Express interview with Director of the Warsaw Zachęta National Gallery of Art Hanna Wróblewska
Sergej Timofejev 20/06/2016
As we drive up to the Classicist building of the Zachęta National Gallery of Art in Warsaw, boisterous music is blasting in the adjacent square; there are fluttering flags and rows of fire engines – it is a firefighters’ festival. For some reason, it evokes memories of the 1970s and childhood in the Soviet era. ‘Yes, children are one of the priorities declared by the conservative government: children, Polishness, religion, borders,’ says our guide. Only a couple of days later, some 250 000 Varsovians will take to the streets of the Polish capital marching against the current policy of isolationism, and it will be the flags of the united Europe, the E.U., waving above their heads. A challenging moment for Poland, this could well become a turning point for the whole of Central Europe. And because of that, this country and its art seems all the more intriguing today.
Thanks to the initiative of the Art Vilnius 2016 art fair, where Polish art galleries were present as guests of honour only a few weeks after our visit, and the support from the Adam Mickiewicz Institute, we have this opportunity to try and get an idea of what exactly is going on here. And we start with a visit to the Zachęta Gallery, one of the key organisations responsible for promoting contemporary art in Poland. It is this state-owned gallery that holds, for instance, the competition for the design of the Polish pavilion at the Venice Biennale and sees through the realization of the winning project afterwards. In association with Deutsche Bank Polska, the gallery also runs the biennial Views – Deutsche Bank Award competition and exhibition featuring the most interesting young Polish artists. The large ‘problem-orientated’ exhibitions hosted by Zachęta are increasingly seen as significant events in the cultural life of the Polish capital: 20th-Century Classics; Revolutions 1968; Gender Check. Femininity and Masculinity in the Art of Eastern Europe; In God We Trust; Progress and Hygiene; Cannibalism? On Appropriation in Art, and so on.
Kuba Dąbrowski. Untitled, 2014. Photography, collection of Zachęta National Gallery of Art.
The building of the gallery, constructed in 1898–1900, was designed by the architect Stefan Szyller on commission from the Society for the Encouragement of Fine Arts; this is where the Polish artists of the time were showing until the nationalization of the gallery immediately after the war. During the ‘communist times’, Zachęta housed the Central Bureau for Art Exhibitions, responsible, among other things, for well-known projects dealing with the national ‘cult art forms’ of the era – the Polish poster art and printmaking. In 1989, the Bureau was closed and the gallery reopened with new exhibitions and new ambitious plans. Zachęta is quite internet-friendly: reproductions of works from its collection, as well as all sorts of complementary and educational materials are freely accessible on the gallery’s website as part of the Otwarta Zachęta (Open Zachęta) project.
One of the shows currently on view at the gallery is an exhibition by Teresa Murak, one of the most prominent representatives of the so-called earth art in Poland; the range of subjects she is – very successfully – exploring in her works includes ecology; another one is a large ‘Eastern European’ exhibition entitled The Travellers, dealing with the subject of mobility and openness in the contemporary situation. ‘Europe’s response to foreign refugees shows that our participation in the global exchange was, and is, predominantly one-way. We do not willingly share the privileges that we gained after the fall of the Berlin Wall and as a consequence of our EU accession. We are enthusiastic about going abroad, but far less so about welcoming foreigners,’ it says on the Zachęta website. Featuring 23 artists from 15 countries, the show demonstrates the exchange of people, goods and ideas between this part of Europe and other regions of the world.
Daniel Baker. Copse, 2006. From the exhibition The Travellers.
Meanwhile we are unhurriedly ushered into the office of the Director of the Zachęta Gallery Hanna Wróblewska. This energetic and affable woman has been working at the gallery since the early 1990s; for many years she held the post of the Deputy Director until finally landing this job in 2010, alongside the status of the Commissioner of the Polish pavilion at the Venice Biennale. She briefs us regarding the history and present of the gallery:
– In the second half of the 19th century, the Polish bourgeois decided to found the Society for the Encouragement of Fine Arts, the main objective of which was promoting Polish contemporary art. At the time, Poland did not exist as an independent state: Warsaw was part of the Russian Empire, its ‘outskirts’, in a manner of speaking. And the historicist building that was erected on commission from the society – a cross between a palace, a cake and a temple – already looked quite old-fashioned at the time of unveiling in 1900. However, that was how the Polish gentlemen from said outskirts of the empire imagined the ideal space for housing art. They wanted a palace and they built one. The original collection comprised many of the most influential historically-themed Polish paintings which are now part of the holdings of the National Museum of Art, where they ended up following the nationalization of the building.
