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How the history of contemporary art in Middle Europe developed …


The Forties / Fifties

The 1st Exhibition of Modern Art in Krakow, opened on December 19, 1948 and closed earlier by the political decision of the authorities on January 18, 1949. The first post-war manifestation of contemporary art. At this exhibition, avant-garde art, a continuation of pre-war avant-garde trends, was presented as an opposition to realism and naturalism.
Six years of Socialist Realism in Poland

February 12, 1949. The beginning of Socialist Realism in Poland. Artists’ Conference in Nieborów, organized by the Ministry of Culture and Art, with the participation of the Deputy Minister, Włodzimierz Sokorski, who has direct political supervision over artists.

Finally, Socialist Realism as a binding doctrine in art and culture in Poland was decreed in June this year, at the National Congress of Delegates of the Association of Polish Artists and Designers (ZPAP) in Katowice.

The National Exhibition of Young Visual Arts titled Against War – Against Fascism at the Aresenale in Warsaw, hence commonly known as Arsenale, is considered to be the end of the period of Socialist Realism in Poland, opened on July 21, 1955. The exhibition was held as part of the 5th World Festival of Youth and Students.

The Krzysztofory Gallery, the seat of the Kraków Group and Tadeusz Kantor’s Cricot2 theater and the first artist-run institution in Poland, was founded in the basement of the Krzysztofory Palace in Kraków. Establishment of the Kraków Group marked the return of artists to public activity after the period of Stalinism.

The Sixties

First happenings by Tadeusz Kantor in Poland, Cricotage and Linia podziału (The Dividing Line, in Warsaw, and then Kraków. A shift in the definition of contemporary art towards ephemeral forms and the resulting new possibilities for the social functioning of art.
The Foksal Gallery was founded in Foksal Street in Warsaw. It focused largely on building international relations and played an important role as a link with the international art world above the boundary of the Iron Curtain.
• First actions by Jerzy Bereś, Prediction I and II, at the Foksal Gallery, repeated at the Krzysztofory Gallery. He called his live artworks ‘Manifestations.’

• First meeting of artist-run galleries and the first manifestation of the new artist-run initiative (ARI) movement as an unofficial art institution. Eight galleries and five salons of debutants participated. The OdNowa Gallery in Poznań operated in a students’ club from 1964 to 1969.


The Seventies

• The Symposium Wrocław ’70. A large-scale event with a huge impact on Polish contemporary art, particularly in terms of the establishment of conceptual art as an art trend. Over fifty artists and twelve critics from Poland participated.

• The Permafo Gallery and group were founded in Wrocław at an artists’ club and operated until the imposition of martial law in 1981. The first conceptual gallery and an art project at the same time focused on photography as a new art media.

• Warsztat Formy Filmowej (WFF) (Film Form Workshop (FFW)) was founded in Łódź and operated in the years 1970-1977. It was established by the students of the Cinematography Department of the Lodz Film School (PWSFTviT in Łódź) with Józef Robakowski as the leader of the group. Next to Permafo, FFW introduced conceptual art based on new media, such as experimental film and photography, in Poland.

• The Tak Gallery (the Yes Gallery) was founded by Leszek Przyjemski (at the beginning together with Anastazy Wiśniewski). An early and the most radical example of a gallery as a work of conceptual art.

• The NET initiative by Jarosław Kozłowski (artist) and Andrzej Kostołowski (art critic) was founded. It based its operation on the mail-art method, i.e., sending, both in Poland and abroad, a letter-manifesto entitled NET. NET project integrated the ARI activity in Poland and transformed it into a movement (network), turning it into a recognised conceptual art practice.

• Galleries-art projects were founded: the Pi Gallery in Kraków (by Maria Anna Potocka in her private apartment), the Address Gallery in Łodź (by Ewa Partum, first in an artists’ club and next in her private apartment), the 80×140 Gallery in Łódź (by Jerzy Treliński together with Andrzej Pierzgalski in an artists’ club), which was the most radical one, operating on a board of the indicated size. Andrzej Pierzgalski’s A4 Gallery of the size of a sheet of paper was nested in it.

• Zbigniew Warpechowski created his first performance art pieces based on the principles of conceptualism.

