Infuriated by horizontal wall pattern

Polish artists have been protesting against exhibiting their works under the banner of the current head of Zachęta. Could they boycott the show? No, they couldn’t. The only thing they could do was to create a media frenzy and... make the exhibition more popular because of the scandal

There are various reasons for arousing widespread interest. Some positive, some negative.
Today I am focusing on the latter, which nowadays is the norm.

At all costs

Not long time ago I read about a woman with the largest breasts in the world; I also saw her photos. Yes, that's right, I sullied myself by reading tabloids -- but let my excuse be that for me it was a summer practice to improve my English. Of course, photos don't count towards this, but it is difficult to "unsee" something when it is next to another on the same page. Especially when the visual aspect is larger in every respect. In this instance, the lady has been enlarging her breasts with various substances, not of organic origin, for more than three decades -- she is currently 52 years of age. So, how does her own body react to this? Well, it rebels… and rejects. However, she stubbornly insists on having further surgeries, risking her life. Literally. One can only guess what condition her spine is in -- it has to withstand the additional weight of 10 kilograms at the front, since each of her "balloons" weighs five kilograms. Can you visualize it? If I hadn't seen the photos, I probably wouldn't have been able to.

Meanwhile, doctors agree to continue operating on her -- for appropriate remuneration.

Of course, hers is not the first case to deviate from the code of medical ethics. Nor is she the first person with mental disorders to try to battle their issues by changing their appearance. Indeed, no one can tell just how much of the original woman there is in this woman. Similarily to quote from a classic Polish comedy "Man – Woman Wanted" ["Poszukiwany, Poszukiwana", 1972] where nobody knows "how much sugar content is in sugar". I am writing about this phenomenon for a reason that will probably surprise you -- it's because of an exhibition.

Size matters

There has been a lot of talk about this exhibition because it is difficult to withstand it visually -- just like with those "boobs" that can't get any bigger. This is called XXXL size and this exhibition represents a similar scale.

Let's start with the presentation.

There used to be a joke in Poland about a horizontally striped wall pattern without which the wall would look like "shit". If you don't know this old anecdote, ask someone from the older generation. This time, however, the horizontally striped patterns are painted on the walls. They accompany over 200 works by some 140 artists. Such is the density of the exhibition that it is difficult to pick out individual pearls -- they get lost in the clutter.

This pictorial massif is supposed to reflect the current "Landscape of Polish painting".

Yes, you may have already guessed – I am writing about the exhibition [under the same title] that has achieved notoriety thanks both to its size and its location. The Zachęta National Gallery of Art, a contemporary art museum in Warsaw, which virulent "young angry" critics once mockingly called "Zniechęta" [a pun in Polish since "zachęta" means "encouragement” while "zniechęta" means "discouragement"], this time around fully deserves its nickname. This show cannot be readily digested -- not in one sitting and not in small bites.
Opening of the exhibition "Landscape of Polish Painting" at the Zachęta National Gallery of Art, showing over 200 works by 140 contemporary artists. Photo: PAP/Tomasz Gzell
It does not matter where you start viewing, whether it's the largest exhibition room, the "Matejkowska" to the right or the opposite side; whether you begin on the ground floor rooms or on the first floor. The direction taken is irrelevant since the exhibition doesn’t have a clear concept.

Oh no, wait, I'm so sorry: actually you can detect something, i.e. some coloured threads. For example, in one room, artworks in a range of blues dominate, in another, it's yellow, and in yet another, green is the theme. To emphasize this color selection, wide stripes of the relevant colors have been sprayed just above floor-level, at the bottom of the walls of each room.

     Does anyone remember the patterns drawn in school notebooks?
How the awkwardness of the writing was made up for with this type of decoration?

But why should the paintings be accompanied by such horizontally striped wall patterns?
Perhaps to help the blind people to follow colors?

Follow the thread to reach the chaos

In order to suggest somehow that this show does have a concept, here and there on the walls so-called pearls of wisdom are displayed -- quotations from treatises on art or philosophy by a few well-known thinkers.

These quotes are the icing on the cake of curatorial claims by the originator and organizer responsible for the exhibitiion.

Janusz Janowski, director of the Zachęta National Gallery of Art, has proven yet again that he is unable to cope with the curatorial task.

For people, especially those from circles opposite to the right, this is grist to the mill: Janowski was appointed to this responsible position by PiS [Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, i.e. Law and Justice, the Polish populist, national-conservative political party]. However, in this instance, the political alignment doesn’t matter all that much. Janowski began his clerical and artistic career a long time ago. For many years he served as president of the Association of Polish Artists [Związek Polskich Artystów Plastyków], once the largest creative association in Poland until it got into major difficultiues after the system transformation, only to end up being marginalized. Nevertheless, the title of president still has a ring to it.