Today, we are also focusing on art that is contemporary to us, both Polish and international, and our idea is that the best way of promoting Polish art is showing it in a global context. We are telling the story of art after the Second World War; we have our own collection that we are constantly updating – and we manage to do that on resources obtained from selling less important pieces acquired in the past. We can do that because we are, after all, a gallery, not a museum – we have more freedom. On the behalf of the Ministry of Culture, we also run competitions for the design of the Polish pavilion at the Venice Biennale and realize the winning idea, every time signing an agreement with the artist that allows us to keep a part of the display, for instance, a copy of a video, for our collection.
Cezary Bodzianowski. Giro d'Italia, 2007. Sculpture, collection of Zachęta National Gallery of Art.
What have been the most significant processes in the Polish art of the last decades?
The artists of this country are good at speaking on internationally relevant subjects based on local experience. They know how to make their message universal; at that, it usually can be interpreted on a number of levels, and I like it.
In the 1990s, when these great transformations were taking place, we were happy – we were convinced that now everybody would be interested in everything, including culture. It turned out, however, that people were so focused on the free market and freedom of movement and travel that they completely lost sight of culture. And this diminished role of culture influenced even our government ministers responsible for these matters, who said: ‘Yes, alright, you must understand that there is no money for culture – that the budgets are small; you have to wait for private sponsors.’ And it also turned out that the media found the whole thing very dull. It was a radical departure from the 1980s when all the major newspapers and magazines published large articles about artists and big exhibitions. Combined, these factors had a significant impact on the emergence of a whole wave of critical art. For instance, Katarzyna Kozyra’s ‘Pyramid of Animals’ finally made headline news, if only in the form of a controversy. Nevertheless, art did regain certain ‘visibility’ this way. Although both the public and the critics were somewhat negatively disposed toward this wave; you could say that there was a sort of ‘cold war’ going on between the public and art.
Katarzyna Kozyra. Pyramid of Animals, 1993. Installation, collection of Zachęta National Gallery of Art. Photo: Jacek Gładykowski
But then someone like Wilhelm Sasnal appeared and with him a whole generation of similar artists; at the same time, a new generation of businessmen taking an interest in contemporary art emerged. And it turned out that contemporary art can also be ‘beautiful’ and exist within the format of painting. This new interest in art found its outlet in the competition that we hold in conjunction with Deutsche Bank Polska, a contest for still young yet already emerging artists under 36. Since 2003, we have one jury pick a shortlist of five or six nominees and a second one – select the winner who receives a prize of EUR 10 000. And this collaboration with a bank to us is a sign that contemporary art seems interesting not only to people who are involved in it but also to the business sector and the general public. The youngest generation of artists who have announced themselves in the recent years are so much more ‘professionalized’ than their predecessors. And there is both a good and a bad side to it. You walk into a gallery in Warsaw and often find there exactly the same kind of art you would see in Brussels or London. Many of the young artists are not particularly interested in political messages; they live in a personal bubble of their own. Although it is, of course, very hard to generalize and there are, of course, many sub-scenes in the Polish art scene. I can’t say that I am paying that much attention to these nuances. As a curator, I arrived at the same time as the wave of ‘critical art’; I have done many exhibitions with these artists, with Kozyra, with Żmijewski. These are different times and there are different curators now.
Wilhelm Sasnal. Kraków – Warszawa, 2006. Collection of Zachęta National Gallery of Art.
Directors of the largest art institutions in Poland are predominantly women. What about artists – are there more men than women among them?
Historically there are mostly men. However, the female part of Polish art is a very interesting one. For instance, all of the most influential sculptors in the 1960s and 1970s were women – like
Magdalena Abakanowicz, for example. The artist Katarzyna Kozyra has created her own foundation, which, among other things, has carried out a study to find out why it is that there are so many female students at the Academy or Art yet so few of them stay there to work as lecturers or even remain in the profession at all. And it turned out that this kind of proportion is characteristic of only one other type of establishment of higher education – theological institutes.
Could it really be that art is still a sacral occupation in Poland?
Yes, it’s quite funny because we keep repeating all the time that art is about innovation, about transformation and fighting clichés. However, the general public is gradually starting to accept that art is not necessarily about things of beauty – it can also be an incisive statement of a point of view. Meanwhile, we also think a lot about the youngest of our visitors, the next generation of visual art enthusiasts: a short while ago, we ran an exhibition aimed specifically at children featuring children’s illustrations and various creative workshops. If we want to have an audience in the future, we must start to educate it today.