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Issue 225

How Did Poland’s Art World Swing Right?

With nearly every museum in the grip of contemptuous Law & Justice loyalists, what is the future of contemporary art?

BY Adam Mazur in Features , Thematic Essays | 01 MAR 22

Read a German language version of this article here

The current situation in the Polish art world – now in the grip of a right-wing takeover of nearly all its public institutions – is well illustrated by Jacek Adamas’s 2011 work, Artforum. Having recently been acquired by Warsaw’s Ujazdowski Castle Centre for Contemporary Art (UCCCA) – one of the most important public collections in Poland – the piece has once again become the subject of debate, a decade after it was first shown. The work comprises a copy of the February 2011 issue of the well-known US art magazine laid out so that both front and back covers are visible. The obverse features a photo of the ‘golden aeroplane’ that sculptor Paweł Althamer and his collaborators took to Brussels in 2009 as part of Common Task – a project celebrating the 20th anniversary of the fall of communism in Poland. The reverse shows the wreckage of the Polish presidential plane after it crashed near Smolensk in 2010, killing 96 people, including then-president Lech Kaczyński. To nationalists, the crash is a symbol of Poland’s collapse into an ineffectual, depraved state subordinated to Brussels, at the mercy of Germany and Russia. The radical right believes that the crash was an assassination orchestrated by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

For Adamas and Piotr Bernatowicz, the ultra-conservative director of UCCCA who purchased the work, the juxtaposition of the two aeroplanes is an allegory of the naivety of liberal elites, including the Polish contemporary art world. The fact that Adamas and Althamer had been friends ever since they were students at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw, where they studied under the legendary Grzegorz Kowalski, adds piquancy to the situation. Unlike Althamer, whose work is open and cosmopolitan, Adamas’s boisterous patriotism and conservatism is deemed important by right-wing critics and, thanks to the patronage of the Law and Justice Party-run government, he is a rising star of the right-wing art currently in vogue in Poland. Artforum, which spelled the end of the friendship between the two artists, is emblematic of the new populist art that insists on a black and white division between good and evil, and of being ‘for’ or ‘against’ the nationalist government or Civic Platform, a pro-Europe opposition party.

When the Law and Justice party rose to power in 2015, the Polish art world was stunned. Everyone feared the ‘Hungarian scenario’, which saw leading venues in Budapest, such as Műcsarnok and the Ludwig Museum, ‘lost’ to populists after the 2010 election. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán eliminated the Ministry of Culture that same year and replaced it with the Ministry of Human Resources. However, in Poland, not one director of a national institution was fired or replaced – at least, not immediately. Museums rapidly adapted their programmes to meet the demands of Law and Justice’s cultural platform, suppressing ‘difficult’ topics, from feminism and ecology to LGBTQ+ issues. The art-world establishment quickly sacrificed its progressive ideals, preferring to preserve institutional structures and jobs. To a large extent, this survival strategy has failed. During the populist government’s second term of office, the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage changed museum directors, one after another, just as soon as each contract came to an end.

Ujazdowski Castle facade, Warsaw
Warsaw’s Ujazdowski Castle Centre for Contemporary Art (UCCCA), 2017. Courtesy and photograph: © Adrian Grycuk

The most recent example occurred at the beginning of December 2021, when the mediocre painter Janusz Janowski – a far-right proponent of Catholic extremism – replaced Hanna Wróblewska as director of the Zachęta National Gallery of Art. Jarosław Suchan, who for many years served as director of the Museum of Art in Łódź, recently lost his position and is currently serving as an interim director. Yet, open letters, unassuming protests and memes on social media have been the sole reaction from an art world in which successive institutions are losing their independence to populist backlash.

Many individual municipal galleries – particularly in regions where the opposition holds a majority in local government – have continued to pursue progressive programmes that are not rooted in opportunism. However, even the galleries in Białystok, Lublin, Poznań, Sopot and Wrocław have lost energy and public funding, while their directors are slowly being replaced with those who are ‘less radical’. With fewer tourists and new austerity legislation, the pandemic means that local authorities have less money, while the government is studiously ensuring that no grants end up in the hands of insubordinate institutions.