Janowski is not the only one who has made himself comfortable in a warm, high seat with no one above him to review his competences. To quote again from the Stanisław Bareja film "Man – Woman Wanted": "My husband is a director by profession".

Returning to the Zachęta exhibition, it would be inappropriate to say that most of the artists refused to cooperate. Yes, some did but they were superseded.

I don't think anyone will be surprised when I say there were over a hundred artists (after all it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity) willing to exhibit in the capital's most prestigious gallery!
And that was the most unfortunate situation.

Had the walls of Zachęta remained "empty", it would have been beneficial for this project. The silence would have become more eloquent.
Maybe it would have even become therapeutic? Maybe it would have made some people think?

In its current state of affairs, one gets the impression that painting, and art in general, has turned into a fair of Christmas tree decorations (it's the season, after all), a game of appearances, a wooing of minds intoxicated by hallucinogenic pop culture.

So what if there still are some outstanding works at this fair? One can't see them. They are lost in a mix of gibberish and falsehood and -- let's not be afraid to say it -- of kitsch.

Beyond time

The ambitious idea behind the Zachęta project was to present the landscape of our painting.
Current or post-war?

It's hard to say. Works from recent years dominate, some of them still "warm", just taken off the easel. However, here and there we encounter Polish art history.

He sensed that humanity was heading for an abyss

Witkacy is admired today by people, many of whom could be the object of his derision.

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The show includes a composition by Koji Kamoji from the 1960s, probably from his first exhibition (the oldest work in the set) as well as works by "classics" who debuted in the 1960s (e.g. Jan Dobkowski) or the 1970s (Tomasz Ciecierski, Łukasz Korolkiewicz).

In addition, there are works by our "New Wild " artists who, after conceptualism, in the 1980s focused on painting again and with it a spirit of freshness (Krzysztof Skarbek, Zdzisław Nitka). These are complemented by stars of the post-breakthrough wave like Leon Tarasewicz and Paweł Susid. Of course, I know that Tarasewicz and Susid started in the 1980s, just like Gruppa [an artistic formation, created in 1983 by six painters], which is also represented here by some of the individual artists (Marek Sobczyk, Jarosław Modzelewski, Ryszard Grzyb).

The Ładnie formation group that was to become active and famous in the next decade is also represented at Zacheta by two of its most famous members -- Marcin Maciejowski and Wilhelm Sasnal.

There is also a completely off-the-wall relief (not a painting) by the independent artist Magda Moskwa (whom I remember from the late 2000s) and some works by Agata Bogacka, intensely present in the same period (dates are approxinate.)

Almost all of the above mentioned artists protested their works being included in the exhibition under the banner of the current head of Zachęta. Could they boycott the show?

No, they couldn’t. They could only create a media frenzy and... make the show more appealing to the public, the usual result of such a scandal.

From a legal perspective, works acquired by public collections belong to a given institution. So there is no question of further discussion, it's over, period.
Whoever is the boss at a given moment can use the works in any arrangement. Only one thing is forbidden: profanity.
"Landscape..." does not fall into this category.

Here is an example from the past.

In 2009, Agnieszka Morawińska, then director of the National Gallery, invited Karol Radziszewski, an artist openly declaring his sexual orientation, to organise a fifth retrospective of works from the Zachęta collection. I'm not going to talk here about the first four shows. Let’s focus on the fifth, which was given a somewhat scandalous setting by Radziszewski. To start with, he chose a provocative and infantile title for the show, calling it "Pee in a cake" (a quote from a poem by Edward Krasiński). Secondly, he selected works from the storage warehouses that suited his needs on the basis of format (sic!), without considering much else. Then he set up a mini-cinema (behind a curtain) in one of the exhibit rooms to show pornographic, amateur gay films.

Do you think that the artists, those who were alive and conscious, sent any protests to the gallery? Did they feel “insulted” by the context?

Not at all. There was a bit of noise in the media, but most authors laughed kindly at the artist-curator's recklessness. Ha, ha! So young, so cute, so daring!

In defense of director Janowski, it's fair to say that if he offends, he offends because of bad taste. He does not reinterpret the meaning of objects, as "Pee in the Cake" did. He does not attribute political, sexual or moral meanings to the exhibits.

Of course, if he [Janowski] had wanted to be elegant, he could have informed the artists of his intentions. Except... Radziszewski, and a whole host of other curators, also felt they had equal rights as creators. Bah! They often put themselves above the artist(s), believing their own vision to be superior.
So did Janowski.

For improvement

So what was the reason behind the idea of presenting the "Landscape of Polish painting"?
Let's assume that the main one was to open the Zachęta doors widely and democratically, and above all promote the "contemporary".
Nothing new here. The concept of a nationwide, cross-generational retrospective dates back to the 18th century. And making publicly accessible walls or urban spaces available to anyone who wants them has even older roots. Those who want to see truly democratic art should go to Montmartre, Warsaw's Old Town Square or any other spaces in the most touristic areas around the world. Maybe they can even buy something?

