FEW SURVIVING INSTITUTIONS are born of artists who self-organize in times of extreme stress. On February 15, 1931, in the depths of Poland’s interwar depression and deeply uneven modernization, Katarzyna Kobro and her husband, Władysław Strzemiński, attend the opening of a room in the new museum city of Łodz, an industrial city two hours southwest of Warsaw. Although ‘room’ may seem modest, it has become central to the history of modern European art: here Kobro and Strzemiński, together with friends and colleagues such as Henryk Stażewski, presented the International Collection of modern Art. Practitioners and theorists alike, the group ventured into institution-building when it was clear to them that not only their small town but Poland as a whole lacked both awareness of modernist trends in art and international dialogue networks. The twenty-one works making up the collection were accompanied by an ephemeral publishing house and an exhibition circuit designed to allow exchanges between distant avant-garde coteries, from the Circle and Square in Paris to UNOVIS in Vitebsk . That these artists managed to do so much while creating their own work, teaching, writing and unionizing – a multi-pronged set of activities familiar to any member of the engaged classes of contemporary Poland, where taking to the streets in protest against the Law and Justice Party’s relentless assault on democracy can consume as much or more of their time, energy and dedication than their daily work – is a remarkable aspect of the history of the Muzeum Sztuki, the institution that grew from this collection into a gem of the sophisticated, if stressed, Polish art scene.
Cut to April 25, 2022: The director of the museum, Jarosław Suchan, is abruptly ousted at the request of a deputy minister of culture and national heritage, a member of the far-right ruling party in Poland. Suchan had held this position since 2006. By this time, the Muzeum Sztuki had expanded to include MS2, a second building, in which works from the permanent collection could enter into dialogue with others through temporary exhibitions. The museum had become a busy and brilliant space for exhibition and research during Suchan’s tenure, thanks in part to this expansion. However, it is possible that it was a 1970s addition to the museum campus, Herbst Palace, that caught the attention of regional party ministers. A mini Versailles that bears witness to the wealth amassed by 19th-century Polish industrialists, the palace, with its gilded carvings, lustrous curtains and stately oil portraits, is likely an attractive target for class power brokers. autocrat. Or is it just the next step in the odious string of layoffs that has already cost Poland professional leadership at other key institutions, such as the Zachęta National Art Gallery in Warsaw and the Center for Contemporary Art in Ujazdowski Castle – whose two directors were dismissed without cause. and replaced by direct appointments by the Law and Justice Party.
Whatever the rationale, it is the museum itself, its packed exhibition calendar, its extensive research and public programming, and its highly skilled staff of experts, which, along with Suchan, pays for it. the price. How big is the threat, if not to the museum’s remarkable collection, then at least to the kind of programming it has become known for? A quick look at the lineup of upcoming shows gives an idea of what’s at risk. As of this writing, the list includes “Time out of Joint,” about queer temporalities as well as the impact of Covid on artistic thought; “Tectonic Movements”, on the Polish period of transition out of state socialism; and a performance exploring cosmism, the philosophical school of Russian origin that placed the right to immortality within the framework and goals of the revolution of the international proletariat. In other words, an exhibition program as inventive and transformative as one could come across anywhere.
The museum’s new director instrumentalizes the concept of battle to justify using any means necessary to win a culture war.
“You lost.” Both confusing and hair-raising, these three words condense the attitude of Suchan’s replacement, the new director of the Muzeum Sztuki, Andrzej Biernacki, gallerist and painter from a small town, towards the art professionals of the committed class of Poland. They were spoken at a public meeting of members of the Citizens’ Forum for Contemporary Art (Obywatelskie Forum Sztuki Współczesnej, or OFSW), a self-organized group of striking and lobbying artists and museum workers for fair wages and living conditions for creative work. in Poland since 2009. A sort of coalition of 21st century art workers – a coalition that joins street protests by other professional groups as well as protests defending abortion rights and gay and queer life – l OFSW has worked diligently to bridge the gap between artists and ‘elitist’ art workers, whose position in Poland’s unstable economy is increasingly precarious. To say to the face that OFSW members “lost” goes beyond bad faith and hypocrisy; it foments opposition with the very art workers who make up the profession.
Not only does Biernacki involve and declare loyalty to an anonymous group that is not art professionals, he also instrumentalizes the concept of battle to justify the use of any means necessary to win a culture war. This rhetoric and the attitude it signals would be unscrupulous at any time, but it is all the more distressing in a real war in which Poland acts as a buffer zone between Ukraine, Belarus and the Western Europe. War, which is played out on the cultural terrain as well as in the air and on the ground, is known for its dazzling ability to erase complexity with a “moral factor that slips and deceives”, as Jacqueline Rose puts it in her essay by 1991’s “Why War?” Unsurprisingly, Biernacki also called for “sovereignty” in his new workplace, contrasting it with the “pro-environmental, gender or queer narratives” he intends to displace. claimed the desire to disturb the system of loans, insurance coverage and privileged status that have allowed the Muzeum Sztuki to stay afloat despite its permanent underfunding and its location in a city whose largely abandoned downtown area seems familiar to anyone who has seen the deindustrialization in living color. These are the life-saving measures that have been painstakingly put in place to achieve institutional autonomy and sustainable working conditions. This is what allows the museum to achieve ambitious international exhibitions and robust public programming and research efforts while maintaining and expanding an international collection whose historical core – including the art of Kobro and Strzemiński – had already been designated “degenerate” (piea sin entarte und jüdische Kunst) in 1941.
Kobro has gone through a decades-long effort to define its nationality. Born in Moscow to a family of German descent and raised in Riga, she fled to her birthplace during Germany’s eastern offensives in World War I. In Moscow, she started art school precisely when the October Revolution was unfolding, and in 1918 entered the same profession. union of artists like Kazimir Malevich, Aleksandr Rodchenko, Olga Rozanova and Vladimir Tatlin. From this remarkable basin, only Kobro and Strzemiński would migrate to Poland (in Strzemiński’s case, returning), specifically to one of the many small towns in the country’s surprisingly decentralized art circuit. During World War II, Kobro continually had to navigate his own particular identity: refusing German nationality, signing a “Russian list”, thus declaring himself a foreigner to the Nazi occupiers, while helping to rebuild the collection’s new home in the period. post-war. Then as now, artists determined if and how their personal trajectories defined their nationality and what to do with the relationship between the internationalism that fuels so much art and the nationalism that constantly reconstructs a global stage in its own image. . Creating a cosmopolitan collection of avant-garde art was a way of responding to the framework of nations and nationalism at a time when existence itself was precarious. Rather than subjecting art institutions to the leveling effects of war, Kobro and Strzemiński made strenuous efforts to protect ideas, objects, theories, and pleasures. We can’t protect against extinction forever – Kobro famously burned his own sculptures to keep his daughter alive in the bitter days of early 1945 – but we can campaign against the co-optation of what still has value.
Rachel Haidu is an art historian and critic. His book Each Other: The Self in Contemporary Art (University of Chicago Press) is forthcoming in March 2023.