The political ascent of the far right has not only changed the discourse and dynamics of the art world in Poland, it has also provided a clearer understanding of populist cultural policy. Until recently, the galleries of the Polish Institutes – a network of 25 cultural hubs located in capital cities around the world – were flagships of Polish culture. Now, their programme comprises dull exhibitions of folk art, naïf religious painting and collections of Pope John Paul II postage stamps. By contrast, the art presented by the country’s major galleries, now being run by the new, right-wing establishment, is far from boring or naïf. On the contrary, they are zealous participants in a culture war, seizing on a scandal-based strategy to gain visibility. Before being appointed to head up UCCCA in 2019, Bernatowicz directed a municipal institution, the Galeria Arsenał, in Poznań. During this time, when I interviewed him for SZUM magazine in 2014, he declared his readiness to exhibit technically excellent and metaphysically profound work that would outclass typical examples of contemporary art.

Protest against the politicization of Polish art institutions by the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage, Bunkier Sztuki Art Gallery, Krakow, 2021. Courtesy and photographs: Dawid Zieliński
Protest against the politicization of Polish art institutions by the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage, Bunkier Sztuki Art Gallery, Krakow, 2021. Courtesy and photographs: © Dawid Zieliński

Yet, the apparent lack of interest in such exhibitions in Poland has led Bernatowicz to show artists like Adamas and Wojciech Korkuć, known for his racist, homophobic and misogynistic posters. Successive exhibitions at UCCCA have achieved instant notoriety thanks to thunderous waves of indignation from the liberal press and on social media. From a mere provocateur who attacked the liberal establishment from the sidelines, Bernatowicz became a martyr to the cause of free speech, defended by the right. Having left the Galeria Arsenał in 2017, he was appointed chief editor of a right-wing radio station in Poznań and waited patiently for a nomination from the Minister of Culture. After assuming his position at UCCCA, he permitted the curators to complete their planned programme, despite it including projects by queer artists, such as Karol Radziszewski’s 2019 retrospective ‘The Power of Secrets’. In August 2021, Bernatowicz staged his first major exhibition, ‘Political Art’, co-curated with Jon Eirik Lundberg. Protests by anti-fascist and LGBTQ+ groups took place during the vernissage as the avowedly racist Danish artist Uwe Max Jensen, naked and smeared with black greasepaint, lay on a Confederate flag in the courtyard of the institution, rolling around and screaming: ‘I can’t breathe.’

Bernatowicz and Lundberg credited the ‘success’ of the exhibition to the subsequent outrage of the liberal and left-wing establishment at Jensen’s performance and other pieces. ‘Political Art’ intentionally contained work that would offend anyone. In an open letter to Bernatowicz, the representatives of Jewish organizations in Poland wrote: ‘In Poland, a country where six million citizens died as a result of Nazi politics, the activities of artists like Dan Park offend the feelings of every Pole.’ Yet, as critic Stach Szabłowski remarked in his viral Facebook post, referring to ‘offended feelings’ is a dubious strategy when protesting populist art, and even more misguided given that the letter was written before the vernissage and none of the signatories had seen the exhibition, thereby undermining the validity of their objections. Appearing on the public television show Cheap Bastards, Bernatowicz argued that the question of the boundaries of freedom and the freedom of art has returned in full force to Poland, while also laying bare ‘the hypocrisy’ of the art world.

Joanna Mytkowska by Marta Ejsmont
Joanna Mytkowska in front of the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw. Courtesy: © Museum of Modern Art Warsaw; photograph: Marta Ejsmont

What might appear at first sight to be an incoherent curatorial strategy turns out to be a highly efficient mechanism to generate confusion, making it difficult to critique ‘Political Art’. In fact, the extreme vacillation of the works in the show echoes the right-wing government’s own political discourse, whereby the Ministry of Culture argues that there is no difference between its support of nationalistic associations, ultra-Catholic publications and alt-right activists than the former liberal government’s promotion of leftist and elitist culture.