The art market is not there to educate the public, but to satisfy every taste. For the right amount -- and the price is all you can argue about in such a situation.
After all, in matters of taste, there can be no disputes, as the saying goes. It's not what's pretty that's nice, but what you like.

Let us return to the subject of "professional" retrospectives. Already in the Polish People's Republic [the 1947 to 1989 predecessor of the modern-day Republic of Poland], there were shows designed to reveal "what's going on in art" at a given moment in history. For example, there were collective exhibitions of young artists, boisterously entitled "For improvement" (also at Zachęta).

These were organized by the artists themselves, who were disappointed with the program of the official salons. The socialist authorities were generous and clever. They would let artists show what they created in their studios! They would let the young "hot heads" sort things out on their own. In this way the crown would not fall off anyone's head while the loudmouths would shut up. The valve would vent the stuffiness.

Various cyclical competitions -- biennials, triennials or even quadrennials -- were to serve similar "liberal"purposes. But democracy was worse here: the deciding vote belonged to the jury.

Historically, however, we must acknowledge the summer exhibitions at London's Royal Academy of Arts, where events open to both masters and amateurs have been organized going back to 1768. Even better known is the Parisian Salon of the Refused.

In 1863, a century after London, the Louvre made its rooms available to those whose paintings had been rejected by the academic jury. Turned down by the salons, yet believing their work to be outstanding, the artists rebelled and wrote a letter of protest to the ministry, which reached the mercifully reigning Emperor Napoleon III. As we know, the Salon of the Refused turned out to be a huge success in terms of attendance (just like the events at the RAA in London).

The success of these events became a timeless argument against "closing the doors" of the important galleries by various decision-makers, regardless of the political system.

The saying that the public "votes with its feet" has never actually translated into the real quality of art. The same applies to every creative field. The greatest applause always goes to what is easy, familiar, something that does not require much mental effort, and does not go beyond the framework of accepted standards.

In Poland i.e where?

This was the title of the exhibition at the Center for Contemporary Art at the Ujazdowski Castle. Its curator Bożena Czubak, invited by the then center’s director Wojciech Krukowski, compiled objects from various fields of visual arts created between the 1920s and 2006, the year in which this exhibition was held.

The curator worked on the project for about three years and her effort translated into the event of high quality and importance.
  Significantly, it was at the end of that same year in 2006, that another monumental and important exhibition was opened, this time at Zachęta.
"Polish Painting of the 21st Century" was another panorama of contemporary art composed of the achievements of over 60 artists of various generations. This time it was limited to one medium. The focus was directed at paintings created after the year 2000. However, the works chosen had to be the "hottest", not pickled in warehouses.

The curator was then Zachęta director Agnieszka Morawińska, who, as she wrote in the introduction, drew on "many suggestions and help" that emerged from "meetings with artists, curators, teachers and art managers as well as gallery owners." The list is long, if you're curious, check out the large and well-executed catalog (just like that of the show at the Center for Contemporary Art).

Both events were widely discussed and truly marked milestones in this type of retrospectives.

Although... perhaps even better attended were the "popular uprisings", organized at the crossroads of the declining Polish People's Republic and the Polish transformation, also at Zachęta. The crowds that showed up at the openings of "Freshly Painted" in 1988 and "What's Up" in the following year could not fit into the gallery; they spilled out onto Małachowskiego Square and Mazowiecka Street, up to the Gallery House of Artist. Both artistic confrontations, as their titles suggest, focused on the achievements of young, "fresh" artists, with painters clearly dominating.

I have the impression that art then still had real power to strike, to move emotions and minds. Indeed, I might even say that it set the tone and color of everyday life.

But a different situation is taking place in Poland, in 2023. Also at Zachęta.
By the time I left the current show, which is due to end either on February 25 or March 3, 2024 (both dates featured in the leaflets) I had a headache. Because I got hit in the head.
Is the situation with our art that bad?

Curator Janusz Janowski's self-satisfied statements are also surprising.
To quote: "The effect is satisfying, we have seven rooms of Zachęta filled with excellent paintings, creating a truly wonderful panorama of contemporary Polish painting."

As we know, conceit comes before a fall.
And the audience is infuriated with the horizontal wall pattern.

– Monika Małkowska

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

– Translated by Agnieszka Rakoczy

Exhibition "Landscape of Polish painting" is open until February 25, 2024 at Zachęta National Gallery of Art in Warsaw.
Main photo: The exhibition "Landscape of Polish Painting" at the Zachęta Gallery, opened in November 2023. Photo: PAP/Tomasz Gzell
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