Przegląd dokumentacji Galerii Niezależnych (Independent Galleries’ Documentation Review) at the Repassage Gallery in Warsaw (at the University of Warsaw students’ club). Nineteen galleries took part.
Ewa Partum performed a piece entitled Zmiana (Change) in her Address Gallery in Łódź. It involved a professional make-up artist aging half of her face. The first artwork declared feminist in contemporary Polish art.
Umarła klasa (Dead Class) by Tadeusz Kantor was staged.
Jan Świdziński’s contextual art manifesto ‘Art as Contextual Art’ was published (in English) by the Remont Gallery which operated in the students’ club of the Warsaw University of Technology. An exhibition under the title Contextual Art was organized at the St. Petri Gallery run by Jean Sellem in Lund, Sweden. The follow-up was a conference on contextual art at the Centre for Experimental Art and Communication (CEAC) in Toronto where Świdziński met Joseph Kosuth, who presented the concept of ‘anthropologized art.’ Joseph Kosuth’s idea of conceptual art had a huge influence on the new definition of contemporary art in Poland.
• An international conference entitled Art Activity in the Context of Reality was organized by Jan Świdziński at the Remont Gallery in Warsaw. Jorge Glusberg was among the invited guests. Under the influence of South American art (as well as Herve Fisher’s sociological art), contextual art took on a more socio-political, critical character.

• Działania lokalne (Local activities) was the first contextual art project realized in the countryside, in the Kurpie region in Poland, by Jan Świdziński together with the group from the artist-run Recent Art Gallery from Wrocław.

• The CDN art festival in Warsaw was held in an urban space (under the bridge over the Vistula River). Twenty-two galleries and six groups were invited to participate.

• IAM (‘International Artists’ Meeting’ or ‘I am’), an international performance art festival and the first major presentation of this art in Poland was held at the Remont Gallery in Warsaw (forty-eight artists from abroad and twenty-six from Poland participated). The event demonstrated the establishment of the powerful unofficial art institution and performance art became a leading practice that defined contemporary art and was strongly linked to conceptual art.

• The Body and Performance international festival of performance art was held at the Labirynt Gallery in Lublin. The festival was smaller than IAM but confirmed the leading position of performance art on the Polish contemporary art scene.

• The Exchange Gallery was founded by Józef Robakowski and Małgorzata Potocka in their private apartment in Łódź. The gallery’s activity was based on extensive international contacts that enabled the co-creation of the Infermental project (works distributed on VHS videotapes). It also operated as an archive and library.

Ewa Partum performed her second piece entitled Zmiana (Change) accompanied by the slogan ‘My Problem is a Problem of a Woman’ at the Art Forum Gallery in Łódź. This time a professional make-up artist aged half of her body. It was the first public nude live performance by a woman in Polish art.

The Eighties

Three events summarized the decade of conceptual and performance art and marked the highest impact moment of the unofficial art institution in Poland which operated internationally based on exclusively private contacts.

• 70 – 80. Nowe zjawiska w sztuce polskiej (70-80. New Phenomena in Polish Art), organised by Józef Robakowski and Witosław Czerwonka, took place at the BWA Gallery in Sopot. Thirty-five galleries from Poland were invited. The peak development moment of the conceptual gallery movement.

• The first edition of Konstrukcja w procesie (Construction in Process) was held in Łódź. Fifty-four artists from all over the world participated. The international section was curated by Ryszard Waśko and the Polish one by Antoni Mikołajczyk. A documentary film was made by Józef Robakowski. It was the largest event of the ARI type organized by the FFW milieu, which proved the power of the unofficial art institution and its broad international contacts.

• IX Spotkania krakowskie (9th Kraków Meetings) was an annual event of local importance that in that year became a manifestation of contemporary art. It was curated by the artist Maria Pinińska-Bereś and the art critic Andrzej Kostołowski (forty artists participated).

• The Dziekanka Gallery in Warsaw, located in a student dormitory, functioned within the ARI gallery movement from 1972. From 1979 to 1987, it was run jointly by Tomasz Sikorski and Jerzy Onuch. From 1983 onwards, the Dziekanka Gallery played a fundamental role in the key development period of a new expression trend in Poland that used post-conceptual art forms of installations, objects, and actions, both painterly and non-painterly ones.

• In June, the Strych Gallery (the Attic Gallery) was established in Łódź. It was the first artist-run place after the break caused by the imposition of martial law on December 13, 1981. It operated until 1985 during the most severe phase of the military rule in Poland as an art center of conceptual and new media art, and action art practices.

The Konger group was founded in Kraków (Artur Tajber, Władysław Kaźmierczak, Marcin Krzyżanowski, and Marian Figiel). There were three Konger groups, two in 1984, and one in 1985. The performance-based post-conceptual art trend gained a new impact in the new generation.
• The Black Market, an international performance art movement, was established. It was initially based on Tomáš Ruller’s (CZ) and Zygmunt Piotrowski’s (PL) idea of joining East and West (1983). Next, Boris Nieslony (DE) and Jurgen Fritz (DE) joined them at the Expanded Theatre symposium at the Maximal Art Gallery in Poznań, founded by Grzegorz Dziamski. The Black Market was a multi-national network of performers working together in the name of freedom of art that crossed the Iron Curtain, as well as state and cultural borders.