Arguably, one of Bernatowicz’s most duplicitous tactics was to devote half of UCCCA’s galleries to ‘Political Art’ and half to another exhibition, ‘Everyday Forms of Resistance’. Curated by Ika Sienkiewicz-Nowacka, ‘Everyday Forms of Resistance’ speaks to the lives of Palestinians under Israeli occupation. Participating artists include the DAAR collective, Forensic Architecture and Mahommad Saleh, along with socially engaged Polish artists like Joanna Rajkowska and Jaśmina Wójcik. Bernatowicz juxtaposes the chauvinist, graphic and violent narrative of his own exhibition with the destitution of the Palestinians, crushed by the apparatus of the Israeli state. How could artists resist his intentional strategy of creating a ‘confusion of extremes’? Withdraw their works from the exhibition? Pretend that nothing untoward has happened? In the end, a brief statement was posted by the entrance to ‘Everyday Forms of Resistance’. In it, the artists distance themselves from Bernatowicz and Lundberg’s project, writing:

We would like to make it clear that we have nothing to do with this exhibition and we reject the contempt, aggression and hatred it promotes. Its proximity, no matter whether it is a cynical game of the curators or a random juxtaposition, is distasteful. [...]

‘Everyday Forms of Resistance’ is an exhibition about peaceful forms of protest against violence, about contestation based on the ethics of solidarity, co-operation and self-awareness. Its moral foundation is respect for Others.

Museum of Modern Art, Warsaw
Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw. Courtesy: © Museum of Modern Art Warsaw; photograph: Bartek Stawiarski

Ultimately, however, Bernatowicz fails in his attempt to launder racism, homophobia, Islamophobia and hate speech by presenting it alongside legitimate artworks, because it is easy to recognize authentic empathy and – however conservative it may sound – artistic quality. Such provocative content is most effectively delivered directly, so it is perhaps unsurprising that ‘Political Art’ consists largely of graphic caricatures, cartoons and posters. By avoiding these simple formulae, ‘Everyday Forms of Resistance’ presents a more nuanced world that appears – albeit unintentionally – as a direct response to the propagandist art promoted by Bernatowicz and Lundberg. The show’s narrative, which speaks to Palestinians coping with the pressures of occupation, seems to point the way, proposing a form of resistance, but also holding a dialogue with the alien-yet-familiar populist attitudes that can be present in art. In the end, right-wing resentment may find its outlet, but it is trumped each time by the technical prowess and ethical superiority of ‘Everyday Forms of Resistance’, which describes the world around us.

Over the past five years, while institutions such as UCCCA have adopted a populist agenda, the Polish contemporary art scene has gradually shifted into project spaces, artists’ studios, booming private galleries, events such as Warsaw Gallery Weekend – and onto the streets. Anti-government protests in defence of independent courts, women’s rights and refugees or in opposition to fascism, ‘Polexit’ and deforestation have become a stage for performative activities on a previously unheard-of scale. Recorded by Archiwum Protestów Publicznych (Archive of Public Protests), they are supported by the few remaining independent public institutions. At the vanguard of these is the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, whose director, Joanna Mytkowska, has decided to speak out about the current situation and, last November, curated the show ‘Who Will Write the History of Tears: Artists on Women’s Rights’. Of course, Mytkowska knows there is no time to lose: her contract is up for renewal in December. 

This article first appeared in frieze issue 225 with the headline ‘Out of Time’.

Main image: Protest against the politicization of Polish art institutions by the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage, Bunkier Sztuki Art Gallery, Krakow, 2021. Courtesy and photographs: © Dawid Zieliński

Adam Mazur is a critic, editor and professor at the Magdalena Abakanowicz University of the Arts, Poznań, Poland.