What’s Polish for “Zeitgeist”?

WARSAW, POLAND–Jakub Julian Ziolkowski asks me a question.

I meet with the young Polish artist before the opening of a solo show of his work at Warsaw’s Zacheta National Gallery of Art in September 2010. “People have said to me ‘Enjoy that you are having this retrospective now. Because the next time there is one [here] you will be dead,’” he says with a quick chuckle. Ziolkowski—who along with other young Polish painters including Tomasz Kowalski and Paweł Śliwiński have been dubbed the “New Surrealists” because their bright and vibrant paintings often feature incongruous and juxtaposing themes— is incredibly personable and there are no artistic airs about him even though New York-based mega gallery Hauser- Wirth represents him and his pieces sell for upwards of $40,000 a pop. At one point during our interview, after he has already told me he’s impressed how fast I write, he asks me if I like his art. I’m a bit taken aback by the question; as a journalist I have found over the years most artists— as well as actors, musicians and so on—don’t ever ask, or care, about my opinion. I’m viewed as just a conduit to get their message out to the masses. Who I am and what I think does not matter—at least until the piece comes out and they are unhappy with what I have written. I tell him that I love his work, half hoping he will give me a painting of dancing skeletons we just sidled by. But no such luck.

Ziolkowski (who has a show on at London’s Parasol Unit until July 29) is, so far internationally, the most well known Polish artist from his  generation. However, in my opinion, it’s only a matter of time before  other 30-something artists including Norman Leto (a pseudonym for artist Lukasz Banach who has gained critical acclaim for his art film “Sailor”), Olaf Brzeski, Katarzyna Przezwańska, Wojciech Pus and Aleksandra Waliszewska also start to become household names on the international art scene just as artists like Monika Sosnowska, Piotr Uklanski,  Miroslaw Balka, Pawel Althamer and Wilhelm Sasnal did a generation before. (A new exhibition to mark Poland taking over the European Union presidency July 1, entitled “The Power of Fantasy” at the Centre for Fine Arts (BOZAR) in Brussels, highlights these and other Polish artists who have come to prominence post-1989).  “They know all about galleries, what steps you need to take to build a career, how to market yourself,” Ziolkowski says of his artistic contemporaries.

These young artists have been also been helped because the Polish contemporary art scene—especially since the end of the Cold War— has worked more effectively than its central and eastern European (CEE) neighbors in gaining international attention, in part because of its long and rich historical traditions. Lodz, an industrial city about a 1-1⁄2 hour train ride from Warsaw, is the home one of the world’s oldest museums for modern art. Set up by artists back in the 1920s, Muzeum Sztuki w Lodz (Modern Art Museum in Lodz) collected not only some of Poland’s top avant-garde stars but built up a collection of European artists working throughout the 1920s and 1930s. “After 1955 in Polish art you can find almost all movements that appeared at the same time in Western art like abstractionism, neo- Dada and conceptual art,” says the museum’s director Jaroslaw Suchan. “In the 1970s the Communist authorities wanted to be viewed as an Occidentalizing [influence] on the country. Part of that was using contemporary art to legitimize themselves in the eyes of Western public opinion and to create an image of Poland as a regular democracy.”

Norman-Leto-Sailor-still-DVD-101-min-20101To a great extent all that changed—at least on the official level— in 1981 when the Polish Communist government declared a state of martial law. Zbigniew Libera, one of Poland’s most important and controversial contemporary artists who gained international attention in 1996 with his concentration camp LEGO set, says that despite everything going underground during martial law, the Polish scene was still active. “I was living in Lodz during that time and there was this place called ‘The Attic’ where meetings, festival and concerts were still taking place,” he says. “It felt like all of Poland was there, still interested and wanting to see these things. Our evolution in the global arts world was never cut off. That made all the difference.” Because of the continued relationships between the Polish and Western art scenes, when democracy came to Poland, the country was in a better pole position (pun intended) than its regional counterparts to have its contemporary arts scene appreciated. “We were one of the few places in CEE [where] there was not a broken history,” says Joanna Mytkowska, one of the founders of Warsaw’s seminal Foksal Gallery Foundation and currently the director of the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw. “Poland entered this time of transformation and fantastic art appeared.”

There was also what Libera refers to as a “big bang” in the 1990s when artists finally felt free to openly question things like politics, sexuality and religion. But there was a schism between what Polish artists wanted to confront and what Polish audiences were ready to accept. “Starting in 1997 there was this very strong right wing party, the League of Polish Families, that began protesting at every important art exhibition,” says Libera. “Plus there was something like 600 articles in the right-wing press complaining about us and trying to change public opinion. But in a way it was a good thing because that attention opened us up to a portion of society who had never before been interested in what we were doing.”

Praia-da-Luz-useThat interest has continued thanks in part to a growing number of art collectors, artists, gallerists and curators who have become integral to helping drive the scene both in Poland and abroad. It  feels to me that Polish contemporary art is currently having a bit of a zeitgeist moment ; a new contemporary art museum (MOCAK) opened in May in Krakow while in 2014 both Warsaw and Wroclaw will open their new museums of modern art.  The Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw (it is temporarily housed in a building across from the Palace of Culture) is estimating it will have between 800,000 to 1 million visitors a year, which would make it the largest cultural center in Poland. And these museums are, of course, starting to amass important collections of Polish contemporary art. While its become de rigueur for international contemporary museum collections to include artists like Libera, Sosnowska and Balka (who advises the Tate Modern on Polish modern and contemporary art acquisitions) there are also several Polish curators like Mytkowska, the Kunsthalle Basel’s Adam Szycmczk and Artur Zmijewski (also an artist, he was recently chosen to curate the 2012 Berlin Biennale) have become big names on the global curatorial scene.

Nowadays not only are movers and shakers on the international art market falling over themselves to collect Polish works but Poles themselves have also begun to become connoisseurs of contemporary art. Poland’s economic boom towards the end of the last decade has meant that the growing middle- class has spare cash they increasingly want to invest in contemporary art. Art Bazaar has become a must-read for people interested in following and collection Polish contemporary art. Founded six years ago by Piotr Bazylko and Krysztof Masiewicz, the website now gets up to 10,000 unique hits a month. “I can name the number of big Polish collectors on one hand because the majority of people investing in Polish art—I would say about 70 to 80 percent—are from abroad,” Bazylko tells me during an interview at their office in Warsaw. “So we have very successful artists and successful curators but not so many collectors who drive prices up. Our aim is to promote collecting in Poland because now there is a very low base and knowledge about collecting. But that is changing quickly.”

First photo courtesy Zacheta National Gallery (photo of Ziolkowski exhibition by Sebastian Madejski)

Second photo courtesy of Kolonie Gallery, Warsaw (Still from Norman Leto’s “Sailor”)

Third photo courtesy of Wojciech Pus (Still from “Given”)