• 1st Biennial of New Art in Zielona Góra at the BWA Gallery. Over seventy artists from Poland participated. A new generation of artists appeared, merging a post-conceptual form with new expression painterly artworks. It was the first large-scale presentation of art in a public institution after the activity break caused by the imposition of martial law.

• In the aftermath of the Biennial, the po Gallery, nested in the BWA Gallery, was founded (Wojciech Kozłowski and Leszek Krutulski). The gallery programme was very mixed and mostly contained various installations and performances forms, painterly new expression style included.

• The Wyspa Gallery (the Island Gallery) was founded in Gdańsk by Grzegorz Klaman, an artist and academic professor. Initially, it was an affiliated gallery of the Academy of Fine Arts in Gdańsk (until 2002), next it moved to other locations in the defunct Gdańsk Shipyard (until 2016), which then became a home for many artist-run initiatives.

2nd Biennial of New Art in Zielona Góra at the BWA Gallery. Participants were selected by artist-run galleries operating at that time. Twelve galleries from Poland participated. It marked the revival of the gallery movement in the new generation.
• Lochy Manhattanu (The Dungeons of Manhattan), subtitled ‘exhibition installation,’ organized by Józef Robakowski, was held in the garages under the high-rise apartment complex in the center of Łódź. Forty-two artists participated. Many different forms of installation art were produced demonstrating the post-conceptual practice as dominant in Poland at that time. It was the last collective exhibition organized by an unofficial art institution.

• The WRO Festival was founded by Piotr Krajewski and Violetta Krajewska in Wrocław. WRO is an acronym from Wizualne Realizacje Okołomuzyczne (Music-Related Visual Art Realisations). It was an international new media festival dedicated to video, interactive installations, digital art, and art and technology-based projects.


The Nineties

Tadeusz Kantor died.
Real Time – Story Telling curated by Jan Świdziński and Witosław Czerwonka was held in Sopot, at the BWA Gallery. Approximately fifty artists participated. It was the first large-scale international performance art festival in the post-1989 breakthrough Poland. It marked the beginning of the performance art festivals boom of the nineties.
• The International performance art festival Zamek Wyobraźni (The Castle of Imagination) was established and operated until 2006. It was curated by Władysław Kaźmierczak, a performer, who made the festival a part of the international network of festivals of performance art.

• The international art festival Fort Sztuki (The Fort of Art) was established in Kraków and operated until 2005. Its originator and founder was Artur Tajber, a performer. Various forms of site-specific art were developed.

The Interakcje (Interactions) International Action Art Festival was founded in Piotrków Trybunalski. It is organised until this day. Its originators and curators were Ryszard Piegza (Paris) and Jan Świdziński, and its directors Piotr Gajda and Gordian Piec.

The Two-thousands

• A new building of Muzeum Sztuki (the Art Museum) (ms2) in Łódź was opened in 1931 on the initiative of the avant-garde artists Katarzyna Kobro and Władysław Strzemiński. It housed the a.r. group’s collection of post-cubist, constructivist and neoplasticism works. Muzeum Sztuki (ms) is the first contemporary art museum in the world.

• Muzeum Sztuki Nowoczesnej (MSN) (the Museum of Modern Art) in Warsaw was first opened in a temporary building. The new building is still under construction (2022). Previously, contemporary art was collected by Muzeum Narodowe (the National Museum) in Warsaw and the collection is still there.

• The Centre of Contemporary Art (COCA) with a collection of contemporary art was opened in Toruń.

• Muzeum Sztuki Współczesnej (MOCAK) (The Museum of Contemporary Art) in Kraków was opened. Previously, contemporary art was collected by Muzeum Narodowe (the National Museum) in Kraków, and the collection is still there.

• Muzeum Współczesne Wrocław (MWW) (Wroclaw Contemporary Museum) was opened in Wrocław. Previously, contemporary art was collected by Muzeum Narodowe (the National Museum) in Wroclaw, and the collection is still there.

Jerzy Bereś died.
• Jan Świdziński died.

• Cricoteka, the museum and archive of Tadeusz Kantor, was opened in Kraków.

• The Archive of the Exchange Gallery was donated to the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw (MSN).

• The Archive of the Kraków Group was donated to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Kraków (MOCAK).

Nowe Muzeum Sztuki w Gdańsku (New Art Museum) (NOMUS) opened in Gdansk.
The Archive of the Construction in Process was donated to the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw (MSN).

(compiled by Łukasz Guzek)

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