery life there has been created by the artist Karolinę Jarzębak with Jak Zapomnieć Gallery. Exhibiting young artists linked to the city, its financial backing comes from a second-hand shop called Szmaty ('Rags' in English).
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'Pogranicza' (Borderland) by Martyna Czech, 2017, Skarby Wsi pavilion at Bazar Namysłowska, work from the Groszowe Sprawy Deluxe exhibition, photo: press materials
Reconciling & burning bridges
The year 2019 was also a happy one for Roman Stańczak. After early successes, a breakdown, then many years outside of public awareness, he ended the past year with a Hollywood-style happy ending at the Venice Biennale. In all honesty, the the private jet distorted by the artist in the cavernous space of the Polish Pavilion reminded one of an eviscerated Avionette, but Flight achieved its purpose. Existential but also filled with political subtext, the installation brought the left and right sides of Polish society together, providing them with a narrative they could all identify with to some degree.
Works by Roman Stańczak – Image Gallery
Less optimistic conclusions could be taken away after seeing Daniel Rycharski's Strachy (Fears) exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, one of the best Polish exhibition of the last year. From Rycharski's stories of village communities, Christian faith and queer identity, come rather bitter impressions, presented in an exhibition that seethes with anger despite its beauty.
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Painting still worth buying
Also dealing with rural, religious and queer themes are the works of three other artists who also had a good year. A few years ago he was known as a performer ironically commenting on the mechanisms that rule the art world, and more recently had glowing triumphs as a painter, but now Mikołaj Sobczak has sealed his success in a new road in life with an exhibition at the Polana Institute's gallery during Warsaw Gallery Weekend, for which he received the ING Polish Art Foundation Prize. Nowe Królestwo (New Kingdom) is an erudite tale full of subtle humour about Anabaptists fleeing religious pogroms in Poland, but is also a multi-level allegory linked to recent history, with heroines from Solidarność, the actor Bohdan Łazuka, and non-heteronormative human rights activists in the background.
An Ode to Joseph Beuys on an International Car Journey
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'Człowiek w Ogniu' (Man on Fire) by Karol Palczak, oil/metal/board, 50 x 68 cm, 2019, photo: courtesy of the artist
A simpler and more pleasant and realistic formula taken from 19th-century Polish realists and Andrew Wyeth is preferred by the winner of this year's Bielska Jesień, Karol Palczak, who we will no doubt be hearing more about in the future. The paintings which brought him victory in Poland's most important painting competition are built upon muted intimate histories about the changes in the contemporary Polish countryside and the attitudes of its young inhabitants. Palczak spins them with the help of a technically-refined painting method devoid of bells of whistles, carefully carving every brushstroke.
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The debut of the year came from the winner of a different award: Agata Słowak, the laureate of this year's Coming Out awards from the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw. Comparatively, Słowak had hardly any competition amongst her fellow students, but her work does not only shine in the lesser-demanding context of university. This was confirmed in the summer, when her paintings were found among the works of the best contemporary young female artists, such as Dana Schutz and Allison Katz, at the Farba Znaczy Krew (Paint Means Blood) exhibition curated by Natalia Sielewicz at the Museum of Modern Art. Słowak, much like Palczak, does not fear showing connections to the classics, although in her case it's rather late Goya than Chełmoński. And despite how motifs from the imaginarium of BDSM have gained a lot of popularity in Polish art in recent years, Słowak's paintings make up the latest and most ambiguous story of female sexuality and physical and mental subordination out there.
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Sorry, that's just the current climate
Those greedy for novelty in the Polish art world came late to dealing with the catastrophes of climate change, but when it did finally happen, they took up the topic with gusto. Previously only the preoccupation of two artists and one curator, all of them female, in 2019 it was on everybody's lips, with institutions making it a point of honour to organise at least one exhibition with ecology in the background.
Aside from other projects and discussions on the topic of the future of our planet, there also appeared concrete proposals about what to do to make sure artistic overproduction did not accelerate it even further. Diana Lelonek, for example, as part of her exhibition for BWA in Bydgoszcz, dispensed with spending money on publishing a catalogue and instead used her budget to install solar panels on the gallery's roof.
The year ends with a vacancy for the position of director at the National Museum in Warsaw – the Ministry of Culture officially accepted the resignation of Jerzy Miziołek. At the same time, Piotr Bernatowicz has become the new director of the Ujazdowski Castle Centre for Contemporary Art. Whether the new director handles managing the castle better than he did the Arsenal Gallery in Poznań a few years ago, we will only find out after a few months; the first part of 2020 will still be for projects planned by Małgorzata Ludwisiak's team.
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2019 in review
year in review
Meanwhile the personnel shake-ups in Kraków echo the script of a Stanisław Bareja film. The city authorities have decided to put the steering wheel of the Bunkier Gallery of Contemporary Art in the hands of Maria Anna Potocka, the director of MOCAK, which in essence turns the gallery into a branch of a museum with a, putting it delicately, less than ambitious programme. As a person of many talents, the director of both institutions decided to help out journalists looking to evaluate her activities by publishing her own enthusiastic text about them in Kraków's local edition of the Wyborcza newspaper.
Here's to 2020, and even more flights of fancy in the future.
Originally written in Polish, translated by AZ, Dec 2019