The collection sets Poland's artistic heritage within the context of its tumultuous history, with "established" art injected into a dialogue with the critical art and protest-art movements of the age.
The museum's collection sets Poland's artistic heritage in the context of its tumultuous history, with 'established' art injected into a dialogue with the critical art and protest-art movements of the modern era. The collection is among the most extensive in the nation, with acquisitions paralleling the evolution of the independent nation and the interwar period, then the postwar years and the toppling of communism.
We decided to present strictly Polish art as that was the direction inferred by the character of the collections acquired over decades - explains curator Piotr Rypson deputy director of scientific affairs at the museum. The Gallery of 20th and 21st Century Art is not, however, as was practiced hitherto, an exhibition of paintings and sculptures that is merely called a gallery of art. Its distinctive nature has been built up through works of film, photography, photomontage and new acquisitions: recordings of artistic actions and performances, works created in the time of the Third Republic, that are the bud of a new chapter in the National Museum's collection.
Early years of independence
The exhibition opens with the inspired beginnings of a nation reborn, when artists such as sculptor Xawery Dunikowski led the way with his monumental modernist sculptures, and with the first major works of cinema. At the cusp of the 1920s, the nation's young generation of artists pursued their inspirations from the European canons and from Polish folk art. Having studied at fine European academies, these young artists returned home to share what they'd learned from both east and west, gleaned from the Cubists of Paris and the Futurists of Moscow and Tbilisi. The Formists, one of the most active artistic groups in Poland, are represented by Tytus Czyżewski's Nude with Cat, which carried forward inspirations drawn from French Cubism and Italian Futurism. Poznań's Bunt group was strongly linked to Berlin and German Expressionism. By the 1920s the likes of Henryk Stażewski, Władysław Strzemiński and Katarzyna Kobro were making their mark, founding the avant garde circles of the Blok, Praesens and a.r. groups, which debated the concepts of beauty and functionality in art, and leaned toward Geometric Abstraction and Constructivism.
The second wave of the avant-garde was ushered in by the Kraków and Artes groups and are represented in the galleries by, for example, Roman Sielski's surrealist paintings or Mieczysław Szczuki's Self-portrait. From the art of the early 1920s came Poland's success at the International Exposition of Modern Industrial and Decorative Arts in Paris in 1925. The Polish Pavilion became a creative manifesto for a national style of decorative art, exemplified by Zofia Stryjeńska's paintings in the Seasons of the Year series and Jan Szczepkowski's Nativity Shrine, which linked geometric and cubist forms with the craftsmanship of folk and sacral art to display a uniquely Polish Art Deco style.
1920s and 1930s
The National Museum's collection follows the trail of the French connection. The Capists of the Paris Committee - Jan Cybis, Józef Czapski, Stefan Nacht-Samborski, Zygmunt Waliszewski - turned from Constructivism and any political-mindedness in their craft. Many artists began referencing the masterworks of earlier centuries, as in the paintings of Pruszkowski, and others took erotic approaches in their canvases, creating sensual works like Tamara de Lempicka's Lassitude.
The next gallery is filled with early cinema of the Themersons and Czekalski, and surrealist photomontages by Podsadecki and hielographs by Hiller. Rafał Malczewski's paintings of the 1930s depict Poland rising and building herself into a formidable nation.
War and postwar
The most dramatic chapter of Polish 20th-century history is represented by Władysław Strzemiński's illustration Fragment of a City-in-ruins and the graphic works of Mieczysław Wejman as a concentration-camp prisoner. The most moving discovery of the collection is the forgotten songs of Aleksander Kulisiewicz, conceived while the amateur songwriter was interred in a concentration camp. He continued to sing his "camp songs" after the war, and began collecting other songs and music from the camps. (His archive of some 120,000 pieces are in the collection of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.)
The exhibition at the National Museum explores how the trauma of war has been dealt with by artists through the decades up to today, including Linke's Bus / Autobus (1959-1962) and Andrzej Wróblewski's Surrealist Executions, as well as Zbigniew Libera's piece Lego. Concentration Camp (2001) and Oskar Dawicki's I emphasize! I've never done a work on the Holocaust (2012). The socialist-realism doctrine of the communist era is evident in Wojciech Weiss' Manifest painting and propaganda films.
Jerzy 'Jurry' Zieliński's painting S.O.S. - Ratujcie nasze dusze / S.O.S. - Save Our Souls begins the collections from the 1970s era with a strong statement: a pair of sewn-up lips painted in the white-red colours of the Polish flag. Action art of the decade is represented with the happenings and performance-art pieces of Zbigniew Warpechowski, Akademia Ruchu and Andrzej Partum as the backbone of the galleries. Feminist art and body art represented by Natalia LL and Ewa Partum form another pillar of influence from the decade and into the next one. The martial-law period includes Łukasz Korolkiewicz's 13 grudnia 1981 rano / 13 December 1981, Morning, a television broadcast on the takeover of Polish television stations by the military.
Artists turned from the official art institutions, opting instead to exhibit their work in private apartments, studios and churches. Józef Robakowski's video recording of the Jarocin music festival carries the rebellious spirit of the times, which manifested itself in music and the arts. The films of Robert Brylewski, founder of rock bands Izrael and Brygada Kryzys, demonstrate the impact of punk rock on popular empowerment through the arts.
The exhibition concludes with a survey of important works of recent times, from Wilhelm Sasnal's neo-pop canvases to Zbigniew Libera's idealist vision for the cover of the popular news and culture magazine Przekrój, and subversive video works of Katarzyna Kozyra and the Azorro Group.
Piotr Rypson emphasises that the museum has an obligation to present the Polish public and foreign visitors, too, with a portrait of Polish art over the past century. "These works reflect not only the shifting aesthetics of a given time, creating aspirations, artistic currents and trends, but also a kaleidoscope of voices, stances and emotions meaningful for the entire century". Rypson underlines the importance of the dramatic character of the period's history, from the national renaissance in 1918 and the construction of the Second Republic to its fall and the war's catastrophic impact on Poland's population and its cities, followed by the oppressive period of socialism and the triumph of democracy in 1989, the effects of which continue to influence the nation and its people today. The works on display are meant to impart the tension and emotions during key moments of these momentous turning points, as both an aesthetic and educational experience.
In the future the exhbition will continue to grow and change, adding new works, such as the recently acquired illustration by Bruno Schulz purchased at auction in New York. The exhibition is also interactive, allowing visitors to use their smartphones for more information about particular pieces, along with a curator-led augmented reality tour.
The exhibition opened on the 19th of January 2013, with the patronage of PGE Polska Grupa Energetyczna, along with the financial support of the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage. The National Film Archives provided many of the multimedia works in the exhibition.
For more information, see: www.mnw.art.pl
Author: Agnieszka Sural for Culture.pl. Translation and edits by Agnieszka Le